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Posted February 1, 2005

Dahlonega, Georgia
Nicole Fuglsang, MA, NCC, LPC,
Admissions Director

Visit by: Larry Stednitz, January, 10, 2005

Ridge Creek is an easy two-hour drive north of Atlanta, GA. I toured the base camp with David Jordan, MTS, MA, LAPC, Director of Counseling, and Admissions Director, Nicole Fuglsang, MA, NCC, LPC. While attending Prescott College in Prescott, AZ, David designed his Counseling Psychology degree by combining clinical and experiential/ adventure therapy, which makes him unique in wilderness programming. I noticed that David, a member of the initial design team, is enthused about the program, outdoor programming for adolescents and that the program reflects his varied training.

Ridge Creek is a base-camp model that provides a unique approach to wilderness programming. Significantly different than the trekking programs of the west, Ridge Creek operates out of a well ordered base-camp that includes a boy's and girl's dormitory, an extensive ropes course, climbing tower and administrative offices. The base-camp resembles a traditional residential campus and provides all the comforts of residential programming, including personal hygiene facilities and warm, comfortable sleeping quarters, as well as a place to prepare for the one-to-six day expeditions.

My initial uncomfortable reaction was that this was not a “trekking” wilderness program like I was used to in the west. It didn't take long to acknowledge that experiential/ adventure programming combined with traditional clinical approaches, offers more than a strenuous trek in the woods. Experiential/ adventure programming takes many forms, and the base-camp model of Ridge Creek allows for flexibility and creativity.

The licensing and accrediting Ridge Creek chose to achieve typifies their programming efforts. David explained that they were the first therapeutic wilderness program in the country to become accredited by the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), as a Residential Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service Provider, and are licensed by the State of Georgia as an Outdoor Therapeutic Camp.

While I was on campus, a small group of students and staff were working on the climbing tower, learning leadership and decision-making skills. The group wore all the necessary safety gear and was obviously engaged in the work at hand. The climbing wall and other ropes course work gives the program flexibility to hone in on specific skills the staff is trying to impart to the students. At Ridge Creek, these specific activities are designed to enhance learning, prepare students for a specific trekking adventure and as a tool to reinforce what the students learned in the field. In this sense, it is a multi-sensory approach to treating adolescents.

Ridge Creek believes that all behaviors are outward manifestations of underlying psychological issues. All negative behaviors are secondary to the causal factors. They believe the students are engaging in self-defeating patterns because they are caught up in a cycle of negative reinforcement and trapped in a pattern of ineffective coping skills. When the adolescent identifies and understands his/ her underlying motivation, they are able to make better choices and work their way out of the downhill spiral by having their needs met in a more productive way. To address these underlying causal issues, Ridge Creek uses a cognitive-behavioral clinical approach to their therapeutic interventions, integrating tools like psycho-educational approaches and behavioral re-direction into the program. Licensed psychotherapists conduct daily individual and group therapy sessions throughout the student's stay in the program. Ridge Creek also offers psychological and psychiatric services at an additional cost. Formal counseling is integrated into a wilderness intervention model and coupled with an intense leadership component. Ridge Creek strives to provide the student with understanding, hope, and the ability to cope more effectively in life.

Most students at Ridge Creek demonstrate oppositional defiant behavior with authority and adolescent adjustment difficulties. They avoid adjudicated boys and girls, students diagnosed with conduct disorders and Antisocial Personality Disorders. I think it is safe to say, the Ridge Creek student is a “softer” child in the context of aggressive acting out behaviors. However, because of the base-camp model, they do work with clinically complicated students who may present a risk in remote areas.
Though most students stay 26 days in the program, Ridge Creek will work with students who need extended stays. Along with the climbing wall, ropes courses, expeditions and therapy, the students participate in mountaineering, rappelling, community service projects, CPR training/ certification and traditional education. Because of the structure, this program is one of the few that will accommodate a student by allowing them to bring their home school curriculum to keep current with their home school classmates.

All wilderness programs stress safety and Ridge Creek is no exception. Their base-camp model is capable of assuring a very high level of safety. For those parents who concern themselves with safety issues in wilderness programming, I feel this program is one of the safest. First, all staff are trained to understand the protocols for safety normally found in wilderness programs. Emergency procedures and equipment are standard. Furthermore, the wilderness treks are close enough to the base-camp that a group in the field is always in 24-hour communication with the base-camp. All trails and expeditions are accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles and easily reached within 45 minutes.

Finally, Ridge Creek conducts on-going research into the results that students demonstrate. This research is comprised of surveys completed by parents addressing issues such as reduced arguing, improvements in self-confidence, motivation, accountability, respectfulness and drug use. Parents take these surveys at one-, three- and six-month intervals, and at one year, allowing for objective information for prospective clients.

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Copyright © 2004, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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