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Posted April 4, 2005

Trailhead Wilderness School
Joan Rieger, Admissions Director
Georgetown, Colorado
303-569-0767, ext 211
twsjrieger@azwest.net
www.trailheadwildernessschool.com

Visit by: Loi Eberle, M.A., IECA, on March 11, 2005
loi@woodbury.com

After meeting Joan Rieger, program therapist and Admissions Director, at the Trailhead Wilderness School office, we headed to the field to observe their wilderness therapy program. On the way, we passed a "fourteener," a 14,000+-foot mountain peak, similar to the one their students and instructors hiked the next day. Peak ascents, backcountry living, and therapeutic games and initiatives are some of the ways this program teaches effective communication, teamwork and conflict resolution to 12-18 year olds. They use excellent gear, highly trained Wilderness First Responder certified instructors, radios, cell and satellite phones, daily GPS communication, and annual Flight For Life Helicopter evacuation training. The "fourteeners" have well traveled and maintained trails, and the group hikes with snowshoes and crampons.

We rendezvoused with Program Director, Dave Ventimiglia, who drove us on snowy back roads to the base camp. The scenery became even more spectacular as we walked toward the boys' tents. A girl and a younger boy had their tents a little further away, in the same area. On our way in, Dave explained he needed to discuss "business" with the group; I could participate, or speak privately with students elsewhere. I chose to observe the group "business," and I became moved by their level of communication and caring as they discussed an infraction. Some students, who had been through many programs because of their oppositional behaviors, demonstrated true regret about violating the trust they had built. They suggested appropriate and compassionate service-based consequences for their (relatively minor) infraction by adding an infraction-specific project to their 4-6 hour weekly community service commitment. The group appeared to value trust and the relationship, they seemed to regret their lapse in integrity, and wanted to rebuild. They seemed sincere, and I felt hopeful about the prognosis for these youth.

Trailhead is a "therapeutically intense" program that uses Systemic, Gestalt, and Developmental models to encourage students to express their feelings in relationships, and be validated, rather than minimized. Any form of expression is tolerated as long as they cause no harm to themselves or others. They emphasize staying "connected" by listening and looking in each other's eyes, instead of shutting down.

When I spoke with students, they told me they were happy to be there, giving an overwhelmingly positive recommendation: "Kids would benefit from this program, it's different." Three adolescent males told me they were beginning to build relationships with their fathers for the first time, through the "powerful workings" (two-day parent intensives). They also said the wilderness allowed them to see a bigger picture and reduced their over-stimulation. A student of two months said he learned to recognize when he was about to lose his temper and would speak up, in contrast to how he used to "snap;" becoming violent without warning. He said the program will not allow violent kids to stay. Early in the program, he'd spoken with the deputy sheriff Dave called in after he made a verbal threat to another young student. Dave said, "Though he assured me he never intended to carry it out, it gave him the wake up call to start dealing with his anger." Trailhead facilitates students in understanding the source of their anger, which often is fear, and helps them embrace and integrate it. Although these emotions are not comfortable, they provide the clarity the student needs to avoid feeling trapped within them.

Compared to what I often observe, these students seemed more relaxed, caring and considerate. After settling "group business," we romped in the snow and played catch. Dave explained that during the coldest winter months, they load the van and head south to their permit areas in Arizona and New Mexico. They had recently returned from Moab, UT, and the Grand Canyon. Often longer than many wilderness programs, the students length of stay at Trailhead is determined on their individual needs. Students may earn transferable academic credits year round.

Trailhead believes parent participation is so important that they are considering making it a requirement. Although parents may participate in as many as needed or requested, currently Trailhead asks parents to attend at least one 2-Day Family Intensive with their adolescent at their office. Two of the program's four Master's level therapists work with the family during an intensive. These therapists use experiential techniques to bring to the surface any unfinished business the family needs to address. The Trailhead office is upstairs from the Post Office in Georgetown, a charming town at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Trailhead also has a lovely Victorian-style townhouse nearby for lodging during Family Intensives, with a sufficient number of bedrooms and bathrooms for the child's family. Inside, on the coffee table near the rocking chair, is a guest book signed by parents praising the program and their recent family work.

Partially due to the exquisite scenery, high-end equipment, and gender and age ratios of its students, Trailhead appears different from other programs. The age and gender differences create some challenges, yet seem to help in bringing the emotional problems that often exist in the family system, to the surface. This focus on the family system and relationships is exactly what excites me about this program. With definitely clear boundaries and mutual respect, there is honesty, integrity and compassion between Trailhead students and staff. There is also a sense that these students feel safe and cared for, which allows them the environment to actually begin working effectively on the reasons their behavior led to their enrollment in this unique program.


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