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Posted: Feb 18, 2009 12:17

RESIDENTIAL TREATMENT MEETS WILDERNESS THERAPY

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By: Matthew MacQueen and Linda Zimmerman

(Recently, residents of the Sandhill Residential Treatment Center from New Mexico learned how beneficial it could be to participate in Aspiro Adventures wilderness therapy in Utah. This a report of this very positive encounter -Lon)

Tall, sheer red rock formations surround our remote locale in the high Utah desert. Winding canyons and improbable arches, still being carved by the slow yet mighty forces of nature, allowed Jim's yell to resonate far beyond the distant Colorado River. Over and over, "I love you, Mom!" could be heard bouncing across canyon walls until the words dissipated into hot thin air. In this vast desert wilderness, one has only what is carried with them, be it mental, physical or emotional. Trust is of the essence, and the need to reach out for emotional support becomes inescapable. Dangling one hundred sixty feet above the earth from a rope, anchored by a sun-baked rock, is without doubt one of the most frightening. yet exhilarating, experience. Legs and arms tremor relentlessly, and the heart beats more rapidly up here. Fear for safety and survival dominates consciousness until slowly, suddenly, amidst the exquisite backdrop of majestic rock cliffs and yawning arches - a sort of spiritual appreciation takes hold. "I love you, Mom!" echoes profoundly.


For six days in Moab, Utah, the kids and staff of Sandhill Child Development Center in New Mexico embraced adventure learning at its finest. With the generous help of Aspiro Adventures, a Utah based outdoor therapy program, Sandhill's summer 2008 camping trip literally reached new heights! The amazing team at Aspiro prepared an adventure agenda packed full of activities including rock climbing, rafting, hiking, bouldering, discovering swimmin' holes, and finally the unforgettable 160 foot rappel down Corona Arch.

Yes, the opening narrative is non-fiction. Jim, a 12 year old Sandhill student, took on the 160 foot rappel and discovered that fear can deliver a jolt as powerful as an electrical current. But at no time over the past year as Jim and I have gotten to know each other, have I seen him more jubilant and alive than when his feet touched ground at the base of Corona Arch.

The roots of the August joint venture between Sandhill Center and Aspiro were planted at IECA Minneapolis in May 2008, where casual conversation at the Woodbury Pedal Pub, and recognition of a shared passion for working with troubled children, ignited the sparks of collaboration. While Aspiro and Sandhill work in different treatment venues (wilderness v. residential), it was quickly evident that the programs share similar philosophies regarding the path to healthy change.

Aspiro bills itself as "an alternative to 'tough love' wilderness programs." Weaving an innovative clinical approach into an array of daily adventure activities helps students build self-efficacy and discover new strengths and coping strategies that allow them to move through old issues.

Always looking for fresh and effective approaches to treatment for kids, Sandhill CEO Linda Zimmerman has been a driving force behind the Center since the doors opened nearly five years ago. Emphasizing trust and nurture, strong relationships are forged between staff and students at Sandhill. These relationships are rooted in safety and allow children to experience emotional connection with adults as rewarding.

When children feel safe, healthy learning begins to take place. Whether waking each child with a smile in the morning, preparing and eating meals together, or reading a favorite book at bedtime, child care workers, teachers, and therapists alike play an integral role in helping shape the lives of Sandhill's kids. Leveraging these positive relationships allows experiential educational opportunities, such as those provided by our friends at Aspiro, to become life-changing experiences.

Through the years, Sandhill students and staff have enjoyed many highly anticipated adventure trips and other relationally rewarding activities. Sandhill encourages and supports a wide variety of therapeutic endeavors by hiring motivated and talented people who bring their passions to work rather than checking them at the door. Whether utilizing animal assisted therapies, service learning projects, a rodeo event, or in this case exploring the Utah wilderness with Aspiro Adventures, Sandhill juxtaposes tried and true therapies with cutting edge techniques to meet the ever-changing needs of its students.

Along with pioneering the use of Neurofeedback therapy, Sandhill recently entered into clinical partnership with internationally renowned psychiatrist, author and neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry's Child Trauma Academy in Houston. Using Dr. Perry's "Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics," Sandhill staff regularly video-conference with Dr. Perry to generate neuro-developmental assessments and neuro-biologically respectful treatment plans for Sandhill students.

Dr. Perry contends that "the brain develops sequentially," and disruptive experiences during early developmental stages can adversely affect brain function throughout the lifespan. Because the brain is "plastic" and therefore accepting of healthy changes, we can achieve more optimal brain function (and therefore better regulated emotions and behaviors) by determining which areas of the brain require supportive therapy, and designing targeted intervention strategies to promote neuro-regulation and neuro-genesis (i.e. the creation of more optimal neural networks).

In many cases, effective intervention requires frequent repetition of somatosensory activities that challenge the brain to make positive adaptations. Dr. Perry prescribes positive developmental experiences that meet the criteria of the "Six R's:" Relevant, Respectful, Relational, Rewarding, Rhythmic and Repetitive.

Aspiro's therapeutic expeditions for teens and young adults ages 13 to 30 might be precisely what Dr. Perry would order. These character building excursions provide participants with a healthy dose of the "Six R's." For several weeks, Aspiro students are immersed in what Dr. Perry would call the rhythms of nature: a rushing river; the sound of wind whistling through leaves; the flapping of avian wings; crickets chirping in the night. The cumulative effect of nature's rhythms is profoundly regulating.

As for the relational requirement: If the individuals we met are any indication, Aspiro holds the gold for attracting quality staff. They make caring an art and nurture a science. Despite the fundamental differences in our programs, collaboration with Aspiro Adventures proved to be a natural match for Sandhill. Aspiro's experienced team provided rewarding, respectful and relevant (i.e., developmentally appropriate) activities that met the ability levels of all Sandhill students ages 6 to 14, including plenty of spontaneous fun, challenge and exploration. Each day was, literally, an adventure in learning!

Sandhill's team learned and benefitted greatly from the expertise and unprecendented generosity of Aspiro director Randy Oakley, and guides Dan, Martin, Kate and Christina. Their kind spirits and willingness to work, teach and play together with Sandhill staff and kids helped us tap into the healing energy that the Moab wilderness exudes. Thanks also to Josh Watson for his creative energy and enthusiasm. Reflecting on our collaboration with Aspiro, we will remember that when the goal is healthy change, it helps to be surrounded by kindness and infused with the spirit of adventure.

About the Authors: Matthew MacQueen, M.Ed., is the Aspiro Program Director of Aspiro. Linda Zimmerman, LPCC, is the CEO of Sandhill Child Development Center, Los Lunas, New Mexico.



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