Cherry Gulch is a ranch-style therapeutic boarding school for boys ages 11 to 14. The school is devoted to early intervention and prevention of more serious problems in later life. Problems that bring boys to Cherry Gulch vary widely, but at the time my wife Denise and I visited I was informed that the most common diagnosis was bipolar. Diagnostic prevalence varies, of course, over time, but it was obvious the goal was to create a boarding school/ home-like environment for boys with fairly serious emotional problems. It appeared to be quite successful at providing a safe environment. The boys seemed to be reacting to their environment as a home rather than as an institution, which is a very important part of the healing process.
The Lodge sits atop top a ridge overlooking a majestic river. The drive up to it is a typical rural road, twisting and turning as we climbed past sagebrush and scattered homes in various degrees of repair and comfort. It was definitely a very rustic and pastoral setting. Interior construction is still underway in the new two-story lodge, but it is serviceable and fits their needs well. The finished structure will be very impressive. I look forward to seeing it when the lodge is completed.
We arrived about noon on a Saturday. It is always a little problematic visiting a school on a weekend. The schedule is not as filled with activities as it would be during the week, so the structure of the program is not as tight. The contrast in the students' reactions to the different levels of structure was obvious during our visit. Andrew Sapp, PhD, Clinical Director, Founder and President, was on a field trip with several of the boys. There were about a dozen boys there for our visit. We shared a basic lunch of sandwiches and fruit with the students downstairs in the dining room and although they had been acting appropriately, I sensed a feeling of uncertainty on their part. It was like they were feeling a little more freedom than they were used to.
This sense of tension disappeared as soon as the boys went back to the more structured environment upstairs. The staff understood the boys were starting to feel uncertain and very effectively reintroduced safety back into their lives by moving all of us to the common room upstairs, where they were surrounded by personal items and reminders of the program. The boys played board games, talked with staff and visited with us. I was cornered by one boy who could be described as a computer geek. He reminded me of what an obsession does to a conversation.
After lunch the boys seemed quite comfortable socializing with us, and all engaged in quiet one-on-one conversations with staff. Their bedrooms were just a few steps away from the common room which was a contained area surrounded by signs of program activity. It had the feeling of safety and comfort and the boys responded positively to that structure.
Outdoor physical activities are an important part of the program. The boys are responsible for raising chickens, turkeys, other small and midsized animals, and as they earn the responsibility, seven horses on the property. The school is spread out over several acres along the ridge with majestic views in every direction. Part of the program is equine assisted psychotherapy, as well as care for and riding of the horses when a boy is ready.
Several empirically-based therapeutic strategies are regularly entwined into the boys' daily life. Each boy has at least 10 hours of therapeutic sessions scheduled each week, including Group Psychotherapy, Equine Assisted Therapy, Family Therapy and a variety of Experiential Therapies. Family work is emphasized through weekly phone sessions, positive parenting workshops and fun family activities during parent visits.
The common room and bedrooms were clean and well organized, looking and feeling comfortable. There were many stuffed animals on the beds and throughout the area. On the wall of the common room were numerous charts reflecting several token economies that help the students visualize their progress and ability to earn special rewards. Behavioral and academic progress is measured in small steps making it easy to advance so each boy knows how they are progressing.
Of course there were no classes being conducted since we visited on a weekend, but I was informed that academic strategies are research-based, stressing experiential, hands-on learning, small class sizes and individualized academic plans for each student. The stated goal was to rekindle students' natural love for learning.
Being a relatively new program, just like the lodge is relatively new, it is in continuous development and refinement. It was obvious the boys were responding positively to the program. The major factors contributing to healing were a pleasant and beautiful environment, a program focused on the natural inclination of boys toward the outdoors, academics and an empirically-based approach by a staff very well tuned to the emotional needs of the boys.