When we pulled into the driveway of Echo Springs Phase I near Bonners Ferry, ID, we were greeted by the quiet, yet peaceful campus. It felt like we were pulling into the neighbor's driveway. Echo Springs is a transitional program for young adults age 18 to 24, who are struggling with personal failure, and with school. Many are on a solid path to some form of addiction recovery. Students at Echo Springs must show a desire to want to succeed in life. Since they are legal adults, students are allowed to smoke; however, because of their commitment to recovery, students are not allowed use substances/ alcohol while in residence.
We entered the main building on the campus, and were promptly met by Lisa Sutton, a key part of the administration at Echo Springs. Lisa explained that most of the students were at work in the community or at school, but there were still a few young men who either had afternoon jobs or had not been with the program long enough to have employment. Echo Springs requires students to find employment in the community, whether it is a paid job or volunteer work, and all students attend classes, either through North Idaho College or working toward their GED.
Lisa led us upstairs where we met four young men, all of whom had been at Echo Springs for a different period of time. We sat in a circle in a large, cozy living room, and as we did, Lisa returned to her office to allow us to visit with the students unmonitored. Although I got a sense of which boys had been at Echo Springs longer, it was more difficult than in a more highly structured boarding school to tell those who had recently come from those who had been there several months. I was impressed by their responsiveness and eagerness to share their newly formed, well-earned lifestyle toward success. They discussed their addictions, whether substance, Internet, gaming, etc., and how these addictions had sent them on a path toward unmotivated, underachieving, even introverted behaviors. All the students maintained excellent eye contact with both Laura and me, as they introduced themselves and we introduced ourselves.
When the introductions were finished, Laura and I asked the young men to describe the program to us. What was the staff like? How did they feel about the program? Explain a typical day. What were the high points, what were the lows…? I felt the students were sincere in their replies and felt satisfied with the answers they gave.
In Phase I, students work on their personal identity, relationships and learn how to set and implement their goals. Although schedules vary depending on the employment/ volunteer schedule, students typically spend their mornings doing life skills classes and personal awareness lessons. In the afternoons they work on their academic education. "There is structure to the program, with mentoring and guidance throughout, but the experience depends on the freedom to make choices, to pursue one's own interests, and to strengthen decision-making skills." I felt this statement was an accurate summary of my experience visiting Echo Springs.
After a pleasant meeting with the students, Lisa returned to the room to begin our "tour" of the facility. The young men of Echo Springs live on the second floor of the house while the young women live on the main floor. The rooms were well-kept and cozy, showing some signs of college students inhabiting them. Also located on the second floor of the house, is the kitchen and dining area, which looks out into the spacious back yard. The students are responsible for maintaining a budget, and learn various life skills like buying groceries, planning and cooking their own meals, cleaning their housing, balancing checkbooks, etc. In addition, all residents are students and all find part time employment in the Boundary County community. Students enrolled in Phase I are also all working towards acceptance in Phase II of Echo Springs, a process that generally takes 7-9 months.
Students who haven't maintained the level of trust needed to work in the community stay on campus and do projects in the shop, such as wood working. Those who do have employment are responsible for their own transportation, and all students have a bicycle as a means for the majority of their transportation. (Since Echo Springs is atop a north Idaho mountain, this means that students ride up this mountain to return to campus, an impressive feat.)
Finishing the tour, Lisa left us to chat with program founder Doug Kim-Brown. We discussed appropriate students, program description, the community model Echo Springs uses, and modality of therapy. One thing that impressed me on this visit was that the information I received from the students was consistent with the information I received from the staff I interviewed. This consistency showed me that Echo Springs has their appropriate population and program fully defined and well implemented.
The atmosphere at the school was cozy and neighborly, and I felt we could have stayed chatting all day. But alas, all things must come to an end, and Laura and I had to return to work. We said our goodbyes and walked to the car, taking in one more glance at the beautiful property before driving away.
Experience with Echo Springs on a personal level: Several days later, I realized one of the students was a volunteer at my child's preschool. I chatted with him away from campus for awhile, and each time I went to pick up my child he appeared compassionate toward all the children at the school. They all appeared much attached to him as well. I was so impressed with his level of responsibility that I entrusted him with my most prized "possession"… my (then) three-year-old daughter. He recently graduated Phase I and moved on to Phase II in Coeur d'Alene. I wish him the best of luck on the second phase of his new life.