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Posted: Nov 23, 2009 09:33


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Clayton, GA
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Visit by Stephen Migden, October 14, 2009

Second Nature Blue Ridge is a therapeutic wilderness program located in Northeast GA, near the SC border. A part of the Second Nature family of Wilderness Programs (along with Second Nature Cascades, in OR, and the two UT programs, Second Nature Uinta and, for young adults, Second Nature Entrada), Second Nature Blue Ridge is designed to provide a clinically sophisticated, therapist-driven wilderness program for boys and girls who experience a variety of behavioral, emotional, substance abuse and school or community adjustment problems.

I visited the staff of Second Nature Blue Ridge on a wet and chilly day in the early fall. The administrative offices are located at the end of a winding, hilly road in the small town of Clayton. There, I had the opportunity to meet with Dan McDougal, the Program Director, since the Blue Ridge program's founding seven years ago, and Jeff Scott, the Clinical Co-Director, who has also been with the program since its founding in 2002. I spent about two hours with Dan and Jeff, asking them a variety of questions about their program, its structure, components, and their staff. Equally important, I attempted to gain some insights into their professional backgrounds and their commitment to serving struggling youth.

Both Dan and Jeff explained that they had come to Second Nature Blue Ridge following experiences at other programs in the private parent choice network. They also noted, with evident pride, the high level of experience and the stability of their field and clinical staff. For example, Dan spoke about the field staff who had gone on to get graduate mental health degrees after working at Second Nature Blue Ridge, and he even pointed out a wall filled with the photographs of these former employees. Jeff pointed with pride to the experience and cohesiveness of the Blue Ridge therapists which include clinicians representing a variety of therapeutic perspectives, from cognitive behavioral to psychodynamic.

Second Nature Blue Ridge usually has between five and seven groups of young people in the field at any one time. There are generally about two or three groups of teenage boys, one to two groups of teenage girls, and one co-ed group of pre-teems (the Footsteps Program). The kids hike the forest and mountains of Chattahoochee National Forest, traveling in groups of ten or less, and with a staff to student ratio of about one to two. Therapists are in the field with their groups two days per week. In addition, they serve as consultants to the field staff in regular staff meetings, as well as in many informal, day-to-day contacts.

A variety of therapeutic techniques are employed. Since Second Nature uses a therapist-driven model of wilderness treatment, these techniques may differ from therapist to therapist, and therapists may specialize in certain kinds of problem areas. However, Jeff, the Clinical Co-Director, was careful to stress that, regardless of the technique, all Second Nature Blue Ridge therapists focus on the youth-therapist relationship as the central element in the treatment of kids with problems. Jeff and Dan made sure to also stress that, parallel to the youth-therapist relationship, the youth-field staff relationship is also an extremely important component of the program with both of these relationships unfolding in the special, centering setting of the wilderness.

Parents participate in their children's treatment at Second Nature Blue Ridge in a variety of ways. They have weekly phone sessions with their child's therapist and twice-weekly live webinars (open to all Second Nature parents, not just those using the Blue Ridge setting). There are on-site parent workshops every five to six weeks or so; and there is an alumni parent program in which new parents are paired with alumni parents who can serve as support figures. In total, parents are provided with about four hours of support each week.

Whenever I visit a therapeutic wilderness program, I pay particularly close attention to its safety protocols, because keeping children safe in the wilderness is of primary importance. At Second Nature Blue Ridge, I was told by Dan, the Program Director, that every group in the field has at least one certified wilderness first responder (WFR) on staff. In addition, about ten percent of the field staff are EMT's. Groups are equipped with cell phones, two-way radios and satellite phones. Each group must call in its positions, usually via satellite phone, at least twice each day, at 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. Newly admitted kids are outfitted with clothing and gear by Second Nature, and each new participant must pass a physical exam given by the program's own physician before entering the field. In addition, I was told that the doctor who is on call visits each group in the field every 21 days. These important safety standards were at least as stringent as those I have found at other high quality therapeutic wilderness programs.

Second Nature Blue Ridge is a member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). It is accredited by the Association of Experiential Education, and the educational program is accredited by the Northwest Association of Colleges and Schools. Second Nature Blue Ridge holds a license as an Outdoor Therapeutic Camp from the Georgia Department of Human Resources.

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