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Posted: Oct 1, 2004 11:39


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Stow, Maine
Adam Tsapis - Admissions Director

Visit by: Kristie Henley, September 8, 2004

As I drove northwest from Portland on
Highway 302, I was amazed at the layout of towns in Maine. The towns are small and almost appear connected, as one ends another begins, and the drive seems to take longer than it actually does. The closer I got to Stow the more I felt as if I was headed nowhere, and like Bonners Ferry, the lack of cell phone reception confirmed this feeling. After what seemed like forever, I finally spotted the sign and turned down the dirt road leading to Summit Achievement.

As I drove down the dirt road, I began to imagine the campus would consist of canvas, tent-like structures in the middle of a field, so when I arrived at the administration building and saw several cabins, I was almost awestruck by what I saw. At the top of the hill, the forest opened up into a meadow where Summit's large administration building (Cold River Lodge) and three cabins surrounded a beautifully manicured yard. Across the meadow sat three more rustic, yet modern, cabins.

When I arrived in the guest parking area, Adam Tsapis, Admissions Director for Summit, greeted me and we walked into Cold River Lodge for lunch, which was already in progress. I sat with Executive Director Chris Mays, who explained the Summit program and introduced me to all of the staff. Several of the staff members were sprinkled among the students which gave a feeling of community. Although the students do eat chicken and fish once or twice a week in the summer and more in the winter, the meals are largely vegetarian. Besides the dining hall, Cold River Lodge houses the laundry facilities, group meeting rooms, camping equipment and storage, the expedition staging area and a commercial kitchen. The administrative offices are located on the second floor and are off limits to the students until they reach their personal summit and are ready to move on. Students generally earn the right to see this 'forbidden area' on their last day.

After lunch, Adam and I went into his office, where we were soon joined by the Clinical Director Will White, and they explained the levels and the therapy component. Unlike most other wilderness programs, at Summit, the students do not live strictly in tents or spend all of their time on the trail. They spend four days a week on expedition and three attending classes. The main focus at Summit is treatment, not camping or survival skills, allowing the students focus on themselves and the reasons they are at Summit. Also unlike other wilderness programs where there is no communication between students and their family, students at Summit sit down each week with their therapist for a conference call with their parents.

Summit uses a system of basic levels that each student must 'climb' to pass, however within that system; each student has an individualized treatment plan to fulfill as well. The beginning level is 'Base Camper,' where the student receives an "impact letter" from their parents that explains why they were placed at Summit and then begins to work on accepting that they are there for a reason. The next level is 'Hiker,' where the theme is commitment, and students commit to living in the community, and review, discuss and sign their individual treatment plans with their therapist. In the 'Climber' level, students respond to the 'impact letter' and share it with the group for feedback. Students in this level begin to take responsibility for their part in past problems and become accountable for their choices. When students enter the 'Lead Climber' level, they begin to take the initiative to assist other students who are newer or struggling. Also in this level, based on the group's feedback, students revise their response to the impact letter and begin to work with the therapist to develop a discharge plan. The next level, 'Belayer,' is based on forgiveness, and is similar to the ninth step of the 12-step program. Students write a letter to someone they've harmed, accepting personal accountability for their actions, and upon group review, they send the letter to make amends. In 'Belayer,' students are at a level where they are working to complete their discharge plan, and able to ask for and accept feedback from the group. The final level is 'Expedition Leader', and the student demonstrates personal integrity and significant leadership abilities.

We left the administration building and walked across the yard toward the three cabins. The first cabin houses the classrooms for the academic component of the Summit program. The class I visited was very small with just four to five girls. There was a very relaxed feeling in the room with everyone, including the teacher, sitting in a circle around a large table with supplies in the middle. I was impressed with the creativity of academic projects assigned, which appeared to keep the students interested in learning.

After sitting in on the class for a little while, we walked over to the next cabin. The girls' cabin is located between the classrooms and the counseling cabin, across the campus from the boys' cabins. The rooms were tidy and the cabins felt very cozy. Each bunk had the personal touch of the student who occupied it, and although Summit students only spend three days a week in the cabins, they
felt lived in. The girls' cabin consists of a large room in the center as you walk in with two bedrooms and a bathroom to the left and the same on the right. Staff members stay with the students and sleep on bunks in the main room during their rotation. After walking through the girls' cabin and the counseling cabin, we walked across campus to see the boys' cabins and their bathhouse, which is literally a separate building. The boys' cabins are a little more rustic, but have the same cozy feel as the girls' and the same basic layout.

The students all seemed happy except for one boy who had been at Summit for a long time. He had learned earlier that morning that he wouldn't be going home after Summit and although he had made a lot of progress, he was going to "walk away." I use this term rather than runaway because students rarely run away from Summit. Although the students are able leave if they want to, each realizes they are so far out in the country that they don't really have anywhere to run to. Occasionally, someone will go as far as the campus boundary before returning to process what made them want to run. After sitting on the edge of the Summit campus for awhile to think, the boy returned to the administration building to work through his feelings about his parents' decision. Having been in that position myself 10 years ago, I understood how the boy felt.

I enjoyed my time at Summit Achievement and took one last look around the campus before packing the baby into the car and driving back down the country road to rejoin the mainstream world. I felt safe on the Summit campus, and comfortable around the kids and the staff. I feel Summit is appropriate for the student with low motivation/ self-esteem, minor depression, is manipulative and needs a positive peer group to help them get back on track. Summit provides a great niche for students to gain a positive outlook for themselves and their future potential while working on emotional issues in a safe environment.

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