I first heard of VisionQuest in 1976 and have followed the VisionQuest Wagon Train program for the past 25-years. In the early days of the Wagon Trains, I imagined that the kids going through this experience were delinquent gang members who were the "baddest" of the bad, and the staff was a bunch of tough guys who routinely got into physical tussles with their charges and had to be tough as nails to survive this work. It conjured up in me the romantic idea of the rough and ready Old West and a feeling of wanderlust. This was their last chance and if they failed this experience, they were told to get "out of Dodge" and never come back. Of course "out of Dodge" really meant prison.
The reality was much different than my fantasy. I met a group of decent guys who were busy working on the wagons, doing school work, seeing therapists and handling much of the necessary work involved with running a wagon train. They were going about their work in a positive and purposeful manner. Although these were not the toughest kids in the west, many had been in some form of trouble with the legal system, but would be considered low level offenders who had a good chance of escaping a long difficult life of trouble in their communities and their families. A few were not in the juvenile justice system, but rather in the child-protective services divisions of social services. Those kids had no legal difficulties, but were victims of not having good role models to learn from and a stable home.
I sat with one boy who had been referred to KidsQuest by an educational consultant. He was somewhat sullen as he had just learned that he was going to Samoa after the Wagon Train trip was over in two weeks. Never-the-less, he was working right alongside the other boys taking care of the Wagon Train camp. He told me that he enjoyed working with the horses, learning to see that "I am not the only one who has needs. The horses made me feel good and I was able to take care of them." My myth of the Wagon Train working with the "baddest of the bad" was quickly dispelled.
Another myth that was dispelled was that this was a ragged group who struggled to get these wagons, mules and horses across a roadless desert. Not true. The program works closely with the various state and federal agencies as well as the Department of Transportation to map out a well planned trip on public roads and dirt roads that cut across the desert. Like a well mapped out wilderness trip, the program sticks to rigid rules and regulations so as not to hurt the landscape nor put the staff or youth at-risk. VisionQuest has written the book on following local, state and federal rules very closely. The focus of their requirements are on safety, appropriate handling of children and protection of the land.
I felt the boys were respectful, if not happy with their placement, learning to get along with others and handling what most boys consider a "man's" work, just like they saw in the old cowboy movies. What boy has not fantasized about this experience?
I had the pleasure of watching the boys put the necessary gear on the mules and horses so they could pull a two ton wagon and enable the boys to handle the wagon. I was given the honor of being the "brake man," a chore I had watched in many cowboy movies. The boys clearly had a serious look about them as they handled with skill, this serious challenge. Every piece of equipment had to be attached perfectly in the right place in order to manage the wagon train. Their confidence and skill, gave them an "air" of importance and uniqueness. And rightly so, they had MY life, theirs and my partner's in their hands as they controlled six tons of mules, horses, wagon, gear and passengers.
I truly got lost in the pleasure of bouncing along on the "shotgun" side of the wagon as we wandered down the trail/road with me handling my only chore, setting the brake when told to do so. I thought I looked pretty cool. Daniel, the driver (is that what the guy with the reins is called? A driver?), spoke to the horses, egging them along as he watched for rocks and holes in the roadway. As we lumbered along, he was intense about his job but continued to answer my questions. I loved the power of the mules and had complete confidence in this well trained young man. It must have taken him weeks to learn how to do what he was asked to do. Discipline and the work ethic are surely learned by the boys. I could have stayed on the wagon all the way to Daniel's home state of New Jersey, if I were given the chance. I don't believe these boys will ever forget their time on the rugged deserts of Arizona. At least I won't.
Like wilderness programs, KidsQuest would be considered an adventure therapy/ experiential based intervention. The youth are placed in a situation that is very foreign to them. Many of the students have never traveled beyond the landscape of their individual cities before this experience, so they need to develop new coping skills to make it across this vast desert. Considering the responsibility the students assume while working the Wagon train, the "hard skills" of KidsQuest are clearly on a par with wilderness programs.
Additionally, group and individual work is done throughout the program. I could see the therapist sitting on top of a wagon, calling parents on a cell phone, hundreds of miles away from the middle of nowhere. The wagon train tries to make camp by lunch time each day to avoid the hottest time of the day, and to complete school work in the afternoons. The program coordinates the schoolwork with each student's home school to assure that they keep up with their academic responsibilities.
Much like wilderness programs, many of the youth in KidsQuest Wagon Train are going on to other programs, but some will return home armed with aftercare plans and the hope that they will successfully move back into their community.