My strongest impression from my visit to Wilderness Quest (WQ) occurred during the field visit to one of the Wednesday Transition groups. Everyone gathered enthusiastically around CEO Gordon Birch, and the incoming staff that were relieving the field staff who had spent the past week with the group. As we gathered in a dry wash a few hundred feet from the vehicles, it was from all appearances a happy reunion. The students rushed toward the incoming staff and gave welcoming hugs, and in what appeared a kind of thank you, they hugged each of the outgoing field staff members scheduled to head back to town later that afternoon. The positive enthusiasm of the moment affected even the newest student.
After hugs and greetings all around, we circled up for introductions holding hands to symbolize the unity of the group. The students' comments were typical, ranging from the neutral comment from a boy who had arrived three days earlier, to a girl's excited and enthusiastic testimony about her accomplishments in the field and her long anticipated graduation in just a few days. With a pair of loaned boots, heavy sweater, fleece coat and wool hat for the field, everyone observed that even I was "In agreement."
The weather was a mixture of sunshine, hail, rain, sleet, cold and snow that day, but despite everything the two girls I stood next to in the circle had warm hands and appeared quite comfortable. Apparently, they had learned how to keep themselves warm even in cold, snowy weather. We broke off the circle quickly because a heavy snow started falling and the staff did not want to risk being caught in a snowstorm while away from camp.
Wednesday is staff turnover day at Wilderness Quest, and the morning is devoted to staff training at the family center. All of the available incoming and outgoing staff members come to town for the training. After the morning training sessions, the staff prepares and serves lunch, which appeared to me to be a highpoint of the sessions. These trainings provide a unique opportunity for nearly all of the staff to gather, which promotes a sense of unity within the Wilderness Quest community. After the luncheon, the outgoing staff head out to the field to share their training with the rest of the staff members, while the incoming members return home for time off.
Safety is a top priority for the entire WQ community. Essentially, Gordon is responding to the parents' desire that their child be safer here than they were at home. Several elements reflect the importance the program places on safety. First, is the triple communication system for each group, which includes radios for routine communication, a satellite phone and cell phones. This communication system ensures that no matter what the emergency, or breakdown in systems, each group is equipped to immediately contact support staff. This technology also allows immediate communication between a student in the field when he/ she reaches an emotional blockage and needs to speak directly with his/ her parents.
Another safety element is the forward operating base (FOB), a well-equipped trailer that stays in close proximity to all the groups. It is manned 24 hours a day, so if there is a field emergency, support staff can arrive within a half hour or less. The FOB maintains continuous contact with the groups and headquarters, and if necessary, it can provide extra supplies.
Gordon said the goal at WQ is to surpass even the highest industry standards, and explained the numerous steps taken toward that end. For example, WQ has two Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) on staff. In addition, with its accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), WQ must maintain the high standards set by JCAHO. Another innovative policy is to place prospective staff in training and in the field for at least nine days before even offering them a job. WQ believes this ensures that the staff is capable and motivated to work effectively with the children.
In the treatment arena, WQ assigns two therapists to each group; one is a Chemical Dependency counselor and the other is a mental health therapist. These therapists rotate their field time each week by spending four days in the field with the students and frequently comparing notes and updating parents. WQ feels that students build stronger and more healing relationships when the therapists spend several days with them, rather than the more common practice in other wilderness programs of the therapist going into the field just one day a week. This also adds to the safety emphasis because students always have an additional staff member in the field with at least two wilderness staff. When I visited, WQ had four adolescent groups and one young adult group in the field, with about 35 students spread out among the five groups. Staffing totals about 60 people full time, including therapists, office staff, wilderness staff, administrators, etc. This means that at any one time, a group has from three to six staff in the field with them. This creates a rich ground for developing healing relationships between the students and adults, as well as increased safety.
WQ also puts a lot of energy into their Intake process. By the time a child goes out into the field, the staff has a Social History, a treatment plan that goes into the field with the student, and some developed discharge possibilities for each child. Gordon explained that with all this in place, the field staff knows the child's needs from the first day he/ she is in the field, rather than waiting and guessing for a week or more while his/ her treatment plan is developed.
Larry Wells, one of the pioneers in wilderness therapy, formally founded Wilderness Quest (originally called Wilderness Conquest) in 1988. In 1971, Larry began doing trips for the State of Idaho and WQ later became one of the early private-pay, parent-choice wilderness therapy programs. It so happens that I wrote my first visit report for this newsletter on this program in Issue #1, November 1989, so my experience with this program goes back years.
Larry retired from active management a little over a year ago, but still acts as an advisor to the program, which is now operated by CEO, Gordon Birch; Wilderness Director, David LePere, MA; Clinical Director, Corey Reich, PhD; and Executive Director, Greg Hitchcock, MA.
Wilderness Quest's mission consists of two major elements, the healing impact of the wilderness and its integration with the 12-Step model emphasizing dual diagnosis work. Though most of the students have chemical dependency problems, the staff said the program is equally effective for students who do not have serious alcohol and drug problems. The intent of the wilderness experience is to teach students that actions carry consequences, enhance the development of healthy relationships, teach students how to control their behavior naturally and build spiritual strength. The WQ 12-Step model guides students in how to live principle-based lives. This model teaches students to face the reality that their lives are unmanageable, there is a higher power that can help restore stability and sanity to their lives, to make amends to those they have harmed and learn how to give to others.