Almost 100 people attended the SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs 25th Anniversary celebration on June 2-3, 2006, in Sun Valley, ID. Virtually all parts of the country were represented. About half were SUWS and Aspen Education Group employees; the rest were a mix of educational consultants, ex-students and various people that were important to the SUWS program over the years, including the three founders, George Church, Larry Dean Olsen and LJ Mitchell.
The SUWS wilderness program opened in 1981 and was the first successful parent-choice wilderness therapy program for struggling teens. The previous wilderness programs for struggling teens were formed by Universities for their students, or government agencies specifically for their cliental, such as the Idaho prison system. Other programs were for mainstream children and totally unsuited for the manipulative struggling teens. To pioneer the creation of a private wilderness business based on the concept of parent-choice for struggling teens was not only unique but a very real risk. However, it worked out and SUWS has been growing ever since.
For several years, the SUWS program in southern Idaho offered the only wilderness option to parents looking for the kind of intervention they could choose to enroll their child in, without first obtaining some agency's permission. My first experience with SUWS happened in October 1984, when I recommended that a resistant, prospective Rocky Mountain Academy student attend SUWS first. I hoped she would be more open to enrolling at Rocky Mountain Academy after completing the wilderness, and it worked perfectly for her. Today, using wilderness programs as a preliminary to an Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic Boarding School or Program is a very common practice, with SUWS receiving a lot of these students.
As SUWS thrived in the early 80s, other professionals saw that success could be possible and gradually the number of private parent-choice programs proliferated, building on the fact that SUWS had pioneered something that could work. SUWS deserves a lot of credit for their pioneering efforts because it spawned a significant and growing wilderness therapy industry. And, that's perhaps the greatest significance of this anniversary.
Twenty-five years ago was really the early days of the parent-choice industry in wilderness therapy and Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic Boarding schools and programs. CEDU's Emotional Growth schools in Idaho and California held their 25th anniversary a few years ago, and even though they will never reach their 30th, they had the same kind of impact on long-term boarding schools as SUWS has had on wilderness programs. Both were early pioneers in the unique private parent-choice approach in working with struggling teens. In the next few years, many of the schools and programs that followed the lead of SUWS and CEDU will celebrate their 25th anniversaries and add to the reflection of the steady growth of the private parent-choice network of wilderness and Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic schools and programs. It was a great privilege to be invited to observe this 25-year milestone of SUWS. I hope they enjoy another prosperous 25 years.