Located near Bozeman, Three Rivers Montana is in its third year of operations as a wilderness program. It accepts a wide range of students who are physically and emotionally able to benefit from a wilderness experience; whose parents are committed to working intensely during their child's stay. Three Rivers is a non-profit company that provides a higher than industry standard for instructor to student ratio, which enables the program to offer individualized assistance. The instructors all hold at least a bachelors degree, and tend to be older with the average age being 29.
Marylis Filipovich, Mark Parlett and Robert Weimer founded the program. Although a relatively new program, Three Rivers has a wealth of wilderness experience with co-founder Mark Parlett. Over 20 years ago, Mark attended a wilderness program as a student. That experience greatly affected his life, and today he has over 10 years of experience in operating a wilderness program in Montana. Mark is also the program and development director.
Marylis Filipovich, LCSW, is the Executive Director and has over 19 years experience working with families, including her role as the first clinician for Alternative Youth Adventures, a wilderness program in Montana.
Robert Weimer is the Board Chair for Three Rivers Montana. He was motivated to join Marylis and Mark in developing a program for youth shortly after his daughter, Jackie Weimer, died in a rock climbing accident in 2003. Robert is carrying out her desire to help make a positive impact on teens and their families. He has been the Chief Operating Officer of various for-profit organizations.
Steve Moore, LCPC, is the clinical director and previously worked with adventure-based counseling with graduate students at Montana State University. Steve also worked as a therapist at Ascent Wilderness Program in Idaho and as a therapist with Alternative Youth Adventures in Montana.
Holli Richardson, MA, has 19 years teaching experience and three years as a principal in Montana. Garrett Munson, the Director of Operations, also has had several years experience as the wilderness director with Alternative Youth Adventures of Montana.
The program stresses the importance and requirement of family involvement including participation in a two-day parent workshop, and the opportunity of spending three days with their son or daughter at the end of the program. Additionally, if a child returns home after the wilderness experience, there are intensive aftercare services offered for the first six months with less intensive services provided for the first year.
Three Rivers has many operating areas in Montana. During my visit, Garrett, Sam Robbins, field director and a psychologist friend of mine traveled over an hour on remote and rough mountainous roads to a girls' group in the mountain area called the Whitetail range. The girls' group had six students and four staff members. We "circled up" and introduced ourselves to the girls and they, to us. The girls looked clean and orderly, and had just completed a hike. Their spirits were good and they seemed to enjoy talking about where they were from, why they were there and what they had accomplished during their stay at Three Rivers. All of the girls had a positive attitude and hope for the future. The girls came from the far reaches of the country, as well as one girl from the southern area of Mexico. At the end of our group, Garrett Munson told the girls of a service-learning project that would refurbish an old cabin. All of the girls were excited about the project and were anxious to get to work. After the group, I spent time with a girl I had referred to Three Rivers. She had been in the program for a couple of weeks, and other than not having makeup available, she was happy with her experience and appropriately negotiating her next, longer term program. She was able to verbalize how she was determined to avoid drugs and get along better with her mother.
The uniqueness of the wilderness program is that the trekking is preceded by a short-term base camp assessment, with the remaining time spent trekking. A hallmark of the wilderness program is to provide the students with service projects, allowing the students to be a part of giving to others. Three Rivers is an accredited high school and students have the academic component of the program tied into the experiential outdoor experience. All students receive some high school credits, some up to six semester credits, a rarity in this industry. The therapists have a caseload of only five to seven students and each group has two therapists who develop the treatment direction of the group. Because of the high number of staff and the small size of the program, individual attention can be given to each student.
The vast Montana environment allows for a rich variety of remote and still wild mountain areas that can enrich a student's experience. Three Rivers also provides activities like fly-fishing and mountaineering skills that can be healthy substitutes for unproductive activities in the future.
Three Rivers uses a strength based empowerment tool called the "Puzzle," which helps the parents articulate not only the problems to the child but also the positive aspects of the family. Both the students and parents complete the Puzzle, which is updated as the child and the parents go through shifts in their growth, thinking and communication.