Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Sep 1, 2006, 14:37

Saranac Lake, New York
Nicole Roma, Admissions Director

Visit By: Stephen Migden, PhD, ABPP, July 7, 2006

Adirondack Leadership Expeditions is a character development Wilderness Program for troubled teens that is located in the Adirondack Mountains region of upstate New York. A member of the Aspen Education Group, Adirondack serves boys and girls, in separate, single-gender groups, ages 13 to 17. Founded about three years ago, Adirondack is a closer-to-home alternative for families living in the heavily populated northeast, who would otherwise have to turn to Wilderness Programs in the west and other regions of the country.

With administrative offices located in the skiing and outdoor vacation village of Saranac Lake, NY, Adirondack utilizes an expedition model during the spring and summer and a base camp model during the late fall and winter. Students, organized into groups of eight, with three instructors for each group, hike the trails of the Adirondack Preserve (which I believe is the largest undeveloped area in the northeast) during the warmer months, and operate out of plain, rustic cabins in the woods during the colder periods of the year. Insight-oriented experiential learning, in conjunction with weekly individual therapy and weekly parent-therapist phone sessions, forms the core of the treatment program. Substance abuse education and treatment is addressed as part of the total program by the individual therapists and group instructors; it is not considered a separate program component.

The base camp area where the cabins are located includes a main, three-story building that houses an infirmary and communications center. I was told that an EMT is on duty in the infirmary 24/7. Groups that are in the field keep contact with the communications center via radio and satellite phone, calling in their locations at least twice a day, with the assistance of a GPS unit. The logistics and staff training center is located in a large, one-story building that was originally erected to house the reception center for the dog sled races during the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, which were held in nearby Lake Placid. It is very spacious, and the food, provisions, equipment and clothing rooms seem well stocked with the appropriate supplies for hiking and camping in this part of the country.

Students at Adirondack move through four phases of treatment. The earliest phase involves acceptance of placement and mastery of basic hygiene and physical wellness skills in a wilderness environment. The last phase involves a high level of personal and group responsibility, and being a role model for others. It is at this phase that students are informed of their discharge placement. The average length of stay is 45 days, with a minimum of 28. From Adirondack, students typically move on to traditional, therapeutic or emotional growth boarding schools or, more rarely, to an RTC.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to join a group of about eight boys who were out in the field. The group was led by a senior field instructor, who had clearly earned the respect and warmth of the teens; he was assisted by two other instructors, one male and one female. The group included boys from various parts of the US, mainly the east coast, and one international student (close space before the period). The boys, who introduced themselves to me at the start of a short group discussion, described problems with depression, academic underachievement, defiance, entitlement, and drug and alcohol use. Most had been at Adirondack about two weeks, though a couple of "veterans" had been there for about four weeks. It didn't appear to me that any of them was ready yet to move on from Wilderness, though I did have the impression that each was productively addressing his unique issues.

The group discussion centered on a few important themes: Truthfulness, taking responsibility for one's actions, appropriate expression of feelings and not taking the gifts of life (including parents) for granted. The atmosphere was serious and introspective, yet also warm and mutually respectful. When I asked the boys what they would want to change about Adirondack, they genuinely seemed to have difficulty finding things to complain about. They all said that being in Wilderness had helped them. When I asked why, their reasons included the positive atmosphere created by their senior field instructor, and that the Wilderness provided them with the ability to focus on what's really important in life, without external distractions.

I met with members of the Adirondack leadership team, including Executive Director Susan Hardy, Admissions Director Nicole Roma, and Field Manager John Duckworth, who supervises the field instructors. Susan has been at Adirondack for about 18 months; before that, she was with Three Springs for 15 years. Nicole has been with Aspen for six years, the first three at SUWS of the Carolinas and the last three at Adirondack. I also met with one of the master's level therapists, a young woman who came to Adirondack about six months ago after working in a hospital in upstate New York. They seemed like a well functioning and capable group.

Adirondack takes teens who have been diagnosed with ODD, ADHD, mood and bipolar disorders. They will also consider students diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, non-verbal learning disability and Asperger's disorder. Adirondack does not accept actively psychotic, suicidal, or violent/assaultive students, nor does the program do well with students who are diagnosed with mental retardation. The program also does not view a teen that is a significant AWOL risk as a good fit for Adirondack, in part because of the program's relative proximity to the large population centers of the northeast. The Adirondack admissions director told me that if such a student is referred to Adirondack, she would probably recommend him to one of the more remote Wilderness programs in the west.

About the Author:
Stephen Migden, PhD, is a psychologist and educational consultant who works with behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students of all ages. His office is in Roslyn Heights, New York. Visit Dr. Migden's website at or call 516-625-0824 for more information.

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