Lone Star is located about an hour north of Houston in the east part of Texas. My visit occurred as a series of major storms moved through the Houston area, so a visit to see the program included ponchos, and dashing from shelter to shelter between downpours. The kids of course were holed up in the open-sided semi-permanent shelters, keeping themselves busy doing journal or Guide book work, issue groups, and staying dry. The shelters were surprisingly solid. While we were talking with one group of girls, there was a loud crash from a branch falling on the roof. The staff said that hadn’t happened before, but there was no damage at all to the structure. The sudden noise did create some excitement among the students, but no concern on their part since they seemed to feel safe from the elements. At the time, we could hardly hear what they were saying over the sound of the wind and heavy rain. Despite the weather, they seemed to be carrying on in their daily routine.
The program uses single sex groups, and we visited the girls group first. Although both the girls group and the boys group had the grubby camper look, there was an obvious difference between those getting ready to graduate, and those who had just arrived. The “senior” students for the most part had a sparkle and newly found confidence. That was an obvious contrast to a couple of girls who had just arrived, and were still going through their “poor me” misery. The “senior” students shared with us their empathy with the new students and how they were trying to help the new girls adjust. They described their own experience upon first arriving, which was very similar to what we were seeing in the new students. Everyone in the boys group had been there for a while.
The semi-permanent structures, on 230 acres of recently logged land, are where the students spend what they call “lay-over” time. They also stay in the shelters when the weather is inclement, as it was when we visited. Usually, each group spends five days on expedition, staying a different place each night, and then two days in lay-over camp, where they can regroup, shower, and process what has been happening. The program consequently is a combination of the expedition model and base-camp model, and draws from the strengths of each of these models.
They use navigation as a metaphor in the program, and an important skill each student has to learn is how to use a map and compass to move from one spot to another. When students are asked what their goals are, we sometimes also ask what are their bearings, thus making the connection between navigating the wilderness and navigating one’s life.
They explain they have an eclectic style of treatment, founded largely on Glasser’s Choice theory, supplemented by practices from “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brief Solution, Behaviorism and the 12 Step Program.” The program views its role as helping the students to see why certain choices are to their benefit, and other choices are to their detriment. A basic lesson is how self-control is a beneficial choice, and the staff emphasizes talking about what the student should do, rather than what the student should not do. They don’t believe in confrontation, although discussions the staff have with the students can be very pointed. A goal is to help the student see how external things have controlled their behavior and reactions, and learn how to exercise what is called an “internal locus of control.”
Each student goes through four phases, which could be considered comparable to a level system. In each phase, the students have specific goals for wilderness skills, emotional skills, and therapy. Each level requires greater responsibility, along with greater privileges. Of course, the phases are used as metaphors.
After a brief orientation, the student enters the Settler phase, which refers to the people who worked “the land discovered by others.” The second phase is called Pioneer, referring to those who “set out for recently discovered lands,” and learned how “a sense of community was vital for the survival of new pioneers….” Explorer is the third phase: those who “boldly enter new environments…[were] master problem solvers and decision makers…. [and their] success often depended on their leadership skills.” The highest phase is the fourth phase of Tracker. “Trackers are able to live and work independently while acknowledging their interdependence.” They “would move ahead of the main party in search of food or shelter.” How they use these phases as a metaphor to each student’s life is rather obvious.
Family relations, and working with the family is an important part of the staff’s duties. Upon enrollment, each parent receives a Family Expedition Guidebook. This explains the reasons for various activities the students are asked to do, and lays out what the program expects from the parents. Written communication between students and their parents is an ongoing part of the program, with the expectation that students write to their parents at least three times a week. The communication starts with an Impact letter from the parents, laying it all out on the table as to why the parents decided to make this enrollment decision. The program then expects at least one letter a week from each parent and sibling, to work at developing better communication and relations. They expect the parents to work through their own guidebook with the goal of understanding the changes their child might be making. The goal is for the family back home to be better able to understand and accept the changes their child has gone through, while acknowledging the struggles that he or she might have to deal with upon returning to the old environment.
This is a relatively new program, celebrating its one-year anniversary about the time of my visit. The staff are still building a new program out of the wilderness, and from the looks of the students I saw, they have been making good progress.