[Site visit in February 2004, by Jared Balmer, PhD, Director of Island View & Oakley School, Utah
It took me two trips to really get it. My first visit to the Coral Reef Academy in Western Samoa occurred three years ago. However, the “quarter didn’t drop” until my most recent visit, a week ago. In Samoa, David Smyth and Rodney Rice have created a real jewel of a program that is truly unique, and in my opinion, fits a particular adolescent population that is not served very well within the industry.
During my first visit in 2001, it was obvious the Academy was a very credible residential treatment center with very qualified U.S. credentialed therapists providing the therapy. Yes – they have a meaningful, high school graduation oriented curriculum. Yes – they operate with a supportive, cohesive therapeutic milieu. Yes – their diversion and recreational activities make me jealous. And, yes – they “walk the talk” of cultural immersion. But at the end of the day, Coral Reef Academy was just another RTC – in Samoa, arguably a hard sell from the geographical distance perspective.
However, as my second visit unfolded, I began to see the uniqueness of the program and the niche it could fill. In my opinion, what the Academy can deliver for an older adolescent in his senior year is nothing short of magical.
Assume we have a 17-½ year old boy in need of a moderate level RTC placement and his objective is to not be reintroduced back into the home or high school environment. Such a youth is unquestionably hard to place in a stateside RTC. Why? Because he will likely “walk” on his 18th birthday and fall short of completing his treatment objectives. Moreover, this immature child sacrifices functional independence by falling prey to a false perception of freedom. The Academy is uniquely poised to help such a boy in a real and meaningful way because the RTC program continues beyond his 18th birthday. Why?
1. The Academy has a stellar record of hanging on to a child past his 18th birthday.Walking off the premises and disappearing into the community at large is a little harder than in any large or small city within the U.S. Also, calling a friend for “pick-up services” is a little more complicated.
2. More importantly, the Academy offers every boy a fabulous internship program that attracts his full attention and focuses him on his next step of college or a profession. While each boy passes through four stages of a level system, the last and highest level is characterized with a meaningful immersion into the working world. Here are some examples: One boy worked as a waiter in an Apia restaurant. Another worked at the Newspaper where he wrote his own column on a regular basis. Yet another 17 year old worked for a local radio station where he hosted his own radio show, while another boy was apprenticing with a chef at a local resort hotel. After each working day, the boys return to campus and benefit from transitional counseling services. In the Samoan community, each boys’ “performance in town” is observed by his employer and the community at large, while program staff is only a phone call away.
I cannot see this type of program working effectively in the U.S., where each intern would inevitably face a host of distractions and bring the “evidence” back on campus. In our culture, a young person with a difficult past is often uprooted by the harshness of his surroundings.
While the Samoan culture is not Orwellian in nature, the devastating forces of drugs, porn and other destructive influences are simply not creating the same setbacks. I believe a young man stands a better chance setting a new course for his independence and freedom in Samoa. Moreover, based in part on my experiences at Island View, I have reason to believe that it is difficult to “sell” an 18-year-old on enrolling in an independent living program once he has or could walk away from a specialty school or treatment program. The transition from RTC to an independent living program is going to occur at Coral Reef Academy more easily than any stateside program that I am aware of.
In summary, I have learned the Academy was created in part to fill a niche for the older adolescent population and because of its geographic and cultural advantages. This program combines sound RTC practices with meaningful transitional programming that is self-evident.