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Last-Chance Camps

Teen Wilderness Programs: Outdoor Therapy or Boot Camp?



Vanessa Maxwell was 16 when her parents finally reached their limit with her out-of-control behavior. “We were so afraid of what the next thing she was going to do would do to her,” says Vanessa’s mother, Cynthia, her green eyes reflecting the fear she had felt for her daughter’s safety. Cliff Maxwell, Vanessa’s father, noted her anxiety. “We moved fast. There was a situation on a Wednesday, and by Friday, she was enrolled here.”

“Here” is the ceaseless undulating of sage-covered hills and the implacable rise of 11,000-foot mountains in a remote section of Southern Utah—the course area for a therapeutic wilderness program called the Aspen Achievement Academy. This is where Vanessa, who admits that before entering the program, “I basically did whatever I wanted to, and I didn’t care what anyone had to say,” found herself after she was awakened at 4 a.m. by the escorts her parents hired to deliver her to what they hoped would be the beginning of her new, more hopeful future.

“I was so tired. I was just like, ‘Right now?’” the Massachusetts teenager recalls with a laugh. “And then they brought me out into the field and that’s when it hit me—I was like, oh, my God. I have to survive out here?”

The first day a student arrives in the program, he or she is provided with the essentials for life in the wilderness—proper clothing, sleeping bag, pack and a few other items—and taken out to join a group of other teens. “It was such a scenery change for me,” recalls Vanessa as she looks over the dry, barren Utah landscape that was her home for nearly two months. “It was hard at first. It was scary. I had no idea what would happen.”

Vanessa’s parents did have some idea. “I knew there were risks,” says Cliff. Indeed, lately the wilderness program industry has been rocked by the news of the deaths of two students just this year: one in the Catherine Freer program in Oregon, and one in July at Skyline Journey, which is based out of Nephi. Some critics might be reassured by the fact that the death of the 14-year-old student in Skyline Journey resulted in a full-state investigation, which, according to a press release, could “not find any violations of state regulations, company rules and regulations or lack of common sense on the part of Skyline Journey.” Both programs are still in operation. On Aug. 9, however, the Associated Press reported that another Utah-based wilderness program, High Peaks, was shut down after state authorities won a court order; the action was taken for “alleged violations of licensing and safety requirements.”

Aaron Fernandes is a field director with Aspen who has a gentleness about him that conveys compassion as well as dedication. “Any negativity about the industry is felt by all—which is a bit unfortunate and yet understandable,” he explains. “Safety is absolutely, unconditionally, our No. 1 priority. No doubt about it.”

Vanessa’s parents believed the program was safer than her former lifestyle. “Vanessa being here [in the program] was better than being where she was, at home, doing the things she was doing,” Cynthia comments in a quiet voice about the recent deaths. “Those types of tragedies are horrible, and I think they are rare occurrences. I felt very confident about sending her here.”

Utah has its fair share of wilderness programs—11 by one count—due in part to large tracts of public lands stretching across the state. The darker side of this state’s wilderness program history includes several teen deaths. At least one program, the Escalante-based North Star, was shut down when the state filed criminal charges in October 1994 after a student died. Soon thereafter, the state imposed strict regulations and regular checks of existing programs, which still goes on today, according to Gil Hallows, executive director of the Aspen Achievement Academy. “Every program is reviewed annually by the Office of Licensing, which is part of the Department of Human Services in the state of Utah. They have a set of standards that we are required to comply with.”

Media stories—which sometimes erroneously lump together all wilderness programs under the heading of “boot camps”—often portray wayward teens being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night by burly, unsmiling strangers and whisked off against their will to be dumped in the outdoors and fend for themselves under the harsh discipline of uncaring staff working for greedy companies that are depicted as getting rich off the pain of these adolescents and their anguished families. Reports of abuse, neglect and lack of adequate shelter or clothing also often play into the negative image ascribed to these therapeutic programs by an uninformed public and, perhaps, sensationalistic journalism. The question is, is there any truth to these stories?

Many wilderness programs focus on families that have the economic means or good insurance to cover the costs, which can range from $6,000 to $20,000 per student, depending on the length of stay, which can vary from 21 days to eight or nine weeks. There are also programs for adjudicated, or court-referred, youth, which are usually not paid for in full by individual families.

Hallows is quick to clarify the differences between wilderness therapy and outdoor boot camps, of which Aspen is classified as the former. “We take a very soft, gentle, compassionate approach with kids. There is no deprivation and there is no verbal or physical abuse,” he says firmly, leaning forward for emphasis. “Kids are never force-marched. Unlike a boot camp, we do not believe in breaking students down in order to rebuild them. We do not yell at kids.”

Vanessa is comfortable with this assessment. “I never thought about getting hurt in the program. They really take good care of you. The nurse comes out and checks up on you, staff’s always there for you, they’ll do everything for you if you get hurt. One girl sprained her ankle and they didn’t make her hike.” She also states unequivocally that “my escorts were awesome.”

In April 2000, a report in the International Journal of Wilderness analyzed statistics from four short-term wilderness programs: Aspen Achievement Academy, Red Cliff Ascent (which is also located in Utah), Arizona’s Anasazi and Oregon’s Catherine Freer. It found that the inherent risk to students in these programs was “about on a par with cross-country skiing; a little safer than canoeing; somewhat less risky than going on a summer adventure camp for adolescents; half as risky as overnight backpacking in general; considerably safer than downhill skiing; about 18 times less likely to result in injury than are high school football practices and cheerleading; and less than half as risky for fatal accidents as motor vehicles are for 15- to 19-year-olds.”

Hallows is sensitive about the image of wilderness programs portrayed in the media. He points out that many risk management factors exist at Aspen, including twice-daily radio communication with all groups in the field, all staff being trained in first aid and CPR and nearly every group having a WFR (Wilderness First Responder) or an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in attendance. He emphasizes the amount of training instructors receive and points out that all staff must pass two background checks. Managing risk, Hallows believes, is the biggest responsibility wilderness programs have toward their clients.

The concept of “at-risk” or “troubled” teenagers is nothing new in our fast-paced modern society, where sometimes the conveniences of life can overwhelm anyone, let alone the still-inexperienced young. Monica Robbins, a senior field instructor with Aspen, believes that our culture’s lack of formal or structured rites of passage for teenagers on the cusp of adulthood can hinder a teen’s chances of growing in positive directions. “I think every teenager should go through an experience like these kids, and they don’t necessarily have to be troubled,” she says. “I think a rite of passage really marks the time between being a child to being an adult, and that opportunity is not provided to teenagers today.”

Just being branded with the label “troubled” can cause anxiety, Vanessa says. “When I first came here, I was like, ‘Why am I here? I’m a good girl.’ Especially listening to other people’s problems, I thought, I’m not that bad.”

Aspen therapist Toby Mautz, who is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), is not comfortable with the negative appellations placed on the students in these programs. “I would shift it from ‘troubled’ to ‘glorious’ teen,” he says, his soft tone becoming as expansive as his words. “I wouldn’t say ‘troubled’ teenagers, so much as ‘powerful’ teenagers. It’s just that some of their personal choices put them at risk.”

Others, too, struggle with the labels. Field director Fernandes regards the students as being, for the most part, “really good kids who’ve made poor decisions. It doesn’t reflect on what type of person they are.”

Mautz first was attracted to wilderness therapy because he noticed, while working in residential treatment centers, how much more responsive his students were when he held sessions outside. “Such as when you’re just walking with a student, just watching the sunset or sunrise, and see the student just shift a little bit, and all of a sudden the kid says, ‘This is therapy.’” He freely acknowledges that, “There’s nothing I can do to reproduce that. It just is. Wilderness has a power all its own.”

While Mautz cautions that wilderness isn’t the be-all and end-all for the students in these programs, he thinks it does provide “some clarity” to the decisions and choices that must be made by the students—and their families—learning from the vast expanses of wild space they find themselves in.

The almost mysterious power of the great outdoors to create introspection—as well as shift the focus to an understanding of one’s place within a larger community—fascinates the public as well as the people who utilize wide-open spaces to reach these teens. Gretchen Pfenning, a sunny, upbeat senior field instructor with Aspen, echoes the sentiments of many wilderness proponents before her, from Thoreau to the founders of modern-day programs: “There is less need for staff to create a program, because the wilderness itself does that.”

Pfenning adds that wilderness can be a challenge: “It is a solitary environment.” One of her favorite memories is about a 14-year-old girl who entered the program believing she was mostly helpless and unable to care for herself. Pfenning watched this student gain the knowledge, over her weeks in the field, that if she could survive in the wilderness in one of the remotest corners of the country, she could handle anything. “The knowledge of being able to take care of themselves in the wilderness gives students a level of accomplishment,” says Pfenning. “What’s kept me here three years is seeing students grow and at the same time, seeing how I’ve grown. I’ve seen wilderness programs work.”

Properly managed wilderness programs have a multitude of tools with which to help teens, says Pfenning. “It seems that only the negative perspective of these programs is heard about—you don’t hear about laying over for a day and playing football with the kids, or playing hackey sack by the light of the campfire.” She reassures any who might question the therapeutic value of such activities. “If a student’s struggling with a sobriety issue, we’re teaching them that a game can be more fun and full of laughter without any foreign substances.”

Vanessa realized during her stay at Aspen that using drugs and getting into trouble wasn’t all that enjoyable in the long run. “That wasn’t even me talking, on the drugs. And now I’m just an awesome person, and I realize how much fun I can have without drugs, and how important I am to myself and others.”

Adam Gorman was 17 when he was sent to the Aspen Achievement Academy. A “consistent alcohol and drug user,” he had failed to remain sober after a one-month stay at a rehab center, which prompted his parents’ decision to send him into the wilderness. “If I had the choice then, I would not have entered the program,” he says now. “I was not happy with my life and was willing to give it a shot.” His stay “for certain” helped him to heal. “The wilderness offers challenges that no therapist’s office could ever match,” he explains. After his graduation from the wilderness program and a stay in a long-term care boarding school, Gorman, now 19, chose to return to Utah to work as a field instructor for Aspen this summer.

“I know what it’s like to feel dead inside and to not have any love for life left in you,” says the serious, intense young man. “I see it in the eyes of almost every new student that comes into the program. I can’t get enough of being a part of getting that love of life back.”

Gorman reflects on his time as both student and staff. “By succeeding in a harsh environment and conquering the natural obstacles posed by the wilderness, a student gains confidence, which can be the push he or she needs to take a look at his or her issues.”

Field instructors are fond of using metaphors to get across messages or new ways of thinking to the students. Gorman has one for the job field instructors do for the teens: “We are jumper cables for the soul. I think the biggest part of my decision to return [as staff] is that I wanted to give back the gift that was given to me when I so desperately needed it.”

Michael Conner, Psy.D, states on the website, “Wilderness therapy, in the purest form, is a positive growth experience where children face natural challenges and adversities that are designed to be therapeutic in nature. Children are not merely thrown into the wilderness and made to suffer hardships. They are removed from their environment, encouraged, challenged and given every opportunity to succeed.”

Field instructors in the trenches with the students agree. Jennifer Record has spent two-and-a-half years as a field instructor for Alternative Youth Adventures, a program for adjudicated youth also located in Southern Utah. “Nobody’s going to change unless they’re out of their comfort zone. Removing the students from all the distractions in the world allows them to focus on themselves a lot more.”

One of her favorite memories from her time spent with students is that of Christmas Day two years ago. She and the other staff members gave stockings to each of the students and filled them with fruit and nuts and a little bit of chocolate. In the morning, they placed some presents under a nearby tree and woke the students. Amidst freshly fallen snow, Record watched the boys “running for the tree and their gifts, and it just really reminded me how they were little kids again. It meant the entire world to them. The family we had created [in the group] was what was important.”

The outdoors is a good classroom, explains field instructor Monica Robins. “Wilderness works because you get to see sunsets and sunrises and deal with things like rain and snow and wind and bugs, and you can’t control that. It really makes you appreciate what you have, what’s real in life.” Her brown eyes sparkle with passion as she describes how she sees her job. “The kids are learning how to deal with real issues, and we’re teaching them basic human skills: communication, listening, being supportive, taking responsibility, realizing that you create your own reality and you ultimately are responsible for your own behavior, and not anybody else.”

The power of the wilderness and its ability to instill courage was not lost on Vanessa. “Being outside made me appreciate things and respect others and myself,” she says. “When I first came here, I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this’—and now I have so much self-confidence.” In her braces and pigtails, with a hat pulled over her face, Vanessa looks younger than her 16 years. Her words and the strength behind them, however, belie that impression.

The desert is a special place, adds field director Aaron Fernandes. “There is something about the silence of being in the desert that creates space to think. I think it brings our students, and us as people, back to our roots, back to the cores of who we are. And in that is simplicity.”

Fernandes also has a powerful image to offer. “Especially in the desert, the metaphor of space and openness—the metaphor is your own mind. We’re cluttered, we’re constantly overwhelmed with distractions. There’s metaphor in being outside and opening yourself up to space and not being confined by expectations. It’s the same experience for the students to walk across their own mind, and to imagine limitless potential.”

Cynthia Maxwell finds herself “amazed at what the students have done, and what they can do—not only Vanessa, but all the kids we saw at graduation. Vanessa’s self-confidence, just her attitude. The program helped her look at not just her drug issues, but her whole person.” Vanessa interjects, quietly, almost abashedly, but firmly, “I know, I’m wonderful.” Her mother responds with a smile and a shake of her head, “She never would have said that before.”

Just as the Maxwell family is preparing to pack up and return to their home, Cynthia leans forward and says with a steady gaze and absolute faith, “This place gave me back my daughter.” Vanessa looks around at the awesome outdoor stage on which she learned some of the most potent lessons of her young life. With the wind gently blowing through the pinyon and juniper pines, she sighs and says, “I don’t wanna leave.”