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Hard Cases: Teens find themselves in wilderness

Monday, September 06, 1999

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Bureau

Second of a series

BEND, Ore. -- The five teen-agers huddle around the campfire in the desert. The sun is going down, and it is getting chilly. Most of the kids are wearing every item of clothing they have, which bear the odor of many days in the wilderness.

  A student at TREX writer her daily diary entry at a solo campsite. (Darrel Ellis, Block News Alliance)

Jim, 17, from the Pacific Northwest, is the oldest. Then there are George, 17, from New York City; Bonnie, 17, from Miami; Rick, 15, from Chicago, and Dale, 14, from Southern California.

All have used drugs. Jim and Bonnie have serious habits. Jim smoked marijuana up to five times a day. Bonnie has used, and liked, virtually every kind of illegal drug. George likes pot, but thinks it is dangerous to use man-made drugs like methamphetamine. Dale agrees that meth is "scary," but Bonnie thinks it's "cool."

Jim is the alpha male. The others mimic him in small ways. Jim is at TREX, a private wilderness therapy program for troubled adolescents, because his parents gave him an ultimatum: get clean, or get out. Athletic and personable, Jim wants very much to be sober for a year so he can return to the private school he was attending before he was expelled for failing a drug test.

George is quiet, troubled. His father, a drug addict, disappeared when George was an infant.

Bonnie, an energetic girl, smiling and flirtatious, is on probation from a private school. She was suspended when a drug test came up dirty. She is in the program because her parents want her to lose her drug habit and her boyfriend.

Rick is lonely. His mother once sent him a letter saying she was sorry she had ever had children. Rick has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and often plays the part. He has frequent childish outbursts when he is frustrated, or wants attention.

  The series:

Part I: Turning around kids in trouble


Dale is the youngest, perhaps the brightest, definitely the scariest. His parents think he is under the influence of a Satanist. He has twice injured himself, putting bloody handprints onto the walls of his room at home. When Dale's dad travels on business, his mother locks her bedroom door.

The five are nearing the end of the 21-day treatment program.

TREX is run by Gabriel Rivera, 44, who used to be a gang member in east Los Angeles. He is one of the most respected practitioners of wilderness therapy.

Parents of adolescents who have completed the program at TREX have a high opinion of Rivera.

Steve and Diana Thomas, who have a farm near Ukiah, Calif., sent three sons to TREX. All were experimenting with drugs.

"We were fearful for our younger son's life," Diana said. "We knew we had to have an intervention."

TREX turned her boys around. All three are now in college.

"Gabe is a good mentor and role model. He is someone we want our children to be around."

TREX is one of the private wilderness programs recommended most often by education consultants.

Others mentioned frequently are Southern Utah Wilderness School (even though it's now in Idaho); Anasazi in Arizona; the Aspen Achievement Academy in Loa, Utah; Wilderness Quest in Monticello, Utah; and Catherine Freer in Albany, Ore. Some have been established for juvenile offenders. Aspen Youth Alternatives runs two of the more popular, in Loa, Utah, and Helena, Mont.

The private and public programs have essentially the same format, but there is much more interaction with psychologists in the private programs.

This makes for a hefty difference in cost. At the Aspen Achievement Academy, the private program in Loa, Utah, the cost per student per day is $360. The cost per student per day for Aspen Youth Alternatives, the program for adjudicated youth run out of the house next door, is just $130.

"The hallmark of the adolescent, especially the troubled adolescent, is the statement: 'It's not my fault,' " said Gary Emmons, headmaster of the Brush Ranch School near Santa Fe, N.M.

"I like wilderness because it is the fastest, most effective way to get a kid to realize that there is an external reality which he can't manipulate, and to which he must adjust," Emmons said. "You can bitch at God for having it rain, but that won't keep you dry."

Wilderness programs can be extremely effective, agreed Phyllis Kozokoff, a certified educational planner in Cleveland. Certified educational planners are experts to whom well-heeled parents can turn to to find an appropriate school or treatment program for a troubled youngster.

"It's a really dramatic way of catching the attention of kids who have never really been faced with much in the way of consequences before," Kozokoff said.

At TREX and most other wilderness programs, there are four phases: impact, interactive, intensive and personal empowerment.

The first step is to get the kids' attention and remove distractions. Just being in the wilderness has quite an impact. There is no television, no music, no "homies" to hang out with.

"The basic model is to take away all distractions, all the defenses that are easily available in the outside world and put them in a raw environment," said Brad Reedy, clinical director at Aspen Achievement Academy.

At Aspen Youth Alternatives, a program for young people sent for treatment by the courts, the disorienting effect is highlighted when kids are dropped off in the desert in the middle of the night.

"When they see those taillights receding into the distance, they're more likely to look at staff as friends on whom they must depend rather than as authority figures to challenge," said Simon Timms, wilderness director at Aspen Youth Alternatives.

There is a lot of physical activity in the impact phase, chiefly hiking with a heavy rucksack.

"Overcoming the physical challenges increases their self- esteem," said Larry Wells, who founded both SUWS and Wilderness Quest. "You can give them all the attaboys and attagirls in the world, but it isn't nearly as effective as when they know they have accomplished something that was difficult for them to do."

Next comes the interactive phase, in which kids are taught how to work together. A major teaching tool is a handcart in which students carry their gear, and common equipment such as cooking utensils. There are four on a cart -- two on the yoke, and two on the brakes. Teamwork is required to maneuver the cart through the underbrush and around obstacles.

"If you have four teen-agers who can't communicate, who don't have any patience or know how to delay gratification, it's as frustrating as hell," Reedy said.

Between the interactive and intensive phases at TREX, students go on a solo. They spend three days camping by themselves. The students are positioned in a rough circle about a half-mile from the base camp. Staff checks on them twice a day, but students are forbidden to speak to each other.

"The purpose of the solo is to give young people time to review and reflect upon their experience, and to prepare themselves for being reunited with their parents," said Anasazi's Gold.

In the intensive phase, psychologists work with wilderness program staff to help students focus on their problems and understand how to overcome them. At TREX, Gabe Rivera is assisted by Miriam Ramsey, a psychotherapist.

The final phase, personal empowerment, is to help young people build self-respect through accomplishment, and to prove to themselves that they can overcome their fears.

At TREX, the empowerment phase consists of two days of rock climbing. At Aspen or SUWS, the feeling may come from starting a fire with flint and wood, or by mastering some other wilderness skill.

Most wilderness programs also emphasize educating parents. At TREX, there is a mandatory workshop for parents.

"We don't believe it's advisable to work with a child separated from his parents," said Anasazi's Gold. "Our goal is to help heal and strengthen family relationships."

Counselors at these sessions emphasize that wilderness programs are just the beginning, not the end, of a treatment plan for a troubled adolescent.

"We call wilderness a wake-up call," said Nancy Coulbourn Ike, a certified educational planner in Cincinnati.

Aspen Youth Alternatives has substantially reduced recidivism among juvenile offenders in Montana with its eight-week wilderness program, followed by an eight-week residential program, according to a study by Brigham Young University.

"It became real clear to us that the key to the program was aftercare," said Larry Stednitz, who directs the Montana program. "Kids all come out of the wilderness with a great attitude, but then they regress. We use the two months of residential to reinforce what they learned in the outdoors, and to ease their transition back into society."

Tomorrow: Boot camp -- most don't work, but there's one that stands out.

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