Wilderness School Transforms Through Stories Of Strength And Hope
When you arrive at the Wilderness School in East Hartland, its remote location, cabin-like structures, and surrounding woods signals that this is different than any other government facility – even one offering a social service to its clients. But the beautiful and unique setting only begins to tell the Wilderness School story.
It takes only a short conversation with the people who work here to understand that this is not just another “base camp” for an Outward Bound-style program. It is a crossing -- a transformation for both the young people it serves as well as the staff who serve them. The Wilderness School offers youth a chance to test themselves on intensive expeditions filled with challenges: 20 days of hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, and camping along the Appalachian Trail as well as one-to-five day expeditions along the Tunxis Trail or Connecticut River. The journey is far more than a physical one. Each expedition provides the boys and girls an opportunity to place themselves in a new narrative offering a different way of seeing themselves, their strengths and their capabilities.
“There is a reframing that takes place through the physical activities,” said Aaron Wiebe, the School’s director. “This is an opportunity to re-write that youth’s story and base it on a real experience. A lot of our students are struggling and are trying to recover and move forward. This can be transformative – a recovery experience.”
The Wilderness School is a prevention, intervention, and transition program serving “at-risk” adolescents struggling in their homes and communities and facing significant adversity in their lives, including trauma, family breakdown, and mental health, academic, legal, learning, social and emotional challenges. About 60 percent of the youth are referred by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which operates the School. Others are referred from the community by juvenile review boards, youth service bureaus, public and private schools, juvenile courts, mental health clinics, private and state psychiatric hospitals, and other youth-serving agencies. In 2018, approximately 575 youth participated in one of the 58 “short” courses offered throughout the year and another 25 youth participated in the four 20-day expeditions offered.
It is a “high-impact” experience including hiking, wilderness and winter camping, rock climbing, canoeing, high ropes course challenges, winter programming, cross-country skiing, and snow-shoeing. Additionally, the program also facilitates mindfulness and reflective activities, therapeutic art activities, service projects, and team-building activities and challenges. The experiential learning model develops skills in team-building, peer relations, self-reliance, taking responsibility and conflict resolution. Stronger self-concepts emerge as a result. To support the youth during the expeditions and afterwards, the Wilderness School also works with families to enhance relationships within the family and the communities they live in.
The East Hartland base camp stands surrounded by dense woods in the Tunxis State Forest and serves as the launch point from which the youth are transported to the Appalachian Trail for the longer expeditions or, for the shorter seven, five and one-day experiences, to the Tunxis Trail or along the Connecticut River.
Dr. Michael Schultz, who is the Department’s director of Organizational Climate and Staff Support, said the Wilderness School is increasingly focused on the connection between the youth, their families and their communities. “Families are the heartbeat of our students’ experience and the key to an effective and respectful transfer-of-learning to the home, school and community,” he said. “The Wilderness School is committed to engaging families and relevant social networks in each phase of the assessment, enrollment, programming, and aftercare activities.”
The Wilderness School is also increasingly used to support the Department’s staff in general and other professionals in the larger child welfare system. “During the past four years, the Wilderness School has enhanced its programing to promote coping and resilience among child welfare workers and their professional colleagues representing the courts, educational systems, healthcare providers, law enforcement and other state agencies, among others,” Dr. Schultz said. “The Wilderness School has developed innovative practices and transformative learning opportunities to reduce the effects of secondary traumatic stress and burnout among interdisciplinary professionals by utilizing adventure-based programming to build team cohesion, personal growth and enduring support.”
The Wilderness School helps participants discover a broader understanding of their own strengths and develops skills needed to improve relationships with their family and community social systems. Many of the youth have little or no previous experience with such an outdoor challenge in the wild or elsewhere. The activities – like rock climbing – are hard and test the resolve of kids who bring into the experience their own personal challenges born of a variety of previous traumas.
Ariana, who graduated from the 20-day expedition on August 13: “I found who I was on this trip. I want to thank everyone for accepting me for who I am.”
Wiebe said the ordeal develops a variety of skills and coping mechanisms. Some of the skills are very concrete: how to pack a bag, how to make a meal, and how to set up camp. But others are of a higher order: how to ask for help, deal with difficult social interactions, handle hard feelings and regulate emotional forces that can lead to damaging behaviors. Wiebe said the challenging nature of the tasks and the weariness that results over days of rigorous activity can lead to self-doubt and wanting to quit. But as the expeditions work to their conclusion – on day 19 or 20 of the long expeditions – “you see a sense of resolve to the self-doubt and the liberation that comes with it.” Wiebe said. “They go from wanting to quit to finding the determination and strength to get to the destination.”
Zeda, who graduated from the 20-day expedition on August 13: “We had hard times, but we always figured it out. When it got difficult, we all helped each other.”
School staff serve as coach, mentor, and counselor. They offer youth the way to see that with support and teamwork, challenges become accomplishments.
“We help students rebuild, revise, and enhance the understandings and perceptions they have for themselves,” Wiebe said. “We are supporting students as they change the narrative from ‘I can’t’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ to ‘I can accomplish far more than I ever believed.’”
This is a special accomplishment because the youth come to the experience suffering the negative effects of trauma and loss. “Often, students come to the Wilderness School with, in part, a damaged, underdeveloped, or potentially hopeless sense of self,” Wiebe explained. “Our students are often in crisis with these feelings and are recovering from these challenges. We are working to help our students find the best parts of themselves and to help them develop skills around issues that may be challenging for them. The effort and accomplishments students achieve on the expeditions provide tangible and hope-inspiring narratives that can help shift each student’s perception of who they are and what may be possible in their lives.”
Bell, who graduated from the 20-day expedition August 13, spoke to his peers: “You guys helped me when I was not ready to talk. You told me I could do it. I love you guys.”
This experience of overcoming internal doubts and challenges while tackling new external challenges is particularly therapeutic because this is not just an individual experience and accomplishment. It is a social one where the youth gains support from others and gives support to others.
“The structure of our approach emphasizes teamwork on all levels -- from the crew to our staff and into the students’ families and support systems,” Wiebe said. “Students are affirmed and validated through the success of the tangible experience together with their peers, their instructors, and the Wilderness School community. Hope is also fostered within the families and support systems as each plays a role in helping students realize achievements through course-related challenges. Family and support-system engagement is ongoing throughout the follow-up year, future expeditions and through unique family interventions.”
The experience also shows the youth that they can thrive through connections with others, Wiebe said.
“It validates the strengths they’ve called upon themselves through the supportive relationship to staff and peers,” he said. “The success belongs to the peer group because they have all been in it together. That creates belonging and it reinforces a sense of hope and potential. The peer group creates validation that they do matter and that they can make a difference for others.”
CC, who completed the 5-day expedition and also graduated from the 20-day expedition August 13: “When we were all having a hard time, we were really supportive of each other. (My peers) are amazing.”
As important as these relationships are, the youths themselves learn they are strong and determined.
“When a student wants to quit because she feels exhausted and overwhelmed, she learns to trust herself in difficult circumstances because it is her choice to make the next step,” Wiebe said. “That can transform how a person relates to everything else in her life.”
CC: “It taught me perseverance and determination. It pushes you to get better. The challenges are mental and emotional as well as physical. But when we had conflicts, we got through them with a lot of communication and support.”
The Wilderness School takes its place in a larger context of “Adventure Based Group Work” or “Adventure Therapy” that has roots going back about 50 years. Academic researchers in a 2012 book entitled Adventure therapy: Theory, Practice, & Research, define adventure therapy as “the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, often conducted in natural settings that kinesthetically engage clients on cognitive, affective and behavioral levels.” Adventure Therapy gained its foothold with the use of Outward Bound and the inception of several therapeutic programs using wilderness and adventure in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Nationally, it became more widely accepted that the wilderness environment was healing for delinquent youth and those receiving outpatient and inpatient mental health care and that cognitive and behavioral changes could result (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994). Adventure Therapy has been shown to reduce symptoms of distress related to interpersonal issues and mental health challenges as well as improving overall functioning of adolescent clients (Norton, Tucker, Russell, Bettman, Gass, Gillis & Behrens, 2014).
In Connecticut, the Wilderness School was the brainchild of a one-term State Senator named Bill Moore who viewed the program as an alternative mental health treatment for youth. It originally was housed at a Boy Scout camp in Goshen near Dog Pond. Then in 1990, the School moved to the current East Hartland location that stands surrounded by dense woods in the Tunxis State Forest. From this “base camp,” the youth are then transported to the Appalachian Trail for the longer expeditions or, for the shorter seven, five and one-day experiences, to the Tunxis Trail or along the Connecticut River.
DCF is working with academic researchers at the Texas State University and the University of New Hampshire to study the effects of programming on student and family functioning, along with the efficacy of adult courses. “The research team includes renowned leaders in adventure-based group-work and family therapy,” said Dr. Schultz. “They are utilizing quantitative and qualitative methods to capture the dynamic aspects of the Wilderness School’s work over the past 46 years.”