Have a question regarding DCF and the coronavirus? Email us at: DCF.COVID-19@ct.gov

Welcome to the Wilderness School

Wilderness School Logo
240 North Hollow Road

East Hartland, CT 06027
Phone:  860-653-8059
E-mail:  Wildernessjourney@ct.gov



 About the Wilderness School
 About the Staff
 Enrollment Forms
 Policies (Enrollment, Behavioral and Tuition)
 2022 Summer Program Calendar


 What's New in 2022

The Wilderness School has two new offerings for 2022.  Click the links to learn more.

3-Day LGBTQIA+ Expedition
Wilderness School Conservation Service Work Program



Staff Overview

Director:  Aaron Wiebe (Aaron.Wiebe@ct.gov)

Field Program Supervisors:

Expeditions: Scott Basile (Scott.Basile@ct.gov)
Enrollment: Bonnie Sterpka (Bonnie.Sterpka@ct.gov)
Outreach: Kimberly Thorne-Kaunelis (Kim.Thorne-Kaunelis@ct.gov)


Learn more about staff expertise and qualifications here.



About the Wilderness School

  • The Wilderness School is a prevention, intervention, and transition program for adolescents from Connecticut.
  • The Wilderness School offers high impact wilderness programs year round ranging in length from 1-day programs to 20-Day Expeditions!
  • Activities include hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, high ropes course experiences, winter programming, and service learning.
  • Wilderness School programs emphasize team-building, peer relations, self-reliance, responsibility, improved self-concept, and conflict resolution.
  • Other programs include agency engagement, staff development and wellness, and work with families to enhance relationships within the family and their community social system.


The Wilderness School Overview

Boat on a river imageThe Wilderness School (WS) is a program of the State of Connecticut, Department of Children and Families (DCF) and was created in 1974 as an alternative for troubled youth and in response to needs expressed by Connecticut human service agencies.  The Wilderness School is licensed by the State’s Office of Early Childhood as a Youth Camp.

The Wilderness School program model has been designed specifically around serving “at-risk” adolescents and their families who are struggling in their homes and communities and/or who may face above average challenges in their lives.  These challenges may include history of trauma, family systems breakdown, mental health issues, school failure, legal issues, learning disabilities and social and emotional deficits.  Wilderness School has aimed to help participants discover a broader knowledge of their own strengths and to enhance their capabilities in relation to their adolescent development.  At its core, the Wilderness School is a Positive Youth Development support and intervention program.



Wilderness School programming is unique in nature and function.  Courses are group-oriented, strengths-based, and reflective.  Ultimately, each expedition, short course, and component is “Challenge by Choice.”  This type of intervention involves the physical engagement of participants and the intentional use of cooperative games, problem solving initiatives, challenges, and adventure activities, often in an outdoor setting.  Adventure-based group work has been used to promote social skills, enhance self-concept and competence in major life skills, and fosters group cohesion. Wilderness Schools' programming is provided on a continuum of challenges and difficulty to serve participants who demonstrate various levels of struggle and capacity.  Wilderness School offers an array of services to meet various participant needs that considers duration of programming (from 1 to 20 days), proximity to roads and amenities vs. wilderness, intensity of activities, and facilitator to participant ratios.  

Activities may involve rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, ropes course/challenge course, wilderness camping, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, and winter-camping.  Additionally, the program may facilitate mindfulness and reflective activities, therapeutic art activities, service projects, and teambuilding activities and challenges.

Wilderness School has evolved through balancing the consistency of a rich history with the flexibility to expand its practices and approaches.    As an “embedded” program within the Department of Children and Families, The Wilderness School is uniquely positioned to partner with families and systems of care.  This has been a significant quality of Wilderness School’s function and process especially when engaging students working through a crisis.  The program’s most significant interventions involve making contact with the student's support network of referring agents and family members to help reinforce the compassionate and respectful efforts of the program.  Working in front of and beyond the crisis, the program's ability to engage each student’s family and support system on broader terms is a featured strength.

Wilderness School uses Adventure Based Group Work or Adventure Therapy to achieve desired outcomes.



Studies have documented the Wilderness School's positive impact upon the self-esteem, increased locus of control (personal responsibility), and interpersonal skill enhancement of adolescents attending the program.  Traditionally, the Wilderness School has also sought to emphasize the development of values such as cooperation, compassion, and responsibility among our student population.

The positive results of the Wilderness School experience have been documented by nine formal evaluations.  The original evaluation by Solomon Cytrynbaum of the Yale University Medical School shared that “graduates of the Wilderness School are less likely to be in trouble with the law, are less involved with drugs and alcohol and less systems dependent relative to where they were before the experiment and when compared to a comparable group of youngsters who did not have a wilderness experience.”

Subsequent evaluations have shown improvements in students’ self-confidence, self-concept, interpersonal problem-solving techniques, social functioning, as well as decreased drug and alcohol abuse, legal difficulties and systems dependency.  

In addition, WS is currently partnered with the Outdoor Behavioral Health Council, a leader in the field of research, to further establish an evidence-based practice.  



A Director, along with 3 full-time and year-round interdisciplinary staff with education and training in outdoor experiential education, clinical social work, and counseling, serve as administrators and supervisors.  Seasonally, the Wilderness School hires up to 28 crew leaders.  

All Wilderness School Staff are responsible for the physical and emotional safety of course participants.  This obligation requires staff to restrict all activities within safe limits and to take adequate precautions to prevent accidents, injuries, and emotional harm.  Staff are also obligated to prepare participants through technical training and interpersonal support to meet the demands of the course.  This statement is intended to create a policy of safety consciousness among all staff and course participants, as activities involving risk require prudence and care in their undertaking.

The entire staff team is actively involved with and/or certified in all technical activities, risk management and fostering healthy social environments that promote growth and learning.  Staff receive on-going comprehensive education and training.  

Training and supervision are designed to enable staff to perform effectively, conscientiously, and reasonably in fulfilling their responsibilities with special emphasis on reasoned judgment and team collaboration.


Welcome to the Wilderness School ImageFacility and Course Area

The Wilderness School facility was constructed in the late 1980ies by agreement on State land under the management of The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).  The facility was opened in 1990 and after 32 years the facility is well maintained.  The program course area follows the Appalachian Trail corridor of the Taconic and Berkshire mountain ranges of Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Additional programming takes place on the main campus and in many of the Connecticut’s State and regional parks that offer areas for hiking, canoeing, rock-climbing, and team-building activities.


About the Staff

Director:  Aaron Wiebe (Aaron.Wiebe@ct.gov)

Field Program Supervisors:

Expeditions: Scott Basile (Scott.Basile@ct.gov)
Enrollment: Bonnie Sterpka (Bonnie.Sterpka@ct.gov)
Outreach: Kimberly Thorne-Kaunelis (Kim.Thorne-Kaunelis@ct.gov)


Staff and Student ImageThe Wilderness School staff is committed to the belief that all students have the inherent ability to succeed and that the group process is a key element in a youth's growth and change.  The staff is rooted in adolescent development and proficient in group work.  Rapport building and behavior intervention skills are integral to our staff teams. 


Staff are trained outdoor professionals with experience in many alternative programs for youth, including Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School. 


The Wilderness School hires seasonal staff members who frequently work throughout the year as professional outdoor leaders, while others are youth workers, teachers, or college students studying social work or experiential education.  Our staff have extensive training and personal experience in wilderness skills, including white water paddling, rock climbing, caving, winter programming, ropes course management, and wilderness expedition travel. They are often recognized for their technical skills, outdoor safety judgment, athletic ability, enthusiasm, and concern for youth. 


Staff members are certified with a minimum of Wilderness First Aid and professional C.P.R., with staff at Instructor level and above certified as Wilderness First Responder, Wilderness EMT or Wilderness Advanced First Aid. 



Questions Concerning Expeditions?  Please contact:

Wilderness School Enrollment Office
Bonnie Sterpka (until June 1): bonnie.sterpka@ct.gov
Aaron Wiebe (after June 1): aaron.wiebe@ct.gov


Enrollment Forms


Application Materials for Parent/Guardian to complete:

Medical Forms:

  • SDE-HAR3 (State of CT-Department of Education, Health Assessment Record.  NOTE:  This form is not "fillable" form.)
  • DCF-2303 (Non-Prescription Medication Authorization - OTC) – to be completed by Pediatrician for any non-prescription medication (ibuprofen, Tylenol, vitamins, other) that the applicant may need during the expedition.
  • DCF-2304 (Prescription Medication Authorization - PEDIATRIC)– to be completed by Pediatrician for any prescribed medication that the youth will need.
  • DCF-2305 (Prescription Medication Authorization - PSYCHIATRIC) – to be completed by Psychiatrist/prescriber for any Psychotropic medication that the youth will need.

Application Materials for Referring Agent to complete:  

  • DCF-2301 (Referring Agency Background Information Form)
  • DCF-2302 (Student Contract – to be completed by Referring Agent, youth and parent)

Other Helpful Information:

Questions concerning forms?  Please contact:

Wilderness School Enrollment Office
Bonnie Sterpka (until June 1): bonnie.sterpka@ct.gov
Aaron Wiebe (after June 1): aaron.wiebe@ct.gov