Making a Dent in The Universe
Fueled by a strong entrepreneurial spirit, Cheryl Kehl and Caroline Wolf called me, Devan Glissmeyer and Vaughn Heath to a meeting in the small town where we worked for another Wilderness program. The early discussions centered around starting a therapeutic school. When one sits in the dirt for a living, it is easy to become enticed with the idea of climate control and an office of brick and mortar. Property searches ensued and zoning laws combined with the large capital investment needed for the venture presented great challenges. While searching for a property, we got a call from a forest ranger that had heard that “some Wilderness Therapists were interested in starting a program.” While we were looking to open up a residential program and had not discussed Wilderness Tapy at that point, we still decided to meet with the Joe Bistryski, the Ashley National Forest Ranger in Duchesne. Joe loved the idea of exposing children to the outdoors and he also had a plan to expedite the licensing process. Our students would start out on a “Service Permit.” Joe had several trails that needed work and even an old ranger’s office had fallen into disrepair and Joe thought the students could fix it up.
After our meeting with Joe, we regrouped as a team and discussed the idea of starting a Wilderness Therapy Program. We knew Wilderness Therapy and we were known for being effective in that context and milieu. Few interventions have the power to affect change in children and their families as Wilderness Therapy. But most of all, as we considered changing our course, we had the audacity to think we could do it better! We wanted to change the Wilderness Therapy industry. We would challenge the status quo and the common assumptions with our aim to be the most effective Therapeutic Wilderness Program in the country. We saw how effective and dynamic Wilderness Therapy was, from our experience at a previous employer, but we also encountered some resistance as we suggested changes. The “old guard” was reluctant to fully embrace contributions that well trained and educated therapists had to offer. We wanted to embrace Wilderness as a powerful delivery method and expand, innovate, and evolve the model.
In order to create a source for funds, we considered partnering with an existing program to become their partner in growing a branch of their program, but those meetings were unsatisfying. We wanted to change things, to innovate, to, as Steve Jobs put it, “make a dent in the universe.” We were not afraid of challenging assumptions. We wanted to make the clinician the treatment team leader and that was not the way things were at the time. We wanted to include families in the process. Previous to Second Nature, parents received little attention, very little education, and almost no treatment help from the Wilderness programs. The inclusion of families could offer parents support and would be a key factor in maintaining gains after the program's completion. While some programs cater to the fears and anxieties of parents by compromising essential treatment factors, we would teach and inspire parents and create a sense of empowerment.
We wanted treatment to be the priority. We wanted therapy tailored and intentional to match what research and theory indicated for each child’s diagnoses, rather than the cookie-cutter like programming that was common in those days. Anything that was clinically indicated was the priority. And while we valued the experience of a Wilderness Adventure, we saw it as the vehicle of dispensing the most clinically sophisticated and individualized services in the industry.
And we wanted our employees, at every level, to see their job as a career. We would increase benefits and salaries. We would treat our employees like family. We were not going to be a large distant corporation, but rather we would be owners involved in each aspect of the daily treatment. With this emphasis on internal, as well as external customer service, we could create a program with the highest trained staff in the industry.
Cheryl was the first to leave our employer and Devan, Vaughn and Caroline were quickly behind her. I came to Second Nature in January of 1999, seven months after my partners opened the door. Sometime near the beginning of the program, I was giving a field staff a ride home. He had extensive experience at another Wilderness program and I was eager to hear stories and philosophy about this other program and their contributions to the Wilderness Therapy model. When I asked him, “How does Wilderness work?”
He responded, “it is magical, powerful and hard to describe the magical and the influence that being in nature can have on these children.”
While I appreciated his enthusiasm and respected the fact that some things are hard to define, I thought we owed more to our families and our students. We owed them an explanation. We owed them an explanation of “what was happening and why.” We owed them that because a therapeutic placement is only great if it is transferable and generalizable. Not being able to explain the mechanisms or the theory was not good enough. Families, home therapists, and schools deserve to understand what happens and why in order to maintain gains realized in Wilderness therapy. We were committed to finding out what creates change and were willing to do whatever it took to create and maintain gains. That was the spirit then and continues to be our commitment today.
Many innovations pioneered by Second Nature, some of which are commonplace in Wilderness:
- Small, owner-operated models
- A passionate commitment to excellent communication to our families and with collaborating professionals such as educational consultants and home therapists
- An experienced and empirically tested treatment approach, including longitudinal outcome studies to measure both gains and recidivism
- Bringing in formal and informal assessment in order to recommend and prepare children for the next step
- Open enrollment groups, including flexible enrollment days
- Family involvement in the field, including visits, on-line letter and group journal posting, and family-therapy phone calls from the field
- Extensive parent education and support nationally and regionally
- Twice weekly live Webinars and library of Webinars for parent education
- Variable length of stay
- Generous compensation packages for employees at every level
- Beyond having sophisticated and educated therapists, front line staff educated and conversant in traditional therapeutic models
- Serving specialized niches in groups such as addictions, trauma, learning differences, spectrum disorders, etc.
- Hosting training symposiums for professionals on clinical issues and models
A few years ago at a Wilderness Therapy Symposium, a researcher approached me and said, “I have been writing about the history of Wilderness Therapy and I had identified 6 major movements in the industry. And then I realized as I talked with people and heard about Second Nature and how they changed the model, I needed to add a seventh movement: Second Nature and the Advent of the Wilderness Therapist.
What I am proud of most is not what we have done or the ways we have changed the way that people use Wilderness Therapy and run a Wilderness program and its employees. What I am most proud of is our willingness to continue to be pioneers. I tell our people all the time, when other programs copy our model, “What makes us great is not what we did yesterday or the day before, but what we will do tomorrow.” And that is the greatness of Second Nature. It is our dream to continue to figure out the most powerful and effective ways to change the world, one child, and one family at a time.