Wilderness Therapy is a fairly new concept that not too many people know about.
But, that’s all about to change, thanks to Leah Dworkin.
Leah is a field guide for one of the most popular wilderness therapy organizations, Open Sky Wilderness. I sat down with Leah and she let us in on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this wonderful organization.
Can you tell us a little bit about Wilderness Therapy and how you got into it?
“I had never heard of Wilderness Therapy until last spring when my partner at the time started working for Open Sky. She told me it was an amazing program and that I should look into. I signed up and completed the training, where for part of it I essentially went through a week in the woods as a student, following the basic rules and structures they do and learning therapeutic tools along the way. The experience kicked my ass. I was so grateful and relieved when they offered me a position, I cried multiple times on my drive back to Denver.
Wilderness Therapy is similar to other types of therapy. Instead of being in a building or facility, however, you are outdoors. Students meet with a therapist every week and receive weekly IGP (Individual Goal Plan) assignments that are a part of their overall treatment plan. We focus on mindfulness and assertive communication, among other therapeutic and wilderness skills.”
Why do you think Wilderness Therapy is still not as utilized as other forms of therapy?
“Open Sky has only been around for 10 years, Wilderness Therapy maybe 20. The concept is fairly new and was not taken seriously for many years. The idea of having mindfulness as a central focus and practicing yoga and meditation as a part of a treatment plan has only recently been backed by research. Personally, I imagine it’s also quite scary to think about sending a child to live in the wilderness for three months. People are used to buildings; perhaps there’s a greater sense of reassurance as a parent knowing your child is under a roof and surrounded by walls.”
3. What are the benefits of Wilderness Therapy? What makes it unique?
“In the wilderness, there are no distractions, no cell phones, no social media. It has a very powerful way of forcing us to confront parts of ourselves we often avoid. Speaking from my experience as a guide, I’ve witnessed how nature has also proven to be a very effective way of bringing people together and creating a community that so far, I have seen unparalleled outside of this work.
I often tell my students that the bonds they make while they are in the program will most likely never be matched again besides for their life partner. There is an impressive connection created in the wilderness; a sort of tribe mentality that pulls people together in a most impressive and meaningful ways.”
4. Tell us about your job as a field guide. What it entail? What are the challenges?
“As a guide, my job includes keeping students safe and making sure they are completing their weekly IGP assignments, as well as running therapeutic groups, ceremonies, and yoga/meditation sessions. As the senior guide for my group, I also create the itinerary for the week and delegate tasks to other guides. These tasks include who will be in charge of administering medicine for the week or who will be in charge of communicating with our field manager twice a day. I create plans for our daily schedule and weekly routine. In addition to our field guides, our treatment team for the group also consists of a clinical therapist and medical personnel.
One the hardest aspects of my job is self-doubt. As a guide, specifically a senior guide, there are many things I’m in charge of. I have to learn to roll with the punches. Sometimes, there’s no water at the reservoir we hike to. Other times, a student is sick and we can’t leave the camp site. There’s a lot to manage and it’s very easy to allow my self-critic to take over in moments of uncertainty. There’s also a ton of responsibility. Guides need to know where all students are at all times and what they’re doing. Taking care of 10 teenage girls in the woods can be quite challenging.”
What are the general experiences of the girls in your group? Is this something anyone can do, or is it meant for people with more serious emotional struggles?
“A typical stay in the program is generally eight-twelve weeks. At the moment, there are two adolescent girl groups, three adolescent boy groups (both ages 13-17), and three young adult groups (18+) which consist of both male and female students. I’ve worked with students who come for various reasons, ranging from emotional and psychological issues, substance abuse, and parent/child relationship problems.”
Where do your groups go? What kind of activities do you do?
“During our summer months, groups venture to campsites in Southern Colorado. The rest of the year we are based in sites throughout the desert of Utah. Typically, groups are at “base camp” about three days a week and on “expo” for 5 days, which is when we leave base camp to backpack to different camp sites. A typical day includes yoga and meditation practice, backpacking, camp chores and clean-up, busting fire using bow drill sets, camp set-up, cooking and cleaning, therapy groups, and “free time” to work on therapy assignments and letters home.
All of the structure and activities of the program have therapeutic intention behind them. For example, we hold tight boundaries. If a student does not have his or her cup clean by the time dinner is over, they will receive a consequence. This may require the student to fill his or her cup up with dirt and have it cleaned in under two minutes. Similarly, a group consequence for not meeting a time goal may be silence until the chore is completed. One of the many purposes for having consequences (natural, contrived, or logical) in the program is to teach students the valuable lesson of personal responsibility and how their actions affect those around them, as well as themselves. For many students, boundaries and consequences are things that were never experienced or held in their lives.
It’s really amazing to see students holding each other accountable and leading the group by the end of their stay. Yoga and meditation help to promote mindfulness, in addition to many other physical and emotional benefits. There is a lot to learn from fire busting. Hard work, patience, and dedication are all requirements to be a good fire buster. You need to take the time to harvest materials and keep your set prepped. It takes time to become good at the skill; often times students become very frustrated at the process and this, like many other activities in our program, brings up a lot of old patterns and behaviors. In order for a student to work through their problems, they need to experience tough emotions.”
Have you had any experiences that specifically stuck out to you?
“Each shift brings new experiences that are often rewarding, difficult, and new. A day that sticks out in more recent memory is when my co-guide got a bit lost leading a hike to our next campsite. We ended up doing an epic 4-4.5 mile trek up and down some decent inclines and through a muddy aspen forest. We eventually made it to our campsite, arriving into this beautiful meadow full of wildflowers by moonlight. The girls were excited and proud for completing such a long, treacherous hike and we got to bed shortly after.
It took them two days to realize we had gone in a giant loop, ending back at the same reservoir we had left two days before. We used it as an opportunity to talk about the dangers of assumptions and how we often set ourselves up for failure or disappointment through the expectations and stories we develop in our minds. One of the unique and positive benefits of wilderness therapy is that anything that happens, natural or otherwise, can be used as an opportunity for a therapeutic intervention or life lesson. It’s amazing how a simple thunderstorm at just the right time can cause a huge breakthrough or breakdown; sometimes both!”
What do your participants have to say about the program? Do they do it one time, or is it something they do continuously?
“If you were to ask a student on their first week what they thought about the program and then asked them on their last week the same question, you’d think you were talking to two different people. Often, students say, ‘I don’t want to leave,’ once they find out they’re graduating. The program offers students a safe place to be themselves; there’s an understanding that once you leave Open Sky, emotional and physical safety to the level that we uphold in the field will most likely never be met again. As aforementioned, the students form a tight bond within the group. When a student graduates, it is both an exciting and sad moment. There is a phenomenon called the ’90 Days of Darkness’ that begins after wilderness when the risk of relapse is the highest. Without proper support, from parents and in most cases, an after-care program, students struggle to continue living healthy lifestyles, at least at first.”
Talk about OpenSky. Why makes it stand out from other companies who do Wilderness Therapy? What are the costs? Do patients need a referral?
“Open Sky has worked to create a model for Wilderness Therapy companies all over the country. What I appreciate the most is how much I learn and grow from this work and the community of like-minded individuals with whom I work and live with. According to our website, the rate is about $565/day. There are also scholarship and reimbursement options for families that qualify. There is an application process, in which the company responds within 24 hours after an evaluation from clinical and medical teams.”
If someone is interested in signing up a loved one, what should they know?
“Students who arrive at our program are given a ‘pathway’ which serves as a guide to their experience. There are different phases or directions students go through in their pathways, which are based on the medicine wheel-South, West, North, and East. Each direction corresponds to an element (fire, water, earth, and air) and includes assignments and tasks (a mixture of hard and soft skills). Students will need to complete the tasks and get signed off by a guide in order to transition to the next direction. Which direction a student is in speaks to their progress in the program and to the work they’ve accomplished.
I love and believe in the work we do at Open Sky. If anyone is interested in learning more about the company or becoming a field guide, please feel free to contact me directly or visit openskywilderness.com.“
Leah Dworkin is originally from Philadelphia but now lives in Durango, CO. She graduated from Lehigh University in 2013, with an M.Ed. Before working for Open Sky, she taught Social Studies and coached softball. She enjoys doing adventurous outdoor activities including, but not limited to, rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking. She also loves traveling and plans to WWOOF in New Zealand this coming winter.
If you would like to get in touch with Leah directly, you can email her at Lrd212@gmail.com.