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Innovative Base Camp Model Distinguishes SUWS of the Carolinas Wilderness Program for Teens

By Jess Clarke

The base camp-expedition model at SUWS of the Carolinas, a therapeutic wilderness program for teens outside Old Fort, N.C., gives teens an opportunity for orientation and extra support and has served as a model for other wilderness therapy programs across the country.

Although still not widespread at wilderness programs, the model enables SUWS staff to assess adolescents during their transition from wilderness to base camp to judge each teen’s progress.

When students start the SUWS outdoor therapy program, they spend two or three days at base camp, where they talk with a therapist, have a physical exam, and learn such basic camping skills as how to make a fire and pack a backpack. During summer, students spend two or three weeks in the wilderness then return to base camp for about four days. In winter, they return to base camp every week or two.   

“It’s a transition out of the comfort and routine of being in the woods. At base camp, routines adjust a little bit and become somewhat more similar to a real-world environment where teens are going to have to tidy up their cabins, make their beds, and clean the bathroom. That sort of transition puts stress on an adolescent because it’s a change in routine. It allows us to see how the students are doing, see how they internalize the personal growth they’ve been doing in the woods,” SUWS executive director Shawn Farrell says. “It gives us information and allows us to adjust our approach to work more effectively with the students.”
At base camp, students and staff sleep in cabins but spend the rest of their time outdoors. They prepare meals over a camp stove and eat under a tarp when it rains. A ropes course gives students an opportunity to work on group dynamics and communication. The course “puts students in perceptually uncomfortable positions and forces them to work together to achieve success,” Farrell says.

Other activities while at base camp can include such community service projects in Pisgah National Forest as picking up trash and minor trail maintenance. Students also do laundry and continue to meet with their therapist. 
Teens can appreciate a heated building at base camp instead of being out in the elements. “It gives them a little security,” Farrell says. “They get a hot shower, and they enjoy that aspect.”

To parents, base camp offers additional safety benefits. “There’s a sense of security that we can pull our students out of the woods and put them somewhere more comfortable in extreme weather,” he says.
At base camp, staff can provide extra care for students who are disruptive or who are being watched for potential self-harm. “It allows them a safety valve. We can pull them out and put them at base to kind of keep the general cohesion of the rest of the group going,” Farrell says.

An independent study, meanwhile, has affirmed the effectiveness of the SUWS of the Carolinas wilderness therapy model. Aspen Education Group, which operates a number of therapeutic education programs including SUWS, commissioned the study, conducted by non-affiliated research groups.

The adolescent outdoor outcomes study looked at SUWS and two other wilderness therapy programs, SUWS of Idaho and Adirondack Leadership Expeditions. “It’s continuing to add validity through scientific research that wilderness programming is a strong benefit in the treatment milieu,” Farrell says. “We all know it works, but we have to be able to prove it works.”

The study tracked 200 students, mostly from SUWS of the Carolinas. Researchers talked with staff and gave questionnaires to students, who were evaluated while they were in the program, at graduation, and at points afterward. The study laid the groundwork for future research to analyze specific components of the program, Farrell says.

SUWS of the Carolinas has become even stronger with the recent move by another Aspen Education Group program to its base camp. Phoenix Outdoor, which had been located near SUWS, is a substance abuse wilderness program for teens.

“Adding the Phoenix group allows us to offer a more thorough continuum of care for students from 10 years old to 18. It allows us to more accurately tailor and define treatment-appropriate programming for the students,” Farrell says.

Phoenix Outdoor operates separately from SUWS with its own therapists, programming and substance abuse-focused classes, and meetings. But support staff and some field staff members are shared by the two programs, providing a broader spectrum of expertise.   

Both outdoor therapy programs have a strong family component, complete with parent education workshops and classes, support phone calls, and Internet-based support, but by uniting forces, “we get to blend the two to continue to be on the cutting edge of family-based programming,” Farrell says.

Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville, N.C.

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