Imagine feeling lost—all the time. For some teens, perhaps they don’t fit in with their family and they’ve separated from friends and siblings. There may be no vision or roadmap for the future. The pressure and loss are likely compounded by the reality of a traumatic experience. For many teens, this is daily life—with no imaginable way out.
Enter the concept of Wilderness Therapy.
New Vision Wilderness (NVW), wilderness therapy organization with locations in Bend, Medford, Wisconsin and Asheville, North Carolina, provides a clinical therapeutic environment for pre-teens through young adults as they make a journey from lost to found. Whether it's a kid who has traveled the world or has the classroom intelligence of a valedictorian, “Wilderness is the great equalizer," says Drew Hornbeck, CEO, president and co-founder of NVW. "Introduce them to a new and challenging environment such as the wilderness, strip away social constructs and you have a strong foundation for building relationships. Strong relationships provide for effective therapy,” he says.
Therapy within the NVW model is not the version some expect from an outdoor therapy experience.
Clinical Director and co-founder Steve Sawyer points out, “There is a lot of misinterpretation about wilderness therapy as ‘boot camp,’” he says. “We specialize in kids who are dealing with trauma and insecurity. We believe in relational healing. (It’s) more about connection, less about hiking.”
At a visit to a group in progress, the differences between assumption and reality are clear. The NVW program includes Canine Therapy as part of every group’s experience. Strategic canine interactions teach students about the process of working on healthy relationships and, “So much can be learned from the student-canine relationship,” explains Executive Director Andrew Scott. At a remote program campsite in the Central Oregon high desert, Nova, a sweet and energetic Golden Retriever, is the group canine. He serves in the role of Safe Attachment Companion. A student is responsible for Nova each day. On this particular day, a student will try to stay attuned and gently correct Nova’s behavior. “It is a job rotation. I’ll be in charge of Nova for two days,” she says.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga is also part of the regular program plan, alongside consistent one-on-one counseling, sessions with the whole group, and personal time set aside for working on a chosen Mastery project. Mastery is part of the core curriculum within the NVW Academy. It is inquiry-based, progressive in nature, student-directed, and is a source of pride and accomplishment for the students. Within days of arrival, each student selects a mastery focus, from astronomy to sign language, story writing, or another area of passion. With the support of staff, the student will reach a level of skill that allows them to then teach the others which provides a legacy of their efforts.
The way camp is set up is also notable. Since most students have experienced trauma, they are set up as part of a community, not to “fend for themselves.” Student tents are set up in a circle facing the middle, with an adult field guide tent at the center in a calming and supportive arrangement. There is a communal area set off by a sloped tarp that provides shade and a sense of closeness.
Reflecting on the experience, a student finishing her first week of a nine-to-twelve-week stay, initially felt as if she didn’t belong. Now she says, “It’s about finding yourself. Disconnecting from the world. Everything we do here helps us. There is always something to learn.”
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, OBHCouncil.com
1. Tents in a circle form a supportive community for students.
2. Shared experiences of outdoor therapy help build strong relationships.
3. Students earn beads in the program for completing different challenges or to signify important events in their learning process.
4. Canine Therapy is part of every group experience.