The Next Step

The Next Step

The next step was figuring out what aftercare program was the best fit for our sixteen year old. He was on board, but we would have to visit a couple places first to check them out. We had a meeting with our Education Consultant and went over lots of ideas and requirements.

I tried to get a feel for what was out there and did some Google searching myself to see how these therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers worked. They all had therapy components and schooling, too. We needed success after all the years of mis-steps for my son. Learning issues aside, he was a bright kid, only he really didn’t know it.

We narrowed our choices down to two and scheduled a quick trip to visit both schools on the same day. We had interviews by phone to see if they had room and if they thought our son was a good fit for them. We looked at their websites and arranged the last minute travel plans. Our son was going to need a good week to ten days to process where he was headed according to his wilderness therapist.

We flew out late one afternoon and stayed at an inexpensive airport hotel. At least it had a decent free egg breakfast in the morning. We drove our rental car about an hour and arrived ready for our tour. It was a small town in Utah and had a nice feel when we arrived. The people wet met were very friendly and nice. They offered us water because it was rather warm, even for 8:30am. We told them we had arranged another tour at 1pm, about twenty minutes away, with another school, so everything was out on the table as far as our plans.

We chatted, asked questions, took notes and answered questions. This was new to us so we had to learn a lot about this decision process. We took a walking tour and met more of the staff. Then we talked with some of the students and asked them some questions. The boys were forthcoming and said they were enjoying their  experiences so far. We asked who had been to wilderness and they all had. One boy went twice. We did not ask what there issues were, but they genuinely seemed to be happy and open with us. Our tour came to an end and we said our goodbyes.

We had time to pick up an apple and some chips and hit the road for the second school. This one was very well manicured and groomed on the outside. We met some folks but something was amiss from the moment we arrived. They had a sign welcoming two folks, but it wasn’t our names on the board. Okay, that’s fine, but where  were those people? We then realized they sent their “B” team to meet and greet us. We didn’t even meet the person who interviewed us on the phone just days before. It was rather odd and disappointing.

We did get to meet more boys. We did more talking and asked and answered more questions. We were getting the hang of this process now. Our time was up and we had to head back to the airport to catch our flight home. We got into our rental car and on the count of three we both agreed to say the program out loud that was our choice. “One, two, three……” Come back tomorrow to see which one we chose.

Feeling pretty certain,


Aftercare…Boarding School?

After Care...Boarding School?

One of our “heavy” discussions at the family therapy session at the retreat was about what happens after wilderness. Our son lobbied hard to go back to his public high school in the SF Bay Area. We knew that would NOT work. There would be too many triggers and he was not strong enough to combat those negative temptations.

He said that he felt it was still a good fit for him. We reminded him that he didn’t even attend the school he liked, so why would that work this time around? Our sixteen year old was very emotional, yet was able to share some of his “raw” feelings with us. There was progress being made. This was a kid who never cried openly, until now.

Many or even most of the kids in wilderness programs go to an aftercare program of some kind. It might be a therapeutic boarding school or a residential treatment center. There were many such places in the West to choose from. Lucky for us, we had an excellent Education Consultant on board to help us select the best place for our son. This was a whole new world that we knew nothing about. But as we shared with other parents in the same boat, we started to learn new things everyday.

Part of the process our family went through was how we took the new information in, and got comfortable with those ideas and plans. Within a week, once we returned home, our son was on board with NOT coming home right away. He had come to terms with his needing more support and help with his many issues. How brave he was in his new decision! We were able to talk about a “list” of his desires for his upcoming transition from wilderness to an aftercare program. NO uniforms was on the list, but we knew that polo shirts might be a reality. Oh well, he could handle it!

The shocking part for us as parents was the “unbelievable cost”. Think to yourself how much a school like Stanford costs per year and add more $ on top of that and you might be in the ball park. We had a college fund set aside, but there would be NO college if we didn’t get through this next phase of our son’s education.  So we will take a penalty hit on taxes, so what! It will be worth it in the long run for his success in school and his self-esteem and self-confidence.

We called our Education Consultant and gave her a list of needs. She then spoke with the wilderness therapist and field psychologist to sort out the kind of learning and support our son needed. Decisions, decisions…..What’s next in this amazing journey will be coming up in the next blog post. Stay tuned.

Surprisingly calm,


“It Was Just Like Christmas Morning!”

Christmas morning

“What did you feel when you first saw us, as the van drove down the hill to the Family Spark camp site?” we asked our sixteen year old son?

“I was excited, just like Christmas morning!” was his answer.
That stopped us cold in our tracks! WOW! HOW ABOUT THAT? It gets me all choked up thinking about it again.

It had been eight weeks since we had all seen each other from the time he began his wilderness therapy journey in Idaho. We then asked, “Do you hate us for sending you?” fearing what he would say.

“No, I was surprised that it was happening, and the first couple of days were surreal, but no I don’t hate you.” he said in a matter of fact response.

“It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it was the last resort.” we said with heavy hearts. We wanted to make sure he understood our side of the event. It was not taken lightly at all! He had to know how much we loved him.

That conversation was one of many that we had like it, asking and answering queries on both sides of our worlds. And they all happened without the distraction of a phone or other technology or substance in the way. Our son had clear eyes for the first time in ages. It was a pleasant and refreshing occurrence . It’s like we were able to go backwards to a more innocent and younger time with him.

Over the course of the next few days, we had many group activities. We play acted the time when the “wheels fell off the bus” for us as a family. Each of us took turns as we role played the other, to see what we must have gone through. We watched and observed the other families and could see some similarities in many of they stories. We were not alone.

We participated in equine therapy and tried to maneuver a horse, who behaved much like our son had: stubborn and defiant. That was very interesting and revealing. We learned about non verbal communication from the therapists. We did an obstacle course while we were blindfolded one at a time, using only verbal directions from only one of us, to avoid the obstacles. We learn to work together as a team. We analyzed every action made and every word spoken. There was so much symbolism and meaning to it all. And it was exhausting but a wonderful few days.

The best part was that we were smiling with each other and laughing again, as a family unit. It had been a long time since those days. It was going to be difficult to say “so long”, as the end of the retreat got closer. One more hug, one more story, one more day……OUR TIME TOGETHER DID FEEL A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS MORNING.



Opening Up, Sharing and The Lost Retainer

Campfire Circle

Our first night at the Family Spark therapy retreat went by quickly and we wokeup at sunrise, ready to start the day. The first group activity was “hand washing”. The entire group stood around a hole in the ground while one of the boys (our son this time) squirted a tiny bit of camping soap into our open palms. Then we started saying our “hopefuls”, going around the circle with anticipations of the day in front of us. As that was happening, a water pitcher was tipped with water spilling out to activate the soap in our hands. We scrubbed and rinsed and listened to the thoughts and hopes of the group. This ritual happened before dinner as well, but the topic changed to “thankfuls”. It was a nice ritual. Everything we did had meaning, even the simple tasks.

“Hopefuls and Thankfuls” were just the beginning of our sharing. We had mindfulness, “highs and lows”, and many other topics that were selected by whatever boy was in charge of that session. Listening to everyone’s words was very powerful. It sent messages of healing, growth and new understanding. Some of the parents wrote things in their notebooks, others just listened intently. Most of the boys picked up rocks from the ground or fidgeted with strings and made bracelets. There was a lot of ADD (attention deficit disorder) in this group!

Lots of new facts came out of these deep discussions. One of the things we learned about was the fact that our son lost his second retainer before being sent to wilderness. Those retainers weren’t cheap, let me tell you. He got his braces off after a long 2 1/2 years, earlier in the springtime. The orthodontics made room for two teeth that he was born without. At age 21, he would have implants to fill those eyeteeth gaps. In the meantime, he was fitted with custom retainers that had two false teeth attached to make his smile complete. He admitted to losing his retainer just two days before he left for wilderness. It happened at a park while he was busy partying!

In the group sharing we learned about natural consequences. The lost retainer became one for him. It would be replaced at a later date, and he would have to go without for a while. I was unhappy about the expense, but it’s amazing the things one can let go of when dealing with bigger issues.

One of the group questions was “What was it like when you saw your parents from the van, when arriving at the Family Spark setting?” My son’s answer will amaze you. Come back tomorrow to hear what he said. Bring a hankie!

Joyfully yours,



A Million Dollar Smile

 A Million Dollar Smile

He walked towards us, a bit scruffy and a bit dirty but he was wearing a million dollar smile. We hugged. It was so nice to see him. He actually seemed happy to see us. He had been in the wilderness program for eight weeks. It was a long time.

He was a little shy at first. His pack was giant and really dirty on the outside. His hair was getting long. There was a coat of dirt and grime over all of the boys, even though they did take a shower every week. For some reason, this week they didn’t get one. It was the high desert after all and not the Hilton! We showed him to our tent. He was very happy to be given a cot for a couple of days and not have to sleep on the ground.

He seemed very relaxed. We could see in his clear eyes that nature had a positive effect on him. It replaced the omni present technology world he left two months prior. Our son answered our many questions about the camping and other activities the group did every week. There was lots of hiking, but they also did equine therapy, white water rafting, mountain biking, canoeing and rock climbing. Every activity had a purpose of how it related to self improvement, introspection and getting along with others. Positive behaviors replaced negative behavior in thoughts and deed.

After about one half hour the entire group of parents and boys joined in a circle to kick off the first of many circles. One of the boys led us on a mindfulness and breathing exercise. Another led the introductions so we knew why each teen was there at wilderness. Each parent then explained what reasons brought their family to this place as well. We were beginning to feel each other’s pain. And we were certainly not alone.

As the sun was setting, we reflected on the “highs” and “lows” of the day. Each person took a turn sharing and when they were done, they “passed” to the next. We heard a word shouted out every now and then by members of the circle, “Aho!”It means “I agree” with what was just said. Most of the boys chimed in and we parents added our “Aho’s” as well. When it came time for me to express my “high”, it definitely was seeing my son smile. Something so simple, yet so powerful and beautiful, made me happy and teary at the same time.

We were so happy to be together. What happened over the next few days was life changing and wonderful.



Family Spark


About half way through the wilderness program there is an opportunity for parents to come and spend three days in nature with their kids. It is “comfortable camping”. It is better than the kids normally experience in there day to day existence, and for the parents is considered “camping with therapy”!

​Our trip to “Family Spark” was full of emotion. We flew into Idaho the evening before our expected arrival. We took a walk and then had a very pleasant dinner at AppleBee’s! We were expected to meet a shuttle at 8am. There was lots of anticipation in the air.

In the elevator in the morning we saw a couple that had some new REI looking clothing on. I was about to say “wilderness” under my breath, but as expected they ended up on the shuttle with us! The small bus was filled with 19 parents in total. We shared the hour and a half drive together without much interaction. We soon would be sharing our deepest feelings and emotions.

When we arrived at the wilderness program headquarters, we were given large totes to put our non camping clothing and any electronics we brought with us to go into storage for 3 1/2 days. No cell phones, no iPads, nothing but what was on the packing list. It was camping 101 for some. As a group we formed a circle and introduced ourselves briefly and say what our reason for sending our son or daughter to wilderness was.

People were very emotional and the stories were similar, yet individual too. Then we split into a “boys group” and a “girls and younger boys group”. We headed off into the high desert for a reunion and a new beginning. I have never been with a more nervous group of parents, including ourselves.

We arrived at our family retreat area that had six large canvas tents and plenty of shade trees. It also had a barn like structure for cooking and a wooden outhouse situated at the far corner of the property. There was no electricity and no electronics were allowed. Peace on earth! For as far as the eyes could see, there was NOTHING. Nothing but nature. Beautiful rolling hills and mesas and lots of cottonwood trees and other ground cover. You could hear the wind blowing in the distance.

We chose our tent and took our bags and placed them inside. There were three sturdy cots lined up ready for our family to camp together for three days. No wonder we were nervous! Then the parents all gathered under the large shade structure and saw a van in the distance. That van was carrying all of our sons! You could hear a pin drop.

The van slowly drove down the hill to the gate. We saw the doors open and out came some boys who picked up their large and heavy backpacks out of the back of the van. The group looked grimy,  yet smiling, most carried long walking sticks. The families all took part in embraces. It had been at least seven weeks since everyone had seen each other. It was eight weeks for us. What was our reunion going to be like?

Check back tomorrow to find out.

Filled with emotion, yet hopeful –


The 4th of July Without Fireworks


We had plans to go to our cabin for the 4th of July. Originally it was supposed to be with our son and a friend and her mom, but since we had a massive change of events, it became a small family gathering. We did have one uninvited guest. Just before our first weekly phone call with our son’s wilderness therapist, a rattlesnake showed up near an old BBQ pit by the cabin.

A rattlesnake always adds a high level of excitement to anyone’s day, that’s for sure. We had the call and then dealt with the snake later. Well, I actually took pictures from inside the window of the capture and re-location. The snake now has a new home six miles away from the cabin and was last seen happily slithering down a hill. Disaster diverted!

The call went well. We liked his new therapist and felt that we could all do some good work together. It was not going to be easy or quick, but baby steps in a structured environment. We would be receiving letters from our son during his first few weeks of wilderness to help everyone ease into a new “normal”. We in turn would answer back. It was old fashioned communication at it’s best. His letters were handwritten and we were pleasantly surprised at his “nice” printing and how legible it actually was. We complemented him on what a good writer he was. It had been a long time since we had seen any of his school work, so we had no idea he could write that way.

As I look back on that particular week, I remember feeling very emotional and “raw” inside. I went swimming at the local pool everyday. It is a huge, old time pool with a one foot shallow end that goes up to nine feet in the deep end and has a diving board to boot. I tried to take in the beauty of the local mountains near the cabin and relax as best I could. It was a really “weird” time, but our son was safe and we were all adjusting to our “new” surroundings.

There were no fireworks for us on this particular 4th of July, that is, the kind we had been dealing with from his behavior at home. It was a new beginning, a re-boot, a time for healing. Our son’s sixteenth birthday was coming up. How would that be for him in the wilderness? How would it be for us, without him at home? Come back to find out!

Feeling relief and rebuilding new strength,


Old fashioned swimming pool

What is Wilderness All About?

Wilderness Therapy

Our newly hired Education Consultant said that one of the main reasons that Wilderness works is that it is peer based. The kids hold each other accountable, especially on past actions. They seldom want to go back to their exact old life and are happy to start school somewhere fresh. They often drop the negative friends and make strides in self belief and self confidence. They do this by having experiences in nature, without the distraction of screens! Their lives become simple. Get up, eat, hike, set up a tent, eat, sleep. REPEAT. Oh, there is a lot of therapy and many assignments about accountability, as well.

The time spent in a program is around 6-12 weeks on average. And most programs go year round, even through snowy and cold winters. That’s why the summertime is so popular for many. It doesn’t cut into the school year and the weather is better. The ages go from 11-17 and then there is an older adult group that goes 18-28.  One program may have a boys group, a girls group, a younger and an older group. The down sides are the cost (most cost around $500/day) and getting the kids delivered to the programs (there are transport services which safely get kids to the program for hire). And it’s not like the images on old TV shows, the transport people are truly like “angels” and they use words to motivate. They don’t lay a finger on the kids.

The kids come to the program without any supplies. Everything they need is given to them by the program: clothing, utensils, tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots. Some programs offer experiences like Equine therapy with horses, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking. At night the kid’s boots and clothes are taken just in case they are “runners”.  The food is basic, healthy and with very little sugar. They are uncomfortable enough that change will happen. And they are comfortable enough that they really can enjoy themselves in the activities. Most have a rolling admission so kids come and go through the program, some will always have more experience than others. It wouldn’t be good for their to be ALL newbies!

My notebook was filled with notes to consider. It was time to digest all we learned. The main thing was that we still had not exhausted every possible solution before deciding any future plan.  Find out how Disneyland helped us get through this difficult time.

Staying Strong!

An Education Consultant


Life used to be so simple. Wait isn’t that a line from the song, “The Way We Were”? Sounds a bit like it I guess. But it’s true, life was much simpler than our current way of living, especially  if you have kids with learning and behavior challenges. Nowadays, in order to keep up with all the options of where to go to school, it may be necessary to hire an Education Consultant. In our case, she was a gift from above! Recommended by our teenage son’s psychiatrist, she met with us on a Saturday morning last March.

She had tons of experience and explained that in order to recommend schools to her clients, she travels to visit all the places in person, at least one weekend out of every month. The people behind the schools and other programs like Wilderness Therapy, is what makes or breaks a good program. She told us NOT to start searching for places on the internet, because what we will see is how good a website the webmaster has created, not necessarily how good that school is. Don’t be fooled or fall for the “bling”. It’s all about the people!

“Judging a book by it’s cover” is similar to going on a college tour during your senior year in high school.  Everyone falls in love with the exterior of the campus buildings covered with ivy and with the sight of well manicured, green lawns. If you were going to be a happy, engaged college student, going inside the actual classes would be the best way to decide. Another way would be to talk to the people who attend the school and ask a lot of questions.

So, that’s what we did with our Education Consultant. We asked a LOT of questions! She explained that Summer was a good time for teens like our son who struggle with school, drugs and alcohol and are defiant. Many kids that have negative friends also benefit from going to a Wilderness program. And then you have to find the right After Care or school when you finished the program. Many of the good Wilderness programs are in the Western USA: Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Montana. They often have service focused people working there. Many of the staff are fulfilling a promise of community service. Some have become mentors to kids because they might have been “that kid” and are now giving back.

Then, our Education Consultant asked for all sorts of info about our son. We brought her report cards, IEP reports and filled out a questionnaire about him so she could determine what place might be a good fit. She asked if he might come to a future appointment and we thought there would be NO WAY, so she would have to go solely on what we told her, the paperwork we brought and speaking with his doctor.

There was so much to learn. Our meeting lasted a couple of hours. We had no idea there was another world out there: Wilderness, Aftercare, Private Schools…..What would we decide?

Peace and hope!

Plan B

Plan B

“Plan B”? I repeated to the Doctor.

“Yes, Plan B is Wilderness,” he explained. “A Wilderness Therapy Program. It’s like a re-boot. It’s gives teens a chance to stop what bad behaviors are going on in their lives and it can put them back on track.”

Oh, I’ve heard of that,” I replied. “I have a nephew who went to what I always called SNOW CAMP and he hiked and hiked and hiked and was given peanut butter after completing certain tasks. I think it helped him.”

“Well it’s a bit different now,” the doctor continued. “They participate in outdoor activities and learn important survival skills from the staff, but most importantly they are accountable to themselves and their peers. It simplifies their lives and takes away all the distractions. Here is the name of a local Education Consultant and she can tell you more about it. She can also give you info on other school options, since the local public high school is not a good fit for your son. They don’t get it at that high school. Not everyone learns the same way.”

As I left the consultation, my mind was spinning with doubts and fears. We will never be able get our son to go to a Wilderness Program. Never in a million years. He will fight it the minute it’s suggested. But when I got home and mulled PLAN B over in my mind, I started to get used to the  possibility. However, every other option had to be exhausted first! We weren’t done trying other things before deciding on Wilderness. We had to continue with Plan A first: Weekly therapy, email my son’s teachers, call an IEP meeting.

I began talking with family and friends and was shocked to find how many friends had sent their kids/teens to Wilderness Programs. Was bad behavior becoming commonplace for our youth? Was the pace of all our lives becoming unmanageable? Was the technology boom causing undue stress and anxiety for some? YES! YES! YES!

I called the Education Consultant and made an appointment for the upcoming Saturday.
(Come back tomorrow and find out what we learned from her.)

​Still hopeful,