Tom's Blog -- June, 2010
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Another Trip to Wilderness: Why Wilderness is not "Brat Camp" or Boot Camp
 
 
 

On June 6, I received an email from a woman in Europe who wanted help in asserting enhanced discipline with her son. She wanted a summer program that would instill a sense of discipline in her son, but she did not want to use one of those “Brat Camps,” apparently referring to wilderness programs. I won't describe in this venue the discussion that followed or the advice I gave. But the equation of wilderness programs with the “Brat Camp” television shows stimulated my thinking. That series was a successful marketing ploy for the programs that were featured, but completely distorted how the better programs function. Among other things, it encouraged the distorted perceptions that have encouraged the more extreme proposals for federal regulation (we support enhanced regulation; we don't support over-regulation that would prevent effective mental health services from being delivered).

Coincidentally, I had occasion to travel to the Lu Vaughn's group 6 at Second Nature Blue Ridge in Georgia in early June. I have been in many other wilderness field sites operated by different owners over the years and have repeatedly been favorably impressed by what I have seen. What I usually see is quite different from what “Brat Camp” depicted. My experience in June was the absolute opposite of what I had seen on the “Brat Camp” episodes that I watched.

Granted, it was a beautiful summer day with low humidity (or as low as humidity gets on a Georgia summer day) and moderate summer temperatures. That helps moods, morale, and just about everything else. It was also staff change day. Staff members the boys had not seen for a week arrived while I was there. The staff that had been with them the immediate past week would be going home that night.

I have long understood that well run wilderness programs were places where the typical young people involved were likely to feel challenged but safe and reasonably comfortable. This contrasts with the way “Brat Camp” sensationalized ugly confrontations and in some cases surfaced staff misconduct in the programs depicted. In at least one case, a program depicted earned a place on my “unacceptable list” on the basis of what I saw “Brat Camp.”

However, what I saw on this particular visit marked the contrast even more dramatically. The boys (this was an all boys' group) in the group presented themselves as if they were in a recreational summer camp. During the period of time I was there (about four hours) the group had both tasks to accomplish and opportunity for downtime. At all times the group seemed to be having fun together. The boys enjoyed each others company and appeared to enjoy the activities they were part of. When they were asked to contribute to the task of informing the incoming staff about the events of the past week, they were engaged, constructive, and serious, while continuing to be upbeat.

The moment that stood out above all others was when the staff members arrived whom they had not seen for the previous week. Have you ever seen the greeting that would likely come from a ten year old when his very favorite uncle shows up unexpectedly? Except this was a whole swarm of guys a bit larger than ten-year-olds launching themselves at the arriving staff. I really had not seen anything like that before in any therapeutic program. The spontaneity and enthusiasm can only mean one thing.

Usually when I go to a wilderness program, the better functioning participants will say something like, “I'd prefer to be home, but I agree that I need to be here.” However, I had the distinct impression that most of these guys had no reservations. They were simply in a place where the were enjoying themselves. They wanted to be there. If they had known how much they would have enjoyed it, they probably would have asked to come.

This is not what we saw on “Brat Camp.” This is not what happens in a boot camp. This was a group of teenagers from rough backgrounds thoroughly enjoying themselves while being quite serious about making dramatic changes in their lives.

I did not have the opportunity to process what I had seen with Lu Vaughn before I left but I did discuss my observations with her by phone once I was back home. She said that what I saw was about midpoint for this group. Some days it is not quite so good. Some days it is much better. I'd love to be there on a “much better” day. That must be pretty amazing.

Research has shown over and over again conclusively that quality relationships are the most important single factor component in any therapeutic change process. Other research provides compelling evidence that relationships and positive interaction between children and teens on one hand and adults on the other are the most important factor fostering healthy personality development. Quality wilderness programs are all about quality relationships. Brat Camp, not so much. Boot camps, not at all.

While the schools and programs that used “Brat Camp” scored marketing successes and profited greatly from their efforts, they also tarnished the reputation of the entire profession/ industry and grossly misled the general public by doing so.

Group 6 at Second Nature Blue Ridge is not the only quality wilderness offering. It is one of many. Lu Vaughn is not the only excellent therapist available in wilderness. But they are excellent examples of the potential quality of this modality – a potential frequently achieved.

Tom Croke 

Review of Second Nature Blue Ridge

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LLast updated  June 19, 2010

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