Elk Mountain Academy
Elk Creek Academy
                                     Heron, MT

Note inserted April 9, 2009:  Elk Creek Academy appears to have dissolved as a separate program.  We are awaiting word on whether or not any of its special Christian based features remain available as options within the Elk Creek Academy structure.


Elk Mountain Academy and Elk Creek Academy, as of spring 2008 operating under the same roof, offer a truly unique opportunity. With two names and two brands this is essentially a single program.  It is strictly a twelve step  facility  for boys, especially boys in the later years of high school who have had substance abuse problems.  Unique among such facilities, it also defines itself by emphasis on access to activities of perceived risk, such as dirt bike riding. Unlike twelve step based programs where clients only participate in twelve-step activities on campus, these boys not only go to regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in town but also go to regional and national conferences and conventions. This creates the true excitement of being part of a very exciting aspect of recovery.  We know of no other school or program offering this opportunity. (If the reader knows of one please email us at FamilyLightResponse@yahoo.com

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FamilyLightsm is an educational consulting firm specializing in work with families with a young person with behavioral, emotional or psychological difficulties.  We offer in-depth personal guidance to families on a fee basis and free guidance on the internet. FamilyLightsm attempts to be fully objective and accepts no advertising nor referral fees. The only revenue at FamilyLightsm comes from client fees. 

Before we go further, we invite readers interested in Elk Mountain and Elk Creek to consider also Kristie Henley's report of her visit to Elk Mountain and Elk Creek, published on Struggling Teens. We believe this article and Ms. Henley's complement each other.

This is the place that disproves the theory that one cannot inspire teenagers to embrace twelve step work, spiritual dimension included. It also shows what is necessary so that teenagers will get excited about twelve step work  and the spiritual dimension of twelve step work. 

So why two names and two brands?  And if two names and two brands, then why one review article?  Briefly, students identified with Elk Creek Academy take their courses in the context of a Christian based curriculum and attend church every Sunday.  Students identified with Elk Mountain Academy follow a secular curriculum are encouraged to grow spiritually based upon the "higher power" concept of the twelve step movement.  The two schools had operated on separate properties prior to spring of 2008, with largely the same program except for the specifically Christian content in the Elk Creek program although the students did not mix with each other. Currently the students all live together and work the non-academic aspects of the program together, with the sole remaining exception involving church attendance for the Elk Creek students.  But for the most part this is one integrated program and we will speak of it in the singular.   

We have chosen Elk Mountain/Elk Creek Academy to be in the first group of programs to be reviewed on this website because of its creativity, uniqueness, and the genuineness of its founder, Carl Olding.  Because of its creativity, we think some leeway is due to Elk Mountain Academy with respect to Best Practice guidelines which are hard to apply to program like this -- although that does not mean Elk Mountain Academy should pay no attention to it.

Actually this program points out the weakness in relying wholly on existing research.  Because of anonymity, twelve step program outcomes in general are not well researched, although we do have research that supports the notion that alcoholics who attend Alcoholics Anonymous regularly do better than alcoholics do not (A future article will explore and document this.).  More to the point, the use of perceived risk as a feature of these programs results in young men with specific personality needs and personality styles becoming far more enthusiastic about this program and therefore more engaged in recovery than is likely to occur anywhere else. 

The same is true of the depth of engagement in the twelve step groups.  Many programs that talk about twelve step work never permit their students to attend a real twelve step meeting.  Those that do, are likely at most to permit a few such meetings per week, locally.  We don't want to sound like we are criticizing the sincerity or the effectiveness of the programs that have their students going to real twelve step meetings in the community several times a week (those that talk twelve step and do not give access to real Alcoholics Anonymous  and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the community may be another matter), but exposure to regional and national conventions and other large gatherings of recovering people  adds a depth to this program that we do not find elsewhere.  This program does not have the deep pockets necessary for careful outcome research on this point.  We hope they are accumulating the data that will allow for study by others. 

We have used the expression, "perceived risk." We do not mean to suggest that the activities at issue are entirely free of genuine risk.  We regret the absence of hard data from juried research.  But the fact is that many addicts (and non-addicts as well, but they are not the business of Elk Mountain/Elk Creek Academy) have a need for perceived risk.  Some would say it is another addiction.  We won't enter that debate.  But if opportunity for experiencing the thrill of driving a quad over a challenging course keeps a young man engaged, that seems preferable to the more pernicious addictions that brought him into a therapeutic school to begin with.

These programs also put great emphasis on what it means to be a man.  The literature on helping young men come to terms with what it means to be a responsible young man -- whether from a secular (but certainly not non-spiritual) point of view as presented by Michael Gurian or from a Christian perspective as we see in Wild at Heart by John Eldredge or also from a Christian perspective in Raising a Modern-Day Knight by Robert Lewis -- sets forth the concepts at issue here.  It is not clear to us that the folks who operated Elk Creek and Elk Mountain Academy even know about these writings, but we see the principles espouses in these writings put into play at these schools.

We have a concern about Elk Creek Academy.  When asked about the perspective of Elk Creek Academy on issues where Christians of good will might differ, it did not appear to us that the front-line staff of Elk Creek could give that question a satisfactory answer.  We understand the specific perspective within the spectrum of Christian belief and practice that is characteristic of many non-denominational Christian churches and is very likely to be the perspective of parents who would choose a program with specifically Christian content to the mainline subject matter.  It is not our concern to challenge that perspective and we are confident that perspective would be supported at Elk Creek Academy. However we are concerned about Christians whose belief and practice -- for example Catholics and people from the liberal wings of mainstream protestant churches might get to Elk Creek or Elk Mountain Academies and encounter a pressure that says their belief and practice is not truly Christian.  We do not really know that would be a potential problem, but when asked about that, the staff of the program did not seem to understand the question.  That was concerning to us.  We cannot be sure that this would be a comfortable fit for highly devout Christian families that are not part of the more aggressively evangelistic and fundamentalist branch of Christianity.  We respect that branch of Christianity but affirm that is it is not the entirety of Christianity. We would be more comfortable with Elk Creek Academy for more students if we were certain that the frontline staff fully appreciated that.  Perhaps they do.  But they could not say that they do. 

Frankly, we would like to see more conscious attention to evidence based practices, outcome studies, and the context of what some others in the field are doing.   We don't mean that the Elk programs should give up all that they do that is special and try to be like everyone else.  We do think that to the extent that the Elks offer something special, the value of what they do that is special should be documented.  We also see a value in keeping up on the latest in developments, such as Motivational Interviewing and the "Stages of Change" model.  Nevertheless, the unique innovations of the Elk programs are critical to finding the right match for certain students. 

We prefer to see these programs used for older teens -- and we believe their management agrees.

Official web site of Elk Mountain Academy

Official web site of Elk Creek Academy

Return to Individual Schools and Programs Index

Struggling Teen's Visit Report May, 2008

Feedback is invited. We will publish any feedback in good taste from Elk Mountain / Elk Creek Academy and will publish selected feedback from other sources. Email FamilyLightResponse@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last updated 8-11-08; Minor edits up to  8-19-08; Note inserted April 9, 2009


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