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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hope and Healing in the Wilderness

Air Date: Week of

In his new book “ Shouting at the Sky,” author Gary Ferguson reports on the Aspen Academy, a wilderness outreach program for troubled teens. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Mr. Ferguson and Joel Bruttane, a graduate of the academy.


CURWOOD: The wilderness can be a place to heal and build self-esteem. At least, that's the experience of Joel Bratane. At 17, Joel was in trouble. His grades were headed down. Tensions with his parents were rising. And then the police picked him up for drug possession. So, Joel's folks tried one more shot at turning their son around. They called in the counselors from Aspen Academy. Aspen is a private wilderness survival program that uses the power of nature to shock teenagers into taking responsibility. And Joel was, indeed, in for a shock. His life began to change one night. Actually, it was in the middle of the night.

BRATANE: My mom woke me up. It was about four o'clock, and there are two guys standing at the end of my bed. And she told me that they had something to talk to me about, and that she loved me. And then she left the room. And they told me they were going to take me to, like, a summer camp. And they said we'd be doing fun things and rappeling off cliffs, and swinging over lakes. And they described it as a real, like, fun place.

CURWOOD: How did you feel at this point? I mean, if I had been woken up at four in the morning with two kind of large guys at the end of my bed saying they were going to take me to a summer camp, I would be saying, yeah, right. And I'd feel pretty scared. How did you feel?

BRATANE: Yeah, I was kind of worried. When I got to base camp, they took all my clothes from me, and strip-searched me. And gave me a physical at the clinic. And they gave me hiking boots and a couple shirts and a pair of pants, and some shorts. And showed me how to tie a survival pack, which is like a backpack with two tarps.

CURWOOD: At some point in this, you have a solo time. You go off into the desert by yourself. What was it like on solo?

BRATANE: You'd spend two days by yourself at your camp, and they'd set boundaries where you could go. And they'd bring you dinner and breakfast. But they wouldn't communicate with you at all when they dropped it off. It was basically a time just to be with yourself.

CURWOOD: What was that like?

BRATANE: Your head really talks to you a lot. There's just so much you think about and all the mistakes you made. And you get real regretful out there on solos. But I learned that, as I was growing up, I did the best I knew how to do.

CURWOOD: I want to bring Gary Ferguson in. You wrote the book "Shouting at the Sky," in which you document the story of a number of kids going through the program that Joel has told us about. Can you describe, briefly, the program? What you saw doing the research for the book? What happens?

FERGUSON: Most of the kids that I spent time with were 14- to 17-year-olds from middle-class to upper-middle-class families, and they had been, I must say, veterans for the most part of every conceivable kind of therapeutic intervention, from lock-down suicide wards, psychiatric wards, traditional 30-day drug rehab programs, therapy, tough love. And really nothing was working, and it was almost always kind of a sense in the parents of, this is our last chance. If we don't find some way to help our son or our daughter, they may well be dead in a year. Things are that desperate. And it's in that state of desperation that parents often make the decision to try wilderness therapy for the first time.

CURWOOD: Gary, what's the success rate of this program? If 100 kids go through, how many stay clean from drugs for an appreciable period of time afterwards, do you think?

FERGUSON: This program has a success rate of between 60 and 65 percent. That may not sound impressive, but when you consider that some of the better lock-down, traditional 30-day drug rehab programs have success rates of about 23 percent, it is considerably better. Now, they define success typically by who, as measured a year later after they graduate from Aspen, who's still off hard drugs, who has a relationship with their family, and who's still in school. Those are the criteria that, in fact, most programs tend to use to measure success.

CURWOOD: Joel, how are you doing with drugs? Are you drug-free?

BRATANE: Yes, I am.

CURWOOD: How are you doing in school?

BRATANE: I have all As and Bs right now.

CURWOOD: And how are things with your family?

BRATANE: Really good. They're the best they've ever been.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose it doesn't work for some people?

BRATANE: I think that some people go through the program and find it easy to get by, but it's definitely a lot harder in the real world than it is in the program.

CURWOOD: What do you think happens to kids when they come to this program, Gary? You followed 12 kids afterwards. You've talked to them. You saw the program in action. What's the -- I hate to use the word "magic," but it almost sounds like it must be a form of magic.

FERGUSON: There is a certain kind of indescribable magic to it, you're absolutely right, and I think most staff and therapists would be hard-pressed to articulate it. I'll give you what the kids themselves have told me was most powerful. Certainly, the presence of the wilderness and the beauty of the wilderness, as many of us can relate to, is a good first step into getting the sense that the world doesn't end at the end of your nose. There's an inner connectedness that we're part of something greater that can open the door to some sense of spirituality. There's also a lot of quiet time on solos, and just during the day, that I think it allows kids to get in touch with this emerging young man or emerging young woman. We're also good these days at distracting ourselves from our issues, from our stuff, by television and computer games and conversation and music. For a lot of kids, it was the first time they'd ever had what I would call quiet time to really get in touch with who they were. The other thing I should probably mention is that the comment I hear most often from kids, to this day, is that this was the first place where what they did mattered.

CURWOOD: Joel? I want to ask you, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment, that you'd link to the Aspen experience?

BRATANE: I think I gained a love for life, and I'm just happy to be alive. And I've discovered that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to, and I feel like the world has no limits now.

CURWOOD: Joel Bratane, a graduate of the Aspen program, and Gary Ferguson, author of "Shouting at the Sky," which describes the Aspen program. Thank you both for joining me.


BRATANE: Thanks.



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