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Schools & Program Visits - Oct, 1995 Issue #36 

Naples, Idaho 
Matt Fitzgerald, 
Executive Admissions Director
Lon's Visit: August 8, 1995 

Ascent has grown and developed during their 3 years of existence to become a program that has the tightness and the flexibility to handle almost any kind of child with problems. This was their specific intention, and everything I saw confirmed that. Whether the child has relatively mild behavioral problems, or relatively serious mental problems, Ascent works at being prepared to meet his/her needs. The only child who can not successfully complete the program is the child whose needs can only be met by the structure of a psychiatric hospital. And, Matt Fitzgerald claims they have been successful with some children who seemed at first to be ideal candidates for hospitalization. For example, they often are successful with students on medication. 

Ascent is a six week program for adolescents ages 13 to 18. The program describes itself as a rigorous adventure that is physically and emotionally demanding. "Attitudes and behaviors are confronted and their sources extensively explored." 

Phase One takes place at their Base camp in the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho, just south of the small town of Bonners Ferry about 30 miles from Canada. This phase is designed so the student will learn there are alternative ways of handling problems, and that he/she has strengths and abilities within themselves that will allow them to be successful. These inner tools/strengths are brought out by extensive physical training, work/chores, Group-Raps and Workshops, Journal writing and experiential initiatives. 

The first view of the Base camp is looking westward and seeing large Tepees (student sleeping quarters) and other buildings surrounding a large circular area. The backdrop is the forested foothills of the rugged Selkirk Mountains. 

Phase two is the Backpacking Course, which is an outward bound type course lasting from ten to fourteen days. The student earns the privilege of going on this expedition by success in Phase one in improving their abilities in decision- making and problem-solving. Phase two is where they take their new-found skills in self-discipline and apply them in group activities in the wilderness challenges of North Idaho or Montana which includes hiking up to ten miles a day, preparing meals, map and compass usage, and rock climbing. They also continue group processing, reviews of previously concluded emotional growth workshops, and continue their journal writing. 

Phase three takes place back at Base camp where the student follows the same schedule as in Phase one except the student is expected to take on a leadership role with the newer Phase one students. Important goals are for each student in Phase three to bring to a resolution his/her issues, and to develop an individual plan for continued success after leaving Ascent. 

Within this structure, there are several aspects that the counselors use to individualize the experience and require that each student internalizes the experience. One of the most important aspects is the student's behavior determines how long he/she will be in each phase. For example, if a student tries to just play along and not make any changes in attitude or behavior, he/she will stay in Phase one longer. This puts a tremendous pressure on a student when his/her friends move out onto a Phase two expedition. The lesson is very clear for the student left behind that his/her behaviors are not successful, and that it is important to change behaviors and attitudes in order to keep up with peers and friends. 

Any phase of the program can be lengthened or modified if the child needs the extra time for that phase, or a modified approach. For example, if a student does not successfully complete the Phase two expedition, the student might go back into preparation and go out on a later expedition. Or, if it is determined that the regular expedition is not appropriate for a particular student for physical or mental reasons, then a wilderness expedition experience will be developed for that student. One will be developed that will provide a challenge that will push that student's limitations, but which he/she is capable of succeeding at. 

The Physical Training (PT) is part of every day life at Base camp and very strenuous (calisthenics, running, hiking, etc.). This not only prepares them for the Phase two expedition, but as their physical conditioning improves, the student learns he/she is capable of far more than they ever thought possible. This sense of achievement and success is an important part of helping each student learn new attitudes and behaviors. Positive peer support and pressure in supporting each other to push to their limits was another obvious benefit I saw. The PT that was going on while I was there had one girl who was obviously having trouble keeping up the pace. She had arrived at Ascent very much out of shape physically, but by the time of my visit, she was managing to keep up with the others. This was partly because the other students were telling her she could do it, and giving her lots of encouragement and support, and partly because the staff was making sure they didn't ask anything that was totally impossible for her. 

The structure is very tight at Ascent, and the student's choices at any one time are few and clear. Two examples I saw come to mind. Wake Up is at 7:00 am. The students are given five minutes to get dressed, make their beds, and gather outside. If anyone takes longer, then they all go back to bed to do it over again until they do it right. Also, when the students go anyplace at Base camp, they do it single file and on the run. The only time I saw students walking was to a graduation for one of the students. Even then, they go single file with no talking. 

When a student falls into his/her negative feelings or becomes resistant, the student is placed on a stump in the large circular center. It is roughly equivalent to a "time-out room." The student is physically in the middle of all the activities, but obviously isolated from everyone. This is physically symbolizing the emotional isolation the student has created, and it becomes his/her sole job at that time to process the negative feelings that are going on and to work on resolving those feelings so he/she can rejoin the group. Staff or senior students are the only ones allowed to talk to the student, and the only topic allowed is what is going on within the student that got him/her "stumped." Virtually all students go through this experience at some time or another because the students who are appropriate for Ascent badly need this intensive "self-search" time to process and comes to terms with their negative feelings. 

Each student has his/her own personal graduation ceremony. The students and staff stand in a circle with the graduate standing in the middle. If the child's next step is to go home, then his/her parent(s) are in the circle too. The one I watched was very emotional and moving, with the friends, mother and the graduate reflecting on what she had accomplished at Ascent. At the end of it, as part of the ceremony, she threw a circle of wood with her carving on it into an area to join those previous graduates had thrown there. This was a symbol of leaving behind the negative baggage the student had brought to Ascent. 

My impression was that while Ascent would be a growth experience for any teenager with behavior/emotional problems, it would be willing and able to handle teenagers more damaged than most other wilderness programs would want to work with. 

Copyright 1995, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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