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Posted: Nov 25, 2009 13:05


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Milwaukee, WI
Drew Hornbeck
Executive Director

Visit by Judith E. Bessette, October 22 - 23, 2009

Inspiring Change...By Nature is both the motto and the philosophy of New Vision Wilderness, a Wisconsin-based program I recently visited. Drew Hornbeck and Steve Sawyer, experienced outdoor and mental health professionals with a passion for teens, took their first group out into the Chequamegon National Forest in the north central part of the state in 2007. While having served students from all over the country, most students are from the Midwest -- many from Wisconsin.

Drew spent several years as field staff in programs out west, including serving as program director in a wilderness setting prior to his work as the lead experiential therapist at Rogers Memorial's Child Adolescent Center. Steve, an LCSW and CSAC, serves as Clinical Director. He left a similar position in a large, urban out-patient clinic to join Drew in the woods. Steve is also an expert in survival skills and wild edibles and has worked in other adventure-based programs.

The boys' group we visited was trekking in the southern part of the Chequamegon, four hours by car from Milwaukee. The boys were just about at the end of their 21-day trip. When we arrived, Drew and I had supper with Steve, Laurie (a master's level therapist) and Adam, who serves as the Field Director and Education Coordinator. Laurie is a "local girl" as they say in Medford, WI...and her outdoor acumen, coupled with her genial relationships with folks in town (which helped pave the way for the program's neighbors to become both good friends and advocates), underscored by her clinical expertise, makes her valuable on many levels. Adam has a teaching background in addition to experience in leading extreme winter trips in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. Solo, he has hiked the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin in its entirety.

At dinner, we talked about their philosophy. Focused on creating positive change in teen boys and girls in gender-specific groups, staff members work to develop strong relationships with each student. The goal is to expand each teen's comfort zone... in a systematic way... making sure each youngster understands they are safe, that their needs are going to be met and that they have the tools they need to make change possible.

The next morning, I spent time with Steve, learning about the clinical approach. There is both group and individual therapy several times each week that involves a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy, traumatic memory reprocessing, emotional literacy training and substance abuse intervention.

A unique aspect of therapy at New Vision is the use of HeartMath. Every staff member is trained in using HeartMath techniques -- activities designed to enhance cohesion between the body and the brain in order to reduce and manage stress. Program participants are all pre-and post-tested... and often say learning these techniques were among the best parts of the program. Steve is on the faculty of the HeartMath Institute and presents frequently, including at the Naropa Wilderness Symposium and NATWC, the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps

Steve emphasized the importance of establishing relationship -- that, in fact, without relationship there can be no therapy -- and thus no change. He talked about how important it is for students to genuinely believe they are safe in order to grow.

Next, I visited with the boys at their campsite. Six young men were camped at a glorious setting on a ridge above a pristine lake surrounded by golden tamaracks. Even the gentle rain did not diminish the beauty of setting. I met half of the group in a wall tent with a wood-burning stove keeping them warm. I met the others in a tepee with a fire-pit the boys were just starting. Both groups were working on "hard skills" like making bowls and spoons or on fire techniques. The boys ranged from a 12 year old "wanna be" Latino gang member to a 16 year old dealing with significant substance abuse issues. Several of the boys were private pay while others were there though the support of the counties in which they live.

Two young men walked me to the cook tent and the area where their individual sleeping tents were set up. As they explained the division of labor, we walked to a stream where I saw a wooden bridge a group had built last summer. The boys explained that groups get involved in service projects both in town and with the Forest Service.

I asked each boy if he could tell me something he had learned about himself. Their answers included new feelings of appreciation for their parents, a desire to do better in school and an over-all better feeling about themselves. When I asked if they had any advice for a new student, one boy said "keep in mind you get back in relation to what you put in."

New Vision uses a level system. A special part of my visit involved hearing a young man present his case for moving from Level 2 (Hawk) to Level 3 (Falcon.) He described how his hard skills had improved, commented on what he had learned about himself and told how he intended to use his new insight at home. He answered questions about things he still needed to work on -- things he planned to think about on the over-night solo starting later that day. (Students start as Robins and can progress to Owl but this level is usually only achieved by students who choose to come back to New Vision.)

At the camp site, I also had the opportunity to meet Keith and Brian. Keith recently moved back to Wisconsin after working in a residential outdoor therapeutic program in the east. A certified teacher, he helps students with school assignments from home. Brian, who has worked with teens in school and community settings for more than 30 years, is an avid survivalist.

When Drew and I headed home, we continued talking about the program. Because they are small, they have the ability to individualize their program offerings. For instance, while three of the boys I met would be graduating and going home in a few days, the other three were all staying another week...because they had each really just begun to engage in the work at hand.

Most New Vision clients return home...but do so with aftercare from New Vision. With many of the kids close at hand, aftercare can happen right in the student's home...but it could happen via phone as well. Sometimes, within several months, a student may return... either to re-visit what they had learned or, in some cases, to go further in the therapeutic process.

New Vision offers 4-day retreats, family programs and one-on-one experiences in addition to their standard 21-day program. The program can be extended on an individual basis if the need for increased therapeutic impact is evident. Drew and Steve have also been successful in providing day-long leadership development programs in area public schools that work toward team building, truancy abatement and diminishing school violence.

Drew and Steve are hands-on owners...and plan to stay that way! The experience, education and maturity of the team they have assembled in the past two years team is impressive. They have had several referrals from educational consultants and would be happy for more.

Clinical services are licensed through the Wisconsin Department of Family and Human Services. In addition to the necessary insurance coverage, the program is authorized to operate by the US Forestry Service. Their per diem rate is highly competitive.

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