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Posted: Sep 18, 2007 20:16


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Bonners Ferry, Idaho
David Yeats, Founder
Matt Fitzgerald, Co-owner

Visit by Loi Eberle, March 19, 2007

Although I have previously visited Northwoods' North Idaho residential campuses in Bonners Ferry and Sagle, this was my first visit to their Costa Rica campus. Northwoods is a transitional program for adolescent boys ages 12 - 17 [upon admission] that allows students to earn a general high school diploma either through accredited correspondence or through participation in the local public high school. They can accommodate up to 24 students on their three campuses on a year-round basis, with an average stay of about 12 months. Licensed as a Children's Residential Facility, it was founded in 1993 by Dave Yeats, a Licensed Social Worker in the State of Idaho. A licensed master's level therapist associated with Northwoods interacts with each applicant's data as part of the admission process, creating a treatment plan. Some of the students receive individual outpatient therapy in addition to the therapeutic, informal group process in which all participate.

Both the North Idaho campuses and the Costa Rica campus are in lovely rural areas. Periodically students from the North Idaho campuses travel to Costa Rica with Founder, David Yeats. They gain multicultural experience while continuing their correspondence courses. At the Costa Rica campus near the small town of La Tigra, students live in a five-bedroom, three-bath lodge. Nearby, a second three-bedroom, two-bath cabaña, accommodates staff and occasional guests. They also have 95 lush tropical acres which they are making into a nature preserve. Part of the time the students live with host families in the rural community of Cerritos, located on the Atlantic slope of the Tilaran Mountains. Northwoods students are required to learn Spanish so they can communicate with their host families, local townspeople and mentors while doing community service projects.

I visited the lodge where the teacher/mentor, Zack, sat at the table with four of the students, keeping them focused on their individual Keystone lesson notebooks. He seemed to understand their need for periodic activity breaks. The students were generally positive about this curriculum with some complaints about how their tests were graded. Zack said if he sees too many errors or careless work, he has the student work on it more before sending it in for grading. One student was ready for the next step so I didn't meet with him. He was living with a host family in the nearby town.

I talked with Northwoods students about their experiences in Costa Rica. They were enthusiastic, even though they were tired after spending the previous days in the hot sun at the beach, learning scuba diving. They showed me their living quarters and the impressive carpentry work they had done on the lodge. During the building process they also learned about the characteristics and habitat of the local trees. The front of the lodge was landscaped beautifully, a joint project between Northwoods students and the local part-time employees of Northwoods who are landscape architects. The self-paced academics allow students more flexible schedules for work projects with their mentors.

The students proudly described their recent community service project involving rebuilding a bridge on the dirt road that led to their lodge. They spoke of the local community's gratitude for their help. Later, when I ate at one of the local, family-owned cafés called a "soda," my waiter knew of the program and the students and described them with warmth and appreciation.

Zack later explained it was very easy to keep an eye on the students when they were in the community since the store clerks were usually related to Northwoods program staff. I greatly enjoyed meeting the parents and children of the large extended family who worked part-time with this program. I could see why Dave Yeats and the Northwoods students admired the loving relationships in this family and how they valued hard work, honesty, and their beautiful country.

Founder Dave Yeats and Co-owner Matt Fitzgerald encourage all of the Northwoods students to spend a portion of their time at the Costa Rica campus. They explained how being in another culture helps their students learn to value people over material commodities. It also helps students overcome entitlement, learning instead to accomplish things through hard work.

After returning from Costa Rica, I re-visited the Northwoods campuses in Sagle and Bonners Ferry. These campuses are similar to the Costa Rica campus in that the students and some staff live in large houses, with 2 or 3 students per room, sharing chores and recreating together frequently.

In Sagle most of the students work with their teacher in a single computerized classroom on campus using self-paced accredited correspondence courses with periodic discussion groups. They learn basic carpentry with power tools in their woodshop. Occasionally a student attends Sandpoint High School, works part time and lives off campus with a Northwoods staff member's family. A second house on this campus is used for 18 year old residents, and/or as parent guest quarters. Sports equipment throughout the campus is one result of the students' participation in as many seasonal sports as they can when they aren't working or studying. Kayaking, biking, snowboarding, and ultimate Frisbee are valued as important for physical fitness, stress reduction and motivation. On the Bonners Ferry campus, students live in two houses next door from each other with one house exclusively for the 18 and older students. Students attend the local high school, frequently participate on the high school sports teams, and usually work part time in Bonners Ferry.

All three campuses are accomplishing Northwoods' goal of fostering academic and personal growth by offering a "challenging and stimulating experience" tailored to individual needs. On each campus it appeared that students have been given opportunities to learn and practice new skills, earning progressively more responsibility as they gain competence.

Although the young men I saw on the three campuses had varying degrees of enthusiasm for the schoolwork, I observed many activities that indeed inspired a "zest for life," social responsibility and a sense of empowerment. This is truly a versatile and remarkable program for the young man who is at a more transitional phase in his life and is ready to comply with Northwoods's reasonable expectations and invitation to flourish.

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