Inspiring Teens with the Silent Power of Wilderness
By Hugh C. McBride
In today’s high-speed, information-overloaded society, it often seems as though there’s nothing that networked, always-on-the-go American teens can’t get, see, or do. But when Jerrie Dee Harvey leads a group of struggling adolescents into the Idaho desert, she introduces them to a new experience that has the powerful potential to change their lives: silence.
A wilderness therapist with SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs in Shoshone, Idaho, Harvey helps troubled teens regain control over their lives and re-focus their efforts toward achieving their greatest potential. And though she is quick to credit the experience of the SUWS staff, and the innovations inherent in the renowned program, for helping the students get themselves back on track, she is just as certain that the environment in which the work is accomplished is an essential component of SUWS’ success rate.
“The wilderness is a freeing environment,” Harvey said. “It strips the kids of distractions, so they can find their center and can redefine who they are and what they believe.”
SUWS isn’t the only program that emphasizes positive thinking and personal reflection, but Harvey believes that where this message is delivered can be just as important as how it is taught. Taking young people into the wilderness, she said, puts them into a contemplative environment that is rich in both challenges and support – a place where personal problems can be properly addressed, and previously hidden inner strengths can emerge.
“The wilderness is a place where we can be quiet and listen to our thoughts,” Harvey said. “When we work with kids in the wilderness, we can speak to them in a quiet voice.”
Because most SUWS students come to the program with little or no wilderness experience, the majority are a bit unsure of their ability to succeed when they start the program, Harvey said. But putting kids in this challenging environment serves the dual purpose of focusing them on life’s true priorities and allowing them to learn and enhance the skills and strategies they will need throughout their lives.
“Wilderness allows kids to tap into the resources that they already have,” Harvey said. As the SUWS students progress through the program, they overcome personal challenges, fulfill a variety of leadership roles within their group, and respond to and evaluate what they are thinking, feeling, and doing in journal entries, individual counseling sessions, and group meetings.
All of these experiences, Harvey said, are designed to help the students discover and develop their own innate abilities. “It’s not what we give them that makes this program so successful,” she said. “It’s what they bring into the wilderness with them.”
From Doubt to Certainty
During the month or more that they spend in the wilderness, SUWS students have plenty of opportunities to turn doubts about their abilities into certainties about their skills. Following an initial orientation period during which they are provided with the skills and supplies necessary for outdoor survival, the students learn the bulk of their lessons while hiking with a group through the Idaho desert.
From learning to make a fire to understanding how to effectively communicate within a family, the SUWS students learn by doing. This experiential approach, Harvey said, allows for a continuing series of “teachable moments” in which successes are celebrated and setbacks are mined for the lessons and values they offer.
And even on the occasions when the students come up short of their expectations, Harvey and the others SUWS staffers point out that temporary failures are nothing more than steps along the path to success. “When they have difficulties, it’s a matter of finding the success in it by learning from it,” Harvey said, noting that one of the beauties of wilderness therapy is that success isn’t a rigidly defined result, such as reaching a certain score on a test or performing a predetermined task to perfection. “Sometimes the success is ‘I’m continuing to try,’” she said. “Sometimes it’s changing the ‘have to’s’ into ‘want to’s.’”
In addition to showing the students how to make the most of life’s frustrating moments, SUWS staff members also point out how one’s responses to challenges, and the choices one makes as a result, are often more important than the events themselves. “It’s a continual message,” Harvey said. “What choices are you making, and how do you own those choices?”
Taking Control, Becoming Leaders
As they internalize these lessons and incorporate them into their interactions with others, the SUWS students learn invaluable lessons about the powers and limitations of control.
“We keep asking them: What can you control, and what are you going to do with that control?” Harvey said.
As with other aspects of the program, the wilderness plays an important part in the imparting of this message. For example, SUWS students soon learn that while they can’t control the weather, they can mitigate its effects by being prepared (such as knowing how to make fire to stay warm or pitching a tent properly to keep dry on rainy nights).
Within the group, the issues of control and responsibility are addressed by the various roles to which the students are assigned. For example, the navigator has control over the direction the group hikes, but also must take responsibility if they veer off course. At night, the “p.m. leader” has to make sure that the camp has been set up properly, while the next morning’s “a.m. leader” is responsible for getting everyone up and moving on time. During the day, the student who is in charge of hygiene has to make sure that all group members are using hand sanitizer when necessary, and that everyone is using adequate amounts of sunscreen.
By being good leaders, these individuals can earn the appreciation of the group and the self-satisfaction that comes with completing an important task.
“A lot of these kids haven’t had the opportunity or desire to be positive leaders before,” Harvey said. “Every role within the group is a leadership role at some level.”
Lessons for Life
As they progress along the path away from fear and frustration and toward self-respect and healthy, active participation in society, the SUWS students learn an important lesson about the very nature of the experience they are having. “Eventually, they realize, ‘I’m not here for punishment – I’m here for opportunity,’” Harvey said.
This realization, she said, results in large part from the student’s interactions with nature and each other.
“As staff members, we’re here to foster love, health, and growth,” she said. “We keep them safe, and we let them know that they’re not ‘broken’ – and that they’re not here to be ‘fixed.’ It’s their peers and their wilderness experience that often end up being the catalyst for change.”
And when the students have completed the SUWS program and are ready to transition into the next phase of their life, Harvey said that among the many lessons they learned from the wilderness, two of the most important are directly connected to the peace and power that is inherent in the silence of the wilderness:
“They have learned to be with themselves, and to believe in themselves.”