North Carolina Wilderness Programs Uplift Struggling Teens
Behm Williams is now a middle school teacher at Just Right Academy in Durham, but a few years ago he was a teenager whose life was spinning out of control. Williams’ mother sent him to camp at SUWS Carolinas, a school of urban wilderness survival.
“I feel a bond with the students who have attended a wilderness program,” Williams says. “‘I survived wilderness camp.’ You share an experience that other people really can’t understand.”
Williams describes learning to shelter himself and his possessions by tying plastic into a tarp-covered hammock when it rained. He explains how he rationed his supplies and oriented his days around learning to set campfires with stones and sticks.
Williams says it instilled a sense of adult responsibility in him. “It feels like that sort of missing rite-of-passage that tells you, ‘You’re not a child. You can do this.’”
Wilderness camps like SUWS Carolinas target adolescents who may have emotional or behavioral problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and trauma. Participants may have engaged in troubling behaviors — truancy, drugs, defiance or poor school performance, for example. Trained leaders bring small groups of these students into the wilderness, where they travel, learn skills to keep themselves warm and dry, prepare food and make decisions about how to work together to achieve their goals.
Why the Wilderness?
Wilderness programs work on the premise that experiencing a significant period of time in the wilds of nature can help struggling kids adopt skills they need to manage life at home and school. Exercise and exposure to nature have proven physical and mental health benefits, which include reducing stress, depression, aggression and anxiety.
The down-to-basics lifestyle offers participants space to focus. “You take the student away from all other distractions and focus on the present” says Kristen Koch, an administrator at North Carolina Outward Bound School, which offers locations in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Outer Banks, and uses outdoor adventure programs to challenge participants to safely and confidently step outside their comfort zones.
Wilderness life is tough, and the relationship between actions and results is very stripped-down and direct.
“We have to live with our results,” says Steve Ashton, director of Cameron Boys Camp, which is located in Cameron on 902 wooded acres. “People don’t need to make natural consequences artificially. We need to solve the leaky roof problem, or we get wet.”
Learning to regulate emotional responses, treat property with respect and work effectively with others take on clear importance in such a setting, while learning survival skills builds strength and self-confidence.
Each wilderness program’s application includes an assessment of the campers’ needs. Most programs employ trained therapists who meet regularly with participants. All utilize highly structured schedules and adults trained to work with struggling teenagers.
Many program instructors also train the participants’ families about how to offer productive support and interact with the participating family member. “It’s not just the kid that comes to camp, it’s the family,” says Linda Barber, a case manager at Camp Duncan for Girls, which is located near Aberdeen.
These programs aren’t designed to cover everything. Admissions officers work with parents to decide whether the program can serve their family’s needs — and families must consider whether the program’s benefits are worth the fees. After the wilderness experience, depending on the program and the student, some participants return home, while others go on to therapeutic boarding schools.
“I had a lot of work to do when I got home,” Williams says. “I used the confidence and strength I gained (at SUWS) to help me handle my problems.”
Look Before You Leap
None of the programs mentioned here are wilderness “boot camps” (extreme wilderness programs with military-style discipline techniques), and all but Outward Bound (because it is a national program) are licensed by the state of North Carolina, which reviews them periodically.
Parents should, however, meet in person with program administrators, ask questions and research the programs before entrusting any wilderness program their child. The Federal Trade Commission is a good place to start. Visit consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0185-residential-treatment-programs-teens for sample questions you can ask representatives to ensure a positive experience for your child. Also, talk to your child’s school counselor to get a sense of the program’s reputation, and ask other families who have used the program about their experiences.
Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer in Cary.
Wilderness Programs to Check Out
Outward Bound Intercept Program
Outward Bound is a nonprofit wilderness adventure program that offers many kinds of outdoor expeditions across the world. Intercept is a four-week adventure expedition designed specifically for teens with behavior concerns. It is a structured adventure program, not wilderness therapy. In groups, participants spend their days setting up campsites and traveling across the state or country.
Program details: In 2017, Outward Bound will offer two summer Intercept expeditions in North Carolina for ages 14-17.
Educational component: Some schools offer independent study credits for Outward Bound programs.
Trails Carolina is a for-profit wilderness therapy program based at Lake Toxaway that combines wilderness experience, education and therapy. Participants spend half their time on wilderness expeditions and the other half at base camp practicing their skills. Family education and communication are emphasized.
Program details: An average stay lasts 70-80 days. Designed for ages 10-17. Participants are grouped by age, gender and emotional/behavioral issue.
Educational component: At base camp, students participate in an education program with a North Carolina-accredited teacher and can earn school credit.
SUWS Carolinas is a for-profit wilderness therapy program in Old Fort, which is near the Pisgah National Forest. About 60 percent of participants’ time is spent in the woods hiking and learning wilderness skills. Students spend the rest of the time at base camp undergoing different kinds of therapies and attending behavioral education classes.
Program details: An average stay is 58 days. Designed for ages 10-17. Participants are grouped by age, gender and emotional/behavioral issue.
Educational component: Students can earn partial school credits in science, English and P.E.
Camp Duncan (for girls) and Cameron Boys Camp
BCH camps are nonprofit programs based in Aberdeen and Cameron that combine wilderness camp with private school. Students live in groups in the wilderness, create their own shelters, prepare their own meals and chart their own expeditions. Family training is emphasized.
Program details: Length of stay varies widely. Some students stay for months, or even years. Designed for ages 11-15. Students must want to participate. Participants are grouped by age but also with an eye toward balancing different kinds of students into effective groups.
Educational component: Both camps are North Carolina-licensed private schools.
Summer Day Camp Options for Struggling Teens