Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
Second Nature Wilderness Program (SNWP), with locations in central Oregon, northern and southern Utah, and Georgia, is one of the best Wilderness Therapy programs for struggling teens in the world. I’ve personally visited in an in-depth way all of their locations except Georgia (Footsteps program).
Even though Second Nature is not specifically designed for kids with learning disabilities, it stands head and shoulders above many in its capacity to deliver a highly effective and individualized therapeutic intervention program for many teens with specific learning disabilities who are also struggling behaviorally.
What stands out most of all is the staff. Besides possessing the requisite outdoor leadership and clinical and relational skills, virtually every staff member I’ve met there, from the leadership team and out to field staff, shows great desire and willingness to continue learning. As it applies to connecting and reaching struggling teens who also have learning disabilities, staff have repeatedly engaged me in spirited discussions about best practices and seem to genuinely desire to add to their tool box. When you study organizational behavior, the term “learning organization” is used to signify an organization that doesn’t rest on laurels but challenges itself to be better and more responsive to its customers and clients. SNWP is that. It’s more than a catch phrase. When real, it means everything.
SNWP was started in 1998; so they’ve been around long enough to become seasoned and yet young enough to retain a freshness of thinking. SNWP was founded by clinicians, Brad Reedy, Ph.D., L.M.F.T, Cheryl Kehl, LCSW, and Devan Glissmeyer, Ph.D. They remain actively engaged in day to day operations and/or strategic management. The fact that it was started by clinicians may seem obvious but at the time, was part of a pioneering effort to raise the level of clinical sophistication in Therapeutic Wilderness Programs. In interviewing Dr. Reedy, and having also met with the other founders, it’s clear that they believe fully in the wilderness model-one that pushes for psychological impact through nature, with its powerful metaphors and distraction free environment. The founders have implemented a high degree of individuality in its clinical approach delivered out in the field to the kids. For students who learn and process differently, individuality is an important component.
Another striking part of SNWP that I see very clearly, is how well staff are treated and consequently, how long they stay and how well they work. In such a highly demanding profession, helping faculty feel valued and trained, is as important as anything.
Equipped with these attributes, Second Nature has key staff that either embody specific knowledge and training (related to learning disabilities and troubled youth), or possess the perspective of appreciation for different learning styles, and are hungry to seek out new ways to reach their kids. J Huffine, for example is a former school psychologist who is the lead therapist and a partner at SNWP, Cascades. J has a well-deserved reputation for working well with kids with processing differences, perhaps needing a softer approach, and one that’s cognizant of different learning profiles. If you listen to J (and I have) describe how he worked with one kid on the autism spectrum, perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome, in part by providing him with almost a menu of problem-solving possibilities on notecards, you know that he can adjust to nuances of working memory deficits and unique learner needs, at a high and studied level.
Brian Lepinske is a clinician at SNWP who attracts a loyal following among educational consultants and families. What impresses me about Brian and others like him is this: He has a demonstrated gift in reaching hard to reach kids, and yet he continues to be passionate about learning, from me and others, about how to increase his tool chest of skills when it comes to learning disabilities. Don’t get me wrong: while it’s nice to be sought out, this is not about the fact that he sees me as a resource. It’s about his being a living example of a learner without ego hang-ups. There are other staff; Paul Goddard, Ph.D has an affinity to working with girls with learning disabilities, and Devan Glissmeyer, Ph.D, has experience and expertise with kids on the Autism Spectrum and those with NVLD, are examples of others to note.
But Second Nature is not a personality driven group. It’s an organization, and one that in part, because of founding principles, attracts and retains high caliber people. My experience with admissions and tours, exemplified by Lori Armbruster, shows high level attention to detail and heart.
This attention to detail is also reflective of SNWP’s approach to safety and details in general. There is a strong discipline in logistics, policies, follow through and systems excellence concerning all areas of safety and equipment.
Finally, SNWP works hard at keeping families an integral part of the work they do with kids. In addition to family visits to the field, mid-program and at completion, it puts webinars to good use, enabling parents to access knowledge and strategies to be a better parent and treatment team member. Specific to Learning Disabilities, there are some helpful webinars that speak to the relationships between processing and learning differences, school struggle and behavioral and developmental problems.
Second Nature has programs for kids from 11-14 (Footsteps, in Georgia), two locations for adolescents in Utah and one in Central Oregon, and one in Utah designed for adults.
Seek out the counsel of an experienced educational placement specialist. Do not attempt to find programs based only on what you find on the internet or what you read here. Doing your due diligence and investigation is important, however this is the time to get counsel from outside as well.