At SUWS, Adolescents Follow Three-Phase Path to Success
By Hugh C. McBride
When students at SUWS Adolescent and Youth Program gather their gear and head into the Idaho desert, they're doing a lot more than starting a long hike across seemingly barren terrain - they're actually taking their first steps along a highly structured path designed to point them in the direction of their greatest potential.
In order to ensure that the students reach the desired destination - and have mastered the necessary skills along the way - SUWS has established a three-phase program that emphasizes personal growth as well as the ability to make healthy, positive contributions to both family and society.
Three Steps Toward Success
When they first arrive at SUWS, the new students are taught the basics of living in the wilderness, are introduced to the healthy, no-frills diet they will follow on the trail, and are given the opportunity to acclimate themselves to the desert environment in which they will be living.
Following this orientation, the students will progress through a three-phase process that is structured to address their specific individual needs while preparing them to make healthy contributions to their families while also becoming active, productive members of society:
- Phase 1: Individual - For the first week or so of their SUWS experience, the students will focus almost entirely on the personal issues and individual challenges that have caused them problems in the past. As they analyze their previous patterns of thinking and acting out, they will be working with their counselors to develop greater senses of self-reliance, accountability, and responsibility.
- Phase 2: Family - Once they have achieved the developmental goals that are inherent in the individual phase, the students will join a "family" of the other SUWS kids and counselors with whom they have been hiking. As they are integrated into the family, the students are assigned specific tasks and given certain responsibilities that will affect not only themselves but the others in the group.
- Phase 3: Community - As the family becomes a more cohesive unit - and the individual members demonstrate their continued ability to function in a healthy, supportive manner - the group will be given a service-related project. In addition to giving the students an opportunity to test their skills, the community phase also allows them to take the lessons they have been learning in the wilderness and apply them for the benefit of the greater community.
Though the nature of the program guarantees that no two days will be the same - and no two students will have the same experience - SUWS administrators say that the structured, three-phase approach allows both for maximum flexibility and continued attention to the fundamental concepts that each student is expected to master.
"The structure provides a framework for us to respond to 'teachable moments' as they occur," said Cliff Stockton, SUWS Program Director.
Phase One: Individual
During their first days in the desert, the SUWS students work with instructors on individual skills such as personal hygiene, proper nutrition and hydration, packing a backpack, setting up a shelter, and recording one's thoughts and observations in a personal journal. The new students also complete challenges such as making fire and building a trap with natural materials.
Though the students are hiking and camping alongside other teens, "the focus is on taking care of yourself," Stockton said. This level of self-attention is a core component of every successful search-and-rescue effort, he added. "The most important person is you," Stockton said, "because if you're injured or impaired, you can't help anyone else."
Focusing on oneself, Rex said, allows the SUWS students to become acclimated to their new environment while also developing a greater understanding of their role in the world. "Wilderness gives kids the opportunity to reflect on the important questions that we all have," she said. "Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my value?"
As the students work with their counselors, and record their thoughts in daily journal entries, they discover that their initial views of both themselves and their environment may be worthy of a re-evaluation. "Most kids have an 'aha!' moment during the individual phase when they realize how small they are in respect to the world around them," Rex said, adding that this awareness usually leads the students to a greater understanding and appreciation of the world beyond themselves.
"At first, the desert looks barren and lifeless to them, but they slowly began to see how much is out there," she said. "It's not that the desert has suddenly become more alive - it's that they've become more aware of and connected to their environment."
As the SUWS students make these essential connections between themselves and the world around them, they are demonstrating the growth and development that is necessary to justify their progress from the individual phase to the family phase. "When the child can take accountability and can make an expression that they have a true desire for something different in their lives, then we know they're prepared for the next phase," Rex said.
One of the most important parts of taking this step, Stockton said, is that the students understand that their progress wasn't due to the subjective opinion of a SUWS staffer, but rather was the result of the specific progress that they, themselves, had made. "When they join a family group, they know that it was a result of their actions and accomplishments," Stockton said. "They moved themselves from the individual phase to the family phase."
Phase Two: Family
Once a SUWS student joins a family, the therapeutic focus shifts from overcoming past problems to being accountable and responsible for one's actions in the present. The recurring theme, Stockton said, is ""What are you doing right here right now?"
As the students continue to work on issues related to self-respect and self-reliance, they also have the opportunity to contribute to their family by taking on a variety of responsibilities.
"In the family, they're learning to develop a greater sense of empathy and responsibility," Rex said. "Now, the questions that they're asking themselves are 'What's my role?" and 'What's my responsibility to those around me?'" she said.
Contributing to the greater good is an important part of joining a family - a mandate that SUWS students meet by serving in leadership roles such as navigator (determining the direction in which the group hikes), a.m. leader (ensuring that everyone wakes up on time and gets to work), and truth circle leader (facilitating open and honest expression during nightly gatherings).
"The kids become accountable to the other members of their family, and responsible for how their behaviors and emotions affect the others," Rex said.
"What they do affects the entire group," Stockton said. "They have the opportunity to help [individual] family members and be a positive influence on the group."
While in the family phase, SUWS students continue to work with therapists on an individual basis, which gives them the opportunity to evaluate and develop strategies for positive interactions, then test these techniques while working with their peers.
"The bulk of a student's treatment at SUWS is done during the family group phase," Stockton said.
Because the lessons that the students learn during the family phase involve philosophies and behaviors that they will employ and enhance throughout their lives, Rex observed that the impact of this segment extends far beyond the geographical dimensions of the desert - or the duration of the program itself.
"In one sense, the family phase never ends," she said.
Phase Three: Community
Once the students have established themselves as healthy individuals who are capable of contributing to the group, they are ready for the final phase: community.
"During the community phase, our student ask themselves 'How are we going to act in a way that helps and serves others?'" Rex said.
For many families, the community phase involves serving as an "on call" search-and-rescue team - volunteering their newly acquired skills to help others who may have become lost or injured while in the area. In addition to being available should real emergencies demand their attention, the student search-and-rescue teams are also apt to be called to a simulated rescue event, Rex said.
"The simulations give them the opportunity to test their skills, and to get a better understanding of what it means to work as a team and help someone," Rex said. "After the simulation, they get together as a group to review what they did well, what they need to work on, and how it all felt."
Other activities that take place during the community phase include service projects such as improving a fish/wildlife habitat, cleaning up a piece of land, or planting trees in a fire-ravaged area.
Whether serving as an on-call search-and-rescue team or completing a service project, students who are completing the community phase are put in the position of dedicating time and effort to an endeavor that doesn't directly benefit themselves. It also gets them thinking about the world into which they are preparing to return.
"The community phase is about helping out & cleaning up, but it's really about the future," Stockton said. "It's about preparing yourself for what comes next."
Because "what comes next" can vary considerably among SUWS students, Rex said the program is designed to develop a solid foundation of fundamental skills. "We want to develop abilities such as empathy, responsibility, and accountability," she said.
By increasing students' self-reliance and enhancing their ability to live, work with, and contribute to the well-being of others, SUWS puts them and their families in the best possible position to achieve their greatest potential.
"It's about giving them the skills, and then teaching them how to apply those skills," Stockton said.
For more information about SUWS, call 1-888-879-7897 (1-888-TRY-SUWS) or visit the program's website at www.suws.com.