Four teens ran away from a wilderness therapy program in Old Fort this summer, attracting media attention, yet Executive Director Shawn Farrell doesn’t want those incidents to define his organization for the public.
That’s because 375 students graduate successfully each year.
An east coast branch of The School of Urban Wilderness and Survival (SUWS of the Carolinas) was established in Old Fort in 2000. SUWS is located at an old Boy Scout camp past Andrews Geyser. It serves troubled teens from all over the country.
SUWS accepts adolescent boys and girls from 10 to 17 years old. Upon arrival, the program provides all the necessities for them to survive the next four to seven weeks camping out in the forest where they are taught “survival’ skills.”
“What we are designed to work with are kids that are having particular challenges in growing up,” Farrell said. “So many of the kids have mental health challenges, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, drug and alcohol dependencies, or struggle to make friends.”
According to Farrell, parents are running out of options with their children when they call SUWS. Most of the students who attend have previously received treatment at inpatient or outpatient centers.
“We use the wilderness as a way to help kids and families reorient themselves. They learn primitive skills like starting fires, and skills you need to ‘survive’ in the wilderness,” Farrell explained. He also noted the students hike, do yoga, have drum circles and learn a ropes course, among other activities.
Although, not a true survival program, SUWS provides each student with clothes, shelter, food and toiletries. Farrell says the Pisgah National Forest is a great teacher by reducing distractions so the student can focus on their internal issues.
“We believe that if you learn to do the things you consider challenging then you will feel better about yourself,” said Farrell. “And when adolescents start to feel better about themselves, a lot of their mental issues start to dissipate”.
Farrell mentioned that most of these students have inappropriate coping mechanisms, such as throwing temper tantrums or abusing drugs.
“We use the wilderness as a vehicle to teach self-esteem and new coping mechanisms, so the kids can appropriately communicate at school and at home.”
An average stay at SUWS is about 53 days. Most of the time the students are camping in the woods and working daily with clinicians to target their issues.
SUWS uses four different therapy programs called Seasons, Phoenix, SUWS and Approach. Students are grouped first according to gender, then age and need. The programs are designed to pinpoint what the adolescents are struggling with and cover a broad range of therapy for kids with Asperger syndrome and extreme ADHD to socially isolated or bullied students.
The Phoenix program serves 16 to 17 year olds with a primary diagnosis of substance abuse masked by underlying mental health issues. The McDowell News spoke with some of these students, identified only by their first names.
Kayla, 16, from New Jersey was admitted for problems with drugs and alcohol. She is close to graduating the program and is looking forward to returning to SUWS as a mentor.
“It’s hard living in the woods and being away from home,” Kayla said. “But everyone here is very accepting, and you have the ability to change your life. The people here truly care about your success.”
16-year-old Gage from West Virginia is also in the program for substance abuse, and has recently been accepted to a boarding school in Ohio to play baseball, which he says would have never happened without SUWS.
“One thing that is good about SUWS is you learn not to take things for granted back at home, like TV and a warm bed,” he said.
Cameron, 17, from Maryland added, “You can work through your problems and not stress yourself out. You have to learn new methods to cope so you don’t use.”
Farrell said that a lot of work done with these students is with relationships and communication.
“Many of these students struggle not only with peer relationships, but also family relationships in that trust within the family is broken,” he said.
Upon graduation, parents will come out and have their own therapy session, along with camping in the woods with their children Farrell says the students love to show off their new skills, and watching the family reunite positively is an awesome experience.
“SUWS is only 53 days within 18 years of these kids’ lives, and the long haul is put on the parents’ shoulders,” Farrell said, adding most parents are willing to compromise by setting appropriate boundaries, schedules and structure which is often lost in these family systems.
“Parents owe their kids school, food, clothing and shelter, everything else is a privilege,” Farrell said. “The expression of love in this country has become ‘here is what I bought you’ versus time spent together, and so we encourage the reformatting of that.”
Farrell said the community is invited anytime to come learn what SUWS has to offer and talk to the kids. Farrell even has suggested a community picnic for the future.
“They’re really good kids that just make really bad decisions, but they are not delinquents.”
For more information about SUWS of the Carolinas, visit their website at suwscarolinas.crchealth.com or call 888-828-9770.