June 3, 1996 in Nation/World

Wilderness Helps Tame Teenagers Ruby Ridge Camp Combines Workshops With Outdoors Training

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Amy is 17, but tiny. She could pass for 14. She looks from behind wire-rimmed glasses, plays with her blond hair and spills out her story.

“I’m basically a spoiled brat,” the Seattle girl says.

“I’ve been bulimic, anorexic. I thought I was too fat to go to school. The more people who wanted to help me, the more I didn’t want help. My mom really knows how to push my buttons. I flew into rages around the house. … They wanted me on medication - lithium and … ”

Shane, 15, looks just as lost. He’s been treated by three psychiatrists and at two hospitals. He has run away from his Connecticut home and fought with his mom. But he misses her badly. Four months ago, his dad killed himself.

Sad stories are as common as mountain pines here at Ascent, the Inland Northwest’s biggest “therapeutic adventure” program aimed at turning troubled teenagers around.

Ascent managers ask that their clients’ last names not be used nor their pictures be taken.

Up to 40 youths at a time are brought here to Ruby Ridge, not far from the scene of the infamous shootout between Randy Weaver and federal agents in 1992.

The next year, CEDU Inc. moved its Ascent program here after operating briefly in Montana. Ascent shares 200 acres with Northwest Academy. Up the road near Bonners Ferry, CEDU also has Rocky Mountain and Boulder Creek academies.

Ascent is quite unlike those three residential schools. It is a six-week program - some would say a boot camp - designed for intensely troubled youngsters. The goal is to get them ready for therapy and education elsewhere.

“We don’t fix kids here,” says Dick Ramsey, who heads Ascent’s wilderness program. “What we try to do is redirect them.”

Redirection is costly. The tab can cost parents or insurance companies more than $15,000 for six weeks. Daily tuition is $340.

Still, it’s cheaper than a psychiatric unit (Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane costs $862 per day, not counting therapy).

These kids have slashed their wrists, used drugs, been molested or abandoned, dabbled in Satanism or overdosed on sex. All suffer from low self-esteem.

“They come in fighting tooth and nail. They’re into self-mutilation, beating up moms and dads,” says counselor Brent Calderhead, whose look and voice reflect his Army Special Forces background. “They start changing because they’re tired of us being in their face. They start learning self-respect.”

The teens first are brought to a cluster of wood-sided buildings that are the core of Ascent. They contain computers, files and professionals with a string of academic credentials after their names - credentials that insurance companies demand.

When visitors arrive, admissions director Matt Fitzgerald is quick to explain that Ascent is not a survival camp. The teens don’t start fires with sticks or eat off the land.

“These kids have been deprived enough, emotionally. They eat very good meals,” says Fitzgerald.

For some, it may seem like deprivation just to get up at 7 a.m.

“They’re used to sleeping in until 11 and telling mom to take a hike, they’re not going to school today,” says Fitzgerald.

At Ascent, teens don’t get sugar or carbonated drinks. No jewelry or tape players, no jackets with logos. No jeans. No telephone calls home, although there’s a regular exchange of faxed letters with parents.

Fitzgerald walks down a dirt road to the teens’ temporary home, a clearing in the woods. On one side is a line of tepees built on platforms so that hot air can be blown underneath in winter.

Kids who can’t get along or are self-destructive sleep alone in small tents. Bathing is done in a tepee equipped with a water pump, buckets and curtained stalls.

On a typical morning, several teens saw firewood. Inside the mess tent, a dozen more take part in a philosophy workshop. On a white flip-chart, these words are written in blue ink: “wisdom,” “introspection,” “illumination,” “responsibility.”

“Let’s say you stole something,” says the instructor. “What’s the responsible thing to do?” “Give it back,” one boy says.

Less cooperative teens are having a timeout. They’re sitting on stumps in the middle of the clearing. They’ve been assigned a writing exercise. One fellow apparently has come up with an excuse for not following instructions. He gets a sharp response from the counselor: “Don’t give us that!” Some kids wear orange vests. That means they’re at risk of running away.

Everyone’s boots are taken at night to reduce the risk of running. But after a few weeks, most want to stay.

By then, they’ve gotten a lot of counseling.

“I had one kid say, ‘This is something I can tell my grandkids about.’ The day before he was talking about suicide,” says Fitzgerald.

Their minds far from downtown Miami or Portland or wherever else they came from, the teens are ready for a two-week backpacking expedition.

Three staff members go with eight kids. They use the latest outdoor gear. Help is only a radio call away.

“They’re not out there to learn about ecology,” says Ramsey. “The wilderness is just another vehicle, another tool to look at ourselves, to know how to solve problems.”

Once back on campus, the teens spend three days on a ropes course. Last year, Ascent bought a custom-made Alpine Tower - which looks like the world’s biggest piece of playground equipment - to teach teens to challenge their bodies and minds.

Near the end of the six weeks, the teenagers get letters from their parents telling them what will happen next in their lives. Counselors strongly recommend that the teens return to the same schools, neighborhoods and friends. Eighty percent go into another program.

The kids write an “individual plan for success.” They each get a T-shirt, a diploma. Their graduation ceremony takes place in the woods among rocks arranged in a circle. Their parents cry.

“Then we put them on a plane in Spokane,” says Fitzgerald, “and send them on their way.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THIS SERIES Today Nestled in the North Idaho pines, Ascent is the region’s largest wilderness therapy program. When their kids need help but refuse it, desperate parents call on specialists like Richard Armstrong.

June 2 The business of helping troubled teenagers is one of the Inland Northwest’s growing industries. Regulation of “emotional growth” schools and camps is inconsistent and sometimes non-existent.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THIS SERIES Today Nestled in the North Idaho pines, Ascent is the region’s largest wilderness therapy program. When their kids need help but refuse it, desperate parents call on specialists like Richard Armstrong.

June 2 The business of helping troubled teenagers is one of the Inland Northwest’s growing industries. Regulation of “emotional growth” schools and camps is inconsistent and sometimes non-existent.


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