I came across InnerRoads Wilderness Program, “an affordable wilderness therapy program”, while reading the business section of The Missoulian August 8th, 2015. I jumped out of my seat, because I was always looking, when placing students, for an affordable option. What does affordable mean? Who do they serve? How do they finance it? Curt Tweedy, Program Director/Program therapist at InnerRoads, which is part of Youth Homes Montana (youthhomesmt.org), and I reconnected recently. Curt’s busy season is coming up again and he reopens operations in Missoula, MT. They are a unique program, an operating non-profit wilderness therapy program providing a sliding-fee scale for troubled teens. Read more about how non-profit wilderness programs compete with other programs.
Curt, how did you get into wilderness therapy?
In 2004, I obtained an undergraduate degree in Recreation Therapy at Minnesota State University. I worked a variety of recreation therapy jobs around the world and naturally gravitated toward wilderness therapy. My first wilderness therapy job was as an instructor for SUWS of Idaho. While at SUWS, I was drawn to the powerful connections the youth established with the environment, the staff and each other. I was also inspired by several SUWS therapists. I felt that with the right training, I could become a stronger resource for the kids and families. I enrolled in the graduate social work program at the University of Montana (UM) and now have my masters degree. The UM program focused on building foundations in social justice, advocacy, and community involvement, and was a big part of my transition to the InnerRoads philosophy. I joined InnerRoads in 2011 and haven’t looked back!
You are in a niche market, being an ‘affordable’ wilderness therapy program. What does it mean to be a .org (versus a .com)?
It’s fun to be different and it feels good to be providing these services to families that wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. That being said, it’s also a challenge to be going at it alone and trying to do something that others aren’t. InnerRoads is a non-profit and our belief is that everybody (regardless of income, race, gender, etc.) should not only have access to wild spaces, but also to the powerful experiences wilderness therapy can provide.
For the past three years, we have been extremely fortunate to receive state funding from the Montana Board of Crime Control (MBCC). This does not mean we only work with adjudicated youth. Some of our youth have had involvement with the juvenile justice system, others have not. The state funds our program, knowing Innerroads Our program deters youth from engaging in illegal behaviors, or if they are already in “the (juvenile justice) system”, it helps reduce ongoing illegal behaviors. MBCC funds us based on these two principles.
To further reduce necessary overhead expenses, we spend a large part of the year fundraising. Because of this fundraising, in addition to partnerships with state and local agencies, we are able to offer a sliding fee scale to the families we work with. Last year 91% of our youth received some form of scholarship. If a youth is a good fit for a wilderness therapy experience then we are going to make it happen, regardless of the parents’ income.
For the past three years, we have been fortunate to receive state funding from the Montana Board of Crime Control (MBCC). This does not mean we only work with adjudicated youth. Some of our youth have had involvement with the juvenile justice system, others have not. Our program deters youth from engaging in illegal behaviors, or if they are already in the system it helps reduce ongoing illegal behaviors. MBCC funds us based on these two principles.
We also manage a handful of other small grants. This includes the Learning by Giving grant and a grant from the Missoula County Public School (MCPS) system. Our collaboration with MCPS allows us to give youth a minimum of two high school credits when they graduate from InnerRoads. This perk is a possibility for all InnerRoads participants regardless of geographical location.
We have a variety of local fundraising events and individual donors. All of this is made possible by our incorporation with a larger organization, Youth Homes, that sustains and maintains our mission and development work. If any of your readers are interested in donating to our non profit, please click here and donate.
The majority of our gear is donated. Depending on our inventory, we are also able to give gear when they graduate, to hopefully encourage them to keep getting outside. Patagonia and REI have been especially strong supporters of our youth and our mission.
Adolescent Wilderness Therapy in UT has a staff to student ratio of 1:4, what is yours? What is the average length of stay?
Our staff-student ratio is 1:2. We look at it as an investment. Being an instructor is hard work and the ability to remain engaged for the duration of a shift is imperative to our success. Hiring a strong team is one of my favorite things about my job.
Our applicant pool is incredibly talented and highly competitive. Our applicants are generally attracted to InnerRoads for the diversity of our clients and our social justice rooted mission. At a minimum, our instructors need to have a bachelor’s degree in any field. The majority of instructors come to us with significant wilderness therapy experience. We also often get teachers, school counselors / social workers or therapists who work for us as a summer job. Instructors stick around for our sustainable employment model and our support for professional development and growth. Our groups generally have six youth and three instructors. Instructor teams work two week shifts. A maximum of two instructors trade out at a time. As the Program Therapist, I am also in the field Tuesday-Thursday.
Where do you operate your wilderness portion of your program?
Montana is big, wild, and beautiful! One of the best parts of our job is picking where we go next! Most years we do a trip in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness, Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Charles M Russell Wildlife Refuge. Other favorites of mine have included Yellowstone National Park and the Pioneer mountains. We run a true nomadic model. Students will not see a camp site more than once and by the time they graduate they will have hiked 100+ miles and climbed a handful of peaks/high points. I will generally have 1-3 former graduates volunteering to help me carry in food and supplies to the group each week. “Giving back” is a big part of the InnerRoads philosophy.
Where are your clients from? Do they go on to further treatment?
Clients find us from all over. Most are from the Pacific Northwest. When people search “affordable wilderness therapy”, we are usually the first to pop up. Youth and families who go through the program move on to a variety of different services. Most go home, others work with in home supports or case management, and the minority move on to therapeutic boarding schools or other residential treatment programs.
What is the most surprising part of the work that you do?
There are two things--
1) The ability of people to grow when it's least expected. This includes staff and students. When things start to “click”, it's rewarding.
2) How much fun I get to have at my job. We (and I) believe that fun, enjoyment - even celebration - are important parts to being a healthy human - youth or adult. While we are serious about structure and hard work, we also consciously make time for fun and creativity to take center stage.
What types of students do you work with? What are the rule outs for enrolling?
Like most wilderness therapy programs, safety is our top priority. At InnerRoads, we go deeper into the wilderness than most programs and thus take some extra precautions. This includes our high staff-student ratio, intensive backcountry training for our staff, and two way satellite communications. Because we are further out in the wilderness, we screen out any serious run threats or suicidal behaviors, like all wilderness therapy programs.
Our top three diagnoses tend to be depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The majority of students come to us disengaged: with their families, schools, friends, and selves. They have struggled to be successful in their home environments, often have low self esteem and an overall inability to cope. Parents are deeply concerned about their teenagers and at a loss at what to do.
How can a family get in touch with you? What months do you operate?
Families can directly call or email me or our Program Manager, Katharine Sampson. We are both always happy to assist families and family supports (case managers, therapists, consultant or interventionists) in brainstorming how and what supports to utilize for improving their lives. Ideally, we also will start building motivation with the youth as soon possible.
We fundraise most of the student’s expense during the winter months, we can operate spectacular wilderness expeditions in Montana’s Spring, Summer and Fall months., We accept students ages 13-17 for programs running April-October.
What should referring professionals (interventionists, placement professionals, or consultants) know before referring?
Flexibility is the name of the game at InnerRoads. We will think outside the box to build funding and supports for families choosing to invest in the intervention. Just give us a call!