Before jumping into the interview with Tyler Fish, Staffing Director from Voyageur Outward Bound located in MN and TX, here is a mini history lesson about Outward Bound in an effort to put the misunderstandings of the organization on the table. Outward Bound is an international, non-profit outdoor education program that assists students in learning outdoor skills to achieve personal growth. The first school opened in 1941 in England (Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt) and now has 40 different “Schools” around the world. The 15 U.S. programs run independently but collaborate on admissions and marketing. Many of the students who enroll are typically developing kiddos who want be in the outdoors for a week, month or even a semester. The students are personally motivated, interested to develop leadership and and problem-solving skills in a group setting in the wilderness.
There are lots of misunderstandings of what Outward Bound offers; some see attending Outward Bound as a privilege while others see it a punishment. Sometimes in the movies you hear one a parent saying to another, “All the kid needs is Outward Bound!” or “Just send that kid to the wilderness, like to one of those Outward Bound programs.” What I translate these statements into is, unplug the child, remove him/her from the influence of their friends, and enjoy mother nature.
While offering courses to families, veterans, teens and young adults, Voyageur Outward Bound School also offers a program called Intercept Expeditions that can be an intervention for the right kiddo, 14-17, who is struggling. It is not a wilderness therapy program. This interview will help to clarify what type of student Outward Bound accepts into this program vs. what characteristics are rule outs.
(Full disclosure, I am a Colorado OB grad.)
What are the admissions questions for a typical Voyageur Outward Bound program (either the shorter courses or the semester “gap year” courses)? What types of students do you want for the month-long courses or the semester courses?
Almost anyone can complete a classic Outward Bound course, of any length. It helps if individuals are more fit and have the right expectations going into it. Train the body and train the mind, and you’re good to go! Still, most teenagers and young adults don’t train.
Classic courses have no specific requirements. In order to keep the group safe in the backcountry, we ask that people complete the required student medical, fill out a questionnaire and then anything else we request as follow-up. Some conditions don’t work for OB — certain medical issues, recent histories or significant behaviors — but we try to work with everyone. Most often we succeed and are proud of this fact.
Longer courses require more of a student’s dedication in the form of motivation and commitment to the long haul, emotionally. Much like going to a foreign country, participants must expect that there will be ups and downs. I think that if a person is actively pursuing purpose, skills or connection with people, a longer course will be incredible.
Now let’s jump into the Intercept Expedition courses; how do the program’s application and course differ?
(Note: Wilderness therapy programs have an extensive application that is an informal psychosocial evaluation)
Intercept is an Outward Bound course that has an additional layer placed over it. Like a gooey frosting, that layer seeps into the Outward Bound cake and changes the makeup of the whole thing. That layer has to do with Intercept’s population and purpose. Its population is students whose relationships are shaky at home, or whose school performance is down, or whose behaviors are either risky or limiting their potential. We spend considerable time on the telephone learning from both the parents and the student about their challenges before we accept a student into the Intercept program.
Due to the intensity of the program and the whole family involvement, the application process is more extensive. We ask for more information from the parents, therapists, student, and at times, third party references. It takes longer to get approved for Intercept.
The purpose of Intercept is to provide the entire family with new perspective and skills, although these are somewhat different from student to parent. While students are on expedition, the parents are doing a workbook and reflecting for the majority of that time, then participating in a 3-day seminar at the end (in person). Voyageur specializes in working on motivation, goal-setting, communication, emotional intelligence and whatever else is needed to transfer responsibility from instructors to the student group.
Intercept is not therapy — there are no therapists on staff. However, the same staff do live with the students for the entirety of their experience. We focus on unconditional positive regard and creating a challenging and supportive learning environment. Students must confront who they are in relation to others and the consequences of their decisions. It is effective and intense.
What is the length of Intercept?
There are two courses. The 28-day Intercept course is the tried and true life-changing experience (as long as the student “wants” to change). We’ve been doing it for decades and have refined its focus and structure to be as successful as we can offer.
The 50-day Intercept Semester has all of the elements of the 28-day plus more time to cement new skills, two more modes of wilderness travel, and a second 3-day seminar with parents at Outward Bound. There is also more of a focus towards life skills, longer-term goals and a successful transition home.
Who are the students you are looking for? Or maybe an easier question is, what type of students are you not looking for?
The second is the easier question. While typically a “youth-at-risk” course, think about it… Who is not at risk for something as a teen? Everyone is. Many parents have lauded Intercept as being “good for anyone.” Everyone benefits from a focus on relationships, positive routines and a recognition of triggering environments and bad friends. We’re looking for kids who choose to come and are willing to try for the whole time they are at Voyageur.
We don’t take students who are violent or currently drug-addicted. Some adverse experiences, or constellation of variables, add up to being too much for our program. We want to set every individual and group up for success.
Along those lines, I think that students with really poor social skills (i.e. no friends, or a diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder) stand an increased risk of a lesser experience with Outward Bound. We can admit them and work with them to the best of our ability, but Outward Bound is, by necessity, a group experience. It’s not one-on-one therapy. The quality of the time here is directly proportionate to the group’s failure and ultimate success. Students who cannot operate in a group have difficulty gaining the skills and perspective we hope for them to achieve.
This makes sense. There are wilderness therapy programs or specific groups within with therapy programs that specialize with students on the spectrum or limited social skills. Although you do not have trained or licensed therapists working with the students running the Intercept Expeditions, you do have a family component?
(*** Note to reader: Licensed therapists are a primary component of a wilderness therapy program and they do phone calls with the parents, week by week, with a comprehensive treatment plan that is established and followed.)
The family component is vital. Our three-day seminar doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does set the family up for success. If you want learning to last longer, kids must use what they know. It’s important to have other invested people who are familiar, who use the same metaphor, speak the same language and try the same tools. Parents universally praise our workbook and the student’s experience as they come together in the culminating event of the parent seminar and the conferencing that happens over the weekend.
The seminar is where we listen to parents, continue to challenge students and try as hard as possible to advocate for the whole family. We don’t believe that kids are broken. They’re just trying the best they can, most of them, with what they know. Ideally we understand their feelings, their intentions and the consequences of their actions. We take parents through a crash course in Outward Bound values and design principles. Mixing it all together, we create the conditions for change. At the end of three days, we all feel inspired to take the next step in the only direction possible: outward.
Do you follow families once they have completed the Intercept program?
We specialize in field work. Follow-up is mostly outside of our area of expertise. Over the years we have tried various ways of tracking our success, mostly through surveys and gathering stories. We know that the program is successful--but that largely depends on what people have for expectations. The truth is, for an Outward Bound student who is ready, for parents who are willing to support and also grow, for a family that is committed to success through hard work, there will be transformative rewards. For all students, Intercept is an accelerator, speeding them along their path to the next junction or decision. Measuring success is not easy when it comes to character growth. When do the seeds planted bear fruit?
Yet we recognize the importance of follow-up and follow-through. Recently we began partnering with an outside organization, PRN for Families, to help better serve the needs of our students post-course. PRN helps to transfer the lessons of Intercept to the home environment.This way we can focus on what we do best while advocating for additional services to leverage success at Outward Bound into the future. We stay true to our mission, PRN for Families does what they do best, and Intercept families do better faster, more deliberately.
This makes sense, you are not a clinical program and do not programmatically track outcomes. Intercept has created a life experience intervention. Do you have anything else to add?
I think it’s important to keep Intercept in perspective. It’s an informal assessment tool to help students realize what kind of further support they need. Many families will realize that their situation is pretty strong and full of love, and that they have to keep up the good work. Others will gain the perspective and skills they need, maybe realize they need more of a support network at home or that the environment must change. Some will be confronted with the reality that Intercept must be followed by therapy, or wilderness therapy or an alignment of the various services available.
Anyone wanting to contact VOBS about Intercept should call us at 828.239.2376. Or they can email: firstname.lastname@example.org.