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Interview with Emma Welch, founder and owner of Rites of Passage Wilderness Therapy

All Kinds of Therapy is always searching for new treatment options for families to assess. Rites of Passage (ROP), located in Washington State, is a new wilderness therapy program to, but not new to their work. They were founded and opened a wilderness therapy program in 2010 and have recently added a Ranch component for many of their clients, providing a smooth aftercare or transitional living transition. Since Rites of Passage programs are in Washington State, they operate in amazing country. Rites of Passage requires the teens to opt into their treatment and medication management.


Emma, how did you and your husband, Nathan Welch, come up with the idea to start Rites of Passage?

Nathan worked in the wilderness therapy industry in his twenties and loved helping children while educating them about nature. After wilderness work, he earned his undergrad and then his Master’s Degree and immersed himself in the business world. He was called up to war in Afghanistan in 2009 as the commanding officer for combat engineers performing route clearance for the marines in Helmand Province. Nathan has always been entrepreneurial in spirit and wrote the student curriculum in Afghanistan in his limited time off. Our family encouraged us to start Rites of Passage NW Wilderness Therapy and it was born in March 2010! My background was in domestic violence and advocacy for families and children. We have traveled to 35 countries together and have seen much of the world and came to realize how we could make a lasting impact and legacy at home.


You are a mission driven program and went from a wilderness therapy program, to the Ranch to having a foundation to support families. Tell me about RoP’s Bonnie Alaska Welch Children’s Foundation and what you are doing with it? Are you able to support lots of families?

We started with the wilderness therapy program and helped families for a few years and had to find secondary placement for many of our students, as time in treatment helps assure long term success. We were saddened to have to say goodbye to students whom we got to know and help to other programs for longer term care. I came up with the idea of creating a long term facility to help students up to 11 months after trail to see the transition all the way through. It is small – only 5 beds but intimate and impactful. Our perfect candidate is a young adult who is willing to move to our state and let us help them reintegrate into a new lifestyle here in Washington. The Bonnie Alaska Welch’s Children’s Foundation was established a few years after our wilderness therapy company started; we lost our first child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 2012 and started a nonprofit in her honor as a dedication to keep her memory alive with us. She now helps families who are in a socio-economic bracket preventing them from affording our services. Though we are licensed in the state of Washington and our therapists are licensed with the Department of Social and Health Services to practice medicine in the state, we had to turn away many families from our services because insurance companies will not typically pay for Wilderness Therapy. To date we have given $25,000 in scholarships and have expanded our board to 8 members. This year we are going to participate in OysterFest in Mason County Washington to raise funds for families in crisis. We also started a mentorship program for past graduates to come back the next season and pay it forward by helping new students for two week increments. The most gratifying aspect of this work is it all comes from the heart and is so rewarding. If you are reading this and want to help you can donate by going here. 

We also run leadership courses for young adults who are emerging into adulthood. Leadership course participants range from 18 to 30’s.


You are an expedition based wilderness therapy model. What does that mean for the students who participate? Is this a base-camp model? If expeditionary, do the therapists travel with the students?

We are an expedition based model, meaning we move every day to a new location. Sometimes we have layover days in the most beautiful locations, and always when the students are doing their solos during their capstone portion of the program. The students never repeat trails. (We also offer “kayak trails” as well, once the group reaches maturity for safety reasons, and a sailing component for older students, too.) We operate a 1:3 staff to student ratio and our guides have earned (at minimum) a bachelor degree education, typically in the mental health field or outdoor recreation fields. We work with multiple universities with offering internships ranging from 12 to 30 weeks weeks depending on interns’ educational level requirements. Our therapists typically spend half their week in the field and the other half in the office. This allows objectivity with dealing with students and families. (One year we tried to have our therapist stay out all week during the course, but found that as therapists closed some distance, they lost some objectivity, as they were so involved in the day-to-day of the field group.) Our students stay 8-10 weeks on average. Our minimum stay is 4-6 weeks depending on age and presenting issues. Our longest stay with Wilderness Therapy combined with the long term ranch program is 14 months. These clients typically have been to 4-5 traditional rehabs before we receive them.


The Ranch looks exciting for clients to have a place to reintegrate. There are four phases to it. Why did you create this option for the clients at Rites of Passage?

This options allows for a fresh start in a supporting environment. We help clients create a balanced and healthy lifestyle while slowly integrating clients back into the mainstream of life; this allows clients to reintegrate at their own pace with people they trust and are familiar with. This helps clients create longer-term self care choices and lets them pursue things they are passionate about. The program helps clients go back to school, get a job and find their passions in a healthy way. Where can families get in touch with you for more information?

Rites of Passage
NW142 E. Strong Rd
Shelton WA, 98584
rights of passage wilderness therapy