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Into the Wild

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Adolescents and young adults find the healing they need by getting back to basics in nature with Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

The program is work. There's the ever-changing weather, long stretches of walking, learning to live without furniture, a bed or bathroom facilities. Students must understand in short-order how to take care of themselves in primitive ways.

The program is work. There’s the ever-changing weather, long stretches of walking, learning to live without furniture, a bed or bathroom facilities. Students must understand in short-order how to take care of themselves in primitive ways.

Suffering with a chronic illness, National Geographic writer Edward Readicker-Henderson frequently ventured into the wilderness seeking healing that can only come from within — and wrote about the power that nature wields in resilience. “In the end, that’s what sound the world makes: one of reassurance,” he writes in Quiet, his book on spending long stretches of time in the wild. “I hike to here I see nothing but the bruise blue of the distant mountains, and simply hear. At least for a little while. Longer than yesterday, longer than the day before. And that’s a hopeful thing, because what the world is telling me in these sounds is that any time I remember to pay attention, it will be there, singing to itself and to anybody else who wants to listen.”

Leaving the world behind to find one’s self is a time-honored concept. For centuries, spiritual teachers have sought guidance and direction in nature’s classroom — far away from worldly distractions.

Something profoundly resonant happens when you remove yourself from your social group, from work or school, from technology and all of modern life’s convenience, when you just drop out and enter the wilderness for several months.

You discover who you are. You heal — in a sustainable way. You build a toolkit for the rest of your life.

Every year since 2006, Open Sky Wilderness Therapy has been taking hundreds of struggling adolescents and young adults up to age 28 from across the globe into its programs in the mountains of Southwest Colorado and the canyonlands of Southeast Utah to help them understand their worth and build life-lasting coping skills.

Bringing together clinical therapy, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, the program incorporates another essential component not often found in the wilderness therapy model: family. “Families are the foundation of the therapeutic process,” says Tony Issenmann, Open Sky’s family services director and clinical director. “Research shows that the gains teens and young adults make are greater in the short and long term when their parents are intently involved in the therapeutic process.”

Open Sky founder Aaron Fernandes, who has worked in the fields of outdoor education and wilderness therapy since 1999, understands first-hand how powerful the combination of Mother Nature, plus mothers and fathers can be. During his years in the business, he watched the transformations that resulted when people returned from a time in nature. Convinced, he suggested wilderness therapy to his brother, who was struggling. “The experience had such a profound impact on him and it gave me a unique perspective on the important role of the family,” he says. “However, the typical wilderness model was: a child is having problems, so the parents send him to wilderness therapy, where he would be ‘fixed’ and returned to the parents.

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