By Marcie Girdlestone, M.A., PCC-S.
In 1999, two friends who are licensed counselors created a program for at-risk teens and Teens Realizing and Understanding Selves Together, T.R.U.S.T., was born. Adventure Therapy Camp was developed to help disadvantaged teens from hard places discover their potential and build their strengths in the wilderness. Since it began, hundreds of teens have participated in this program often with life changing results.
Marcie Girdlestone, M.A., PCC-S, Clinical Director of Agency Services, and Traci Tsai, M.A., PCC-S, Senior Therapist, have led this program at Pathway Caring for Children, a nonprofit agency in Canton, Ohio for the past four summers. Pathway provides services to children and families in northeast Ohio. Founded 41 years ago by Jim and Velma Bridges, the mission of Pathway is to help children and families achieve the potential of their lives through innovative foster care, together with mental health and adoption services. Pathway has had a tremendous impact on countless children and families in our community.
Many of the teens served by Pathway live in situations where their vision of the future is clouded. They are surviving day to day. When they are brought in for counseling, traditional approaches often do not work. Traci Tsai said, “For me, camp has always been about getting teens out of their comfort zones and helping them to see the potential in themselves. It’s so important for them to see us as adult leaders be real people in their lives.”
This summer, a clinical staff of 15 therapists and case managers, along with numerous interns and volunteers, took 50 teens into the woods for the week long T.R.U.S.T. Adventure Therapy Camp. Each year, we bring together teens from the inner city and teens from the rural areas of Stark and Carroll Counties. What happens in a week is amazing. The stereotypes and walls come down and those groups develop relationships that continue on throughout the year.
“It is amazing to watch the teens become comfortable with themselves and each other and see them be able to just be kids,” says Kelly Bernstein, Pathway’s Mental Health Office Manager. The teens leave behind their burdens of social pressure and family conflicts and get to enjoy focusing on themselves.
The individual success stories are endless. We take with us teens who failed classes and then became leaders at camp. We take teens who won’t talk during counseling sessions but become counselors to their peers. We take teens who are on probation who then become role models. What happens during this week is nothing short of amazing.
Using experiential therapy and reality therapy techniques, this intensive therapeutic program of T.R.U.S.T. Camp is unique in its powerful approach to addressing the mental, emotional and behavioral needs of today’s teens. Experiential therapy involves actions, movements, and activities rather than the more traditional “talk therapy.” Experiences and activities provide opportunities for the therapist to observe teens in situations where they are not focused on the therapy itself.
Most of the participants really look forward to the opportunity to climb on the High Ropes Challenge Course. Though the challenge and risk is high on the High Ropes, it is not the primary focus of this week. The real-life experiences bring therapeutic value and growth to these teens.
The lunch table is where friendships are made and cliques are disbanded. Hikes present opportunities for teens to share with counselors and peers details about their lives without the uncomfortable eye contact required in an office. Campfires become our office where teens build real life relationships, work on communication and listening skills and building trust.
The memories of successes and achievements last throughout the year and well beyond the week of camp. Special bonds are formed between peers and between teens and counselors. These bonds reveal the potential for real and healthy relationships –something many of these teens have never experienced. They see and experience people believing in them, encouraging them, and seeing in them things they have never before seen in themselves.
“This is a life changing experience. I have left each year with a new appreciation, not just for these teens, but for life itself. It is a gift to see them be their real selves and shed their masks,” says Catherine Chudakoff, therapist at Pathway.
Each year, we select a couple of teens to be Peer Mentors. These teens are previous campers who have, through the year, shown promise in being leaders and positive role models. They apply for the role, present references, and have an interview to show their commitment to taking on a leadership role. This has become a coveted position. Most of these teens have never been seen as leaders, have never been given the opportunity to lead. And when we give them the title of Peer Mentor, they rise to the occasion and make us, and themselves, so very proud.
“I am always amazed by the resiliency of our kids and their ability to be accepting of those so different from themselves. We learn so much about each other in our five days at camp. I learn something new about myself, and about them, each and every year,” Tsai goes on to say. It is a privilege to spend a week in the woods with these amazing young people. It is a privilege to witness their growth and the uncovering of strengths.
We do this for the teens — the endless hours of planning and being away from our own families — is for the teens. It is undeniable that this week has energizing impact on the staff. In the woods we see hope … potential … future … in the eyes of these troubled teens and it is life changing for us. As we leave, we shed tears for the hope we have that these teens will have seen in themselves what we have seen in them this week. It is our hope that they leave knowing that they CAN and they WILL succeed.
For more information on T.R.U.S.T. Adventure Therapy Camp or Pathway Caring for Children, contact Wendy Tracy, Executive Director, or Marcie Girdlestone, Clinical Director. Pathway offers monthly Quick Stop Tours the third Wednesday of every month. Call us to find out more about our services or how you can help the programs of this agency.
Pathway Caring for Children