By Marcia Franklin
Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to the harsh sounds of strangers, yelling at you to get up, get dressed and leave your house immediately. Now imagine being 16 years old and that your parents have asked those people to take you away.
That is the scene for hundreds of youth all over the country, whose parents have come to the end of their rope and are looking for an intervention to help their troubled children. They pay for escorts to take their sons and daughters to outdoor "boot camps" and therapeutic programs, hoping that months in the desert will turn their children around.
It's a big business, but a relatively quiet one. Indeed, one of the oldest therapeutic camps is right here in Idaho, and most people in our state, even in the town where it's located, don't know it's there.
I have always been interested in so-called "troubled youth." It seems that one of the measures of our society is how we help children in need, and also whether we can learn from them. For many times behind their aberrant behavior lies a wake-up call, a warning cry about drugs, about violence, about lack of love.
I am also interested in different therapeutic models for working with children and adults. There has been a great emphasis in the past decade on using drugs to treat problem behaviors. Many drugs have shown great promise and have turned lives around. But there are other modalities that can be used, or used in tandem with medication. I wanted to learn more about the use of the outdoors to treat wayward youth.
So with photographer Jay Krajic, I set out to follow five children for three weeks at SUWS, a camp located outside of Gooding, ID. SUWS, which originally stood for School of Urban and Wilderness Survival, was founded in 1981. It was based on a class taught to failing BYU students.. It has gone on to become one of the most established programs of its kind in the country.
It is not a "boot camp." Instead, kids are often ignored rather than yelled at. That brings out behavioral coping patterns that can then be assessed and treated. But that doesn't mean the experience isn't harsh. In the desert, with the same clothes and food for three weeks, children are forced to look inward. There are no distractions. The youth have to make their own backpacks, sleep without a tent and make fire with a bowdrill.
The first day the crew and I simply sat for five hours, as a boy refused to walk. It was over 100 degrees. The next week we watched as the children negotiated a harrowing ropes course. And the third week the group had to figure out how to help another camper who had run away and was hurt. It's all part of the camp's philosophy of "search and rescue." Learn how to take care of oneself, learn how to take care of your family, learn how to reach out and help strangers.
There were times when we were terribly hot, thirsty and tired. But as I reminded the crew; we could leave, take a shower and change our clothes. The children had to stay. In between shoots, as I watched the weather change from very hot to very cold to very hot again, I found myself worrying about my new young acquaintances. On the one hand, their parents were trying to help them. On the other, it seemed such a drastic action, one which made me wonder about the parents, too. Would they, too, look at the issues that had brought their children here and work on their role in that? And would they be able to build on what the camp had taught their children?
I hope you will watch "Desert Therapy" on Outdoor Idaho, as Charlotte, Brian, Trip, Trey and Kristin take a journey that many of us twice their age would find more than challenging.