InnerRoads Wilderness Program in Missoula is one of the only nonprofit wilderness therapeutic intervention organizations in the country that offers a sliding-fee scale so that troubled teenagers from poor families have the same access to help as wealthier kids.
That help comes in the form of grueling, six-week backpacking trips in some of Montana’s remotest reaches, where youth learn to make fires without lighters or matches, communicate their feelings, channel their anger and tackle their most serious issues head-on. It’s not easy for them, and it’s no cakewalk for the instructors either.
“Instructors would say that wilderness therapy is like the best worst job they’ve ever worked,” explained program therapist and director Curt Tweedy. “There’s times where I feel like this is the best and worst job I’ve ever had. And I think that’s important, because it’s representative of life. It makes them see that there are highs and lows, and that goes for instructors too. Instructors are going through it too.”
Acquired by Youth Homes in 2005, the organization receives partial funding from a grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control and relies on donations and sponsorships. That's a stark contrast to many wilderness therapy programs in the U.S., which are for-profit, expensive, and cater mainly to wealthy families.
“All of our gear like shoes and rain jackets and everything is donated,” Tweedy explained. "We’re not going to turn down anybody because of income. We want wilderness to be accessible for everybody.”
Approximately 20 kids every summer take part in the trips, hiking 120 miles in either the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana or the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Instructors work in two-week shifts with the kids, and Tweedy goes out and meets with the groups for three days every week to help facilitate the therapy. The kids are ages 14-17, and most are referred by their families or local agencies.
Every moment is a teaching moment on the trip, whether it’s helping the kids learn how to cook their own food or to work in a group or to communicate their feelings. They write letters back and forth with their families, and sit down every night and discuss their problems and the choices they face back in the real world.
Tweedy said many kids are very reluctant to enter the program, but other kids recognize that their lives are headed someplace ugly and they need help.
“Kids have different degrees of investment, and of course it’s going to make our jobs easier when a kid wants to do it, but that’s not always the case,” Tweedy explained. “These are kids that are failing out of the traditional system. It’s for kids who aren’t surviving in the classroom, who have had really hard family lives. They need this to heal.”
The program is vastly different from traditional therapy, where a child would simply sit in an office and speak with a counselor. Tweedy said that conducting therapy sessions in a wilderness environment creates an atmosphere that is conducive to change.
“That level of challenge and perceived risk that, when you put them in the sweet spot between stress and boredom and there’s that optimal level of challenge, these kids can experience success,” he explained. “These are kids that haven’t experienced success in their relationships. Their family life has been hard. They’re doing poorly in school.
"And they go out into the woods and we create an environment where they can have success. They can build a shelter, they can live in a small community, they can hike 120 miles. I think nature inherently, the environment that we have around us, it offers healing for sure.”
Although most of the kids are local, they really haven’t experienced the outdoors.
“I feel like the kids that come into our program are a lot of Montana kids, and they are kids that haven’t experienced their own backyard, and we want them to know what’s out there,” Tweedy said. “We want to get ‘em out of town and get them out of the environment that they’re being stagnant in and see that things can be good, things can be different.”
It’s important that the kids live without tents and lighters while they are away, Tweedy said. They make fire using the friction of a bow drill.
“After six weeks, it’s pretty cool that they can say, ‘I did all this without a tent, without a lighter,’ ” he said. “We like to keep it to a bare minimum. The idea is if we can get the kids to strip everything else away, they are left with themselves and they get to take a look at who they are and where their life is going and, hopefully, see the things that are awesome about themselves and the things that are not so great. And they’ll get that. At the end of those six weeks, the biggest thing that will be turned around is they’ll feel good about what they’re doing.”
On every trip, because of the physical and emotional strain, kids reach a point where their frustration boils over.
“I’ve seen a lot of tears, screaming fits,” Tweedy recalled. “It happens all the time. And that’s part of it and that’s OK, and we want them to go to a place where they can safely do that. A lot of our kids have had hard lives and challenging experiences, and our goal is to help them through it and be able to move forward after that.
"They have to get to the point where they realize their ways of interacting with people aren’t working. Their ways of interacting with the world aren’t working. They do reach a breaking point eventually and they do realize there are better ways through life.”
Tweedy said the goal is to give the kids a profound love of the wilderness, even if it takes them until after the course is over to realize it.
“Sometimes it takes a whole six weeks, but you look back and say that was great,” Tweedy said. “For the most part, kids, while they’re in the program, they’re not gung-ho and they’re not saying ‘this is awesome, thank you for that.’ But for the most part, when it’s over, they realize it was something good. And they feel good about what they’ve done. Kids I never expected to hear from have reached out to me years later and told me it really helped them.”