In the lead up to True North Expeditions’ July Boys Expedition I had met each of the students attending and was excited to see their interactions despite considerable differences. I was also a strong believer in Adventure Therapy from what I had read and was very interested to see its application.
The first four days of the trip were beautifully pleasant with the students all showing genuine enthusiasm about learning new skills such as the ability to make a fire without the use of matches and the construction of their own shelters to sleep under. The group would walk for much of the day with breaks for lunch or a drink but to also engage with their journals and curriculum before arriving at the night’s camp in the mid afternoon. The novelty of seeing kangaroos gliding through the bush or up a mountain, emu’s running madly and the chorus of local bird life was not lost on the staff or participants.
Whilst the physical aspect of the trip could be trying for the students at times, the sheer beauty of the location and the teamwork within the group proved a successful combination for applying therapeutic skills. These elements helped the students speak openly and break down the barriers of communication that seem so prevalent in everyday settings. My belief in the application of Adventure Therapy was growing each day with the children’s willingness to participate as group members and their understanding of individual responsibilities.
This would be tested on day 4 when after arriving at camp we were informed of ‘impending snow fall and extreme cold’. As night fell we found ourselves huddled around a fire for warmth. Our fearless leader returned to base camp to collect the car and return us to the safety of a gas oven and reverse cycle air conditioning. The next two days were spent at base doing group activities, going on day hikes and continuing to build relationships within the group. Once we believed the worst of the cold had passed we returned to the bush and immediately relished being back in the wilderness. This was short lived however, with the group facing the elements and sleeping outside on the coldest August night in over 120 years...-6 degrees!! This could have proven disastrous for the mindset of the group but instead proved resolute with the tough conditions further unifying the resilience our group.
After this record breaking night the temperatures became increasingly warmer and the students were embracing their time in a foreign environment. Towards the end of the walking and camping part of the trip it was amazing to see the students offering each other help unconditionally and understanding the importance of community participation. The trip to date was building up to ‘SOLO’, a part of the trip that, before witnessing, I was sceptical as to its success.
Each student was allocated their own camp for approximately 30hrs. Although no camp was more than 30 metres from the worker’s camp, each student was left to prepare their own fire and shelter and reflect on their trip so far and how life might be on their return to home. This was a very powerful experience to witness and each student seemed to take out an insight they felt could help them in their future lives.
The remaining two days were spent in a beautiful cabin on the property enjoying warm showers, real beds, digital television and the satisfaction that each person had achieved something that they had never done before.
As I near the end of my Social Work degree and begin life as a professional, I could not help but feel the satisfaction of helping these students achieve such a demanding and satisfying endeavour. This experience reinforces my belief in Adventure Therapy and the work done with children in natural settings but also the facilitation of True North Expeditions and the power that ‘perceived risk’ engages children, fosters strong relationships and helps deliver positive outcomes for its participants.
Andrew Bach, Social Work Student
Susie attended our camp in September of last year. Her school counsellor had grown more concerned about Susie’s self-harming behaviours, the older boyfriend who lured her away from school and the relentless power struggle at home. She was unsure of what to expect as this was her first extended period away from home. Regularly, she broke down into tears when she thought of home and struggled to keep up with the rest of the group. The staff team worked with Susie daily and helped dissect the letters written back and forth between her and her parents. Susie told them about her enjoyment of poetry, reading and listening to music. She drew regularly in her journal and wrote extensively when given her daily journal topic.
Toward the end of the first week, the team gave Susie a therapeutic Scavenger Hunt. Listed in her journal, the team wrote thirty tasks for Susie to complete before the end of the program. Many of these were various journaling topics such as writing song lyrics about her journey out of depression, writing about where she sees herself in five years and discussing her feelings each day without judgement or defensiveness. Tasks also included helping other members of the group in ways they could not find out and to report back to staff how this felt. Susie’s conduct changed over the next week, as she became a vocal leader with the team. She felt hopeful and confident about her abilities and shared her poems of hope with the group.
Susie’s mother wrote a letter to Susie’s trip leaders mentioning that “worlds had shifted” since she returned home. Susie continued journaling each day and was given time during the school day to create positive goals for herself. She wrote about her experience in the school newsletter and continues to have improved performance in school. She is no longer self-harming and has been using positive coping skills to deal with difficult emotions.
Susie’s experience with us was a tale of two very different weeks. Our team was patient in building a strong relationship with Susie before providing her with specific tasks to help her build insight. In recognising her literacy abilities, we were able to use her unique character strengths to our advantage.
Our camps are centred around a collaborative approach that assesses each child based on their individual story and key strengths. In having this strong relationship with Susie, she was able to return home to rebuild stronger relationships with her family and begin to help others.
Susie is now finishing Year 12 and hopes to become a psychologist or social worker in order to help others that are struggling with self-harming behaviours. She continues to work with our team monthly to make sure that she is staying on a strong and positive path.
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.