Youth Services Agency, (YSA)

Thriving in the Winter

It’s hard to believe fall is already over, but the trees have grown bare and winter has arrived! The other sure sign of winter is the anxiety that parents and referring professionals have in understanding the benefits of sending a youth to an outdoor adventure program when it’s cold outside. Here are a few key principles to share.

First and foremost, it is a well-established fact among those of us working in this field that therapy in an outdoor adventure program simply works better in the colder months. The climate around YSA’s ACT program isn’t a barrier to therapy, it’s the thing that makes therapy in the mountains of Pennsylvania so effective! Generally there is an (understandable) misconception that warm weather produces an easier experience and will lead to more buy in from our students. And although it’s easier for students to focus on the weather in their early complaints, in the end there is no comparison for the progress that can be made during the winter months. There are a few reasons I think that the experience at YSA’s ACT program in the winter leads to better therapy.

From the beginning things start off on a more substantive note, and students are able to grasp the seriousness of their issues. They avoid falling into the “summer camp” mindset, where it is easier for them to take an attitude of “I’ll just bide my time until school starts.  It also becomes easier to assess what their issues and needs are, as well as what interventions are most effective. A child’s functional versus dysfunctional patterns become highlighted and much easier to address. For example, in summer months, disorganization and lack of planning can be easily brushed aside but in winter, if a youth isn’t using good organizational skills they might find themselves in the middle of a hike with chilly feet. Essentially, winter provides an environment that teaches students on a practical and experiential level (which is the language of teenagers, not just an intellectual one.) They learn to take nothing for granted—everything needs to be thoughtful and purposeful.

The therapeutic tone seems unique and more powerful in the winter as well. Perhaps it is the extra time spent as a group circled around the heater, doing assignments and having discussions. But there is a deeper and more genuine quality to the therapeutic work that gets done, directly proportional to the temperature and weather patterns. Although on the surface the students will complain when the weather turns ugly, the pride and sense of accomplishment they feel is significant.

The ACT model, especially in the challenging Carbon County winter, produces greater self-esteem and a more integrated acquisition of new skills than would be possible under other conditions. The competence, problem solving, and hard work ethic they acquire leads to better generalization of those skills to settings beyond the ACT program.

Finally, YSA prides itself on providing safe experiences for the youth we serve.  We realize that our students are often referred to us in part because of their inability to use good judgment. We don’t rely on them for safety—we take on that responsibility. The winter months make it much easier to highlight the “logical consequences” of their dysfunctional patterns, but we make sure that health and safety are the primary goal while they learn the many lessons that only mother nature can teach. Immersion in this safe but challenging environment offers a consistent and practical opportunity for young developing minds to apply the therapeutic messages of self-control, hard work, adaptability, and personal responsibility.

We have also found what we believe to be the perfect balance of providing safety and comfort without jeopardizing the effectiveness of our rustic environment that has proven itself so effective. Each residential cabin is equipped with a heat source and our Adventure Learning Center provides a safe base for those days when the weather isn’t as cooperative.