News / Blog
A high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED) represents a milestone for any graduate, but at YSA’s ACT program, it represents something much larger. When faced with success in their abilities, students begin to believe in themselves again. Many ACT students have had a history of academic struggle that have undoubtedly contributed to other behavioral / emotional struggles often leading them to giving up in many areas of their lives. Adventure Learning Center (ALC) Director of Education, Lisa Jenkins, remarks “The Educational Team of the ALC is committed to making the most out of the time we have with our students. Many of our students come to us several grade levels behind both in credits towards graduation and in base learning skills.”
The program offers credit recovery, one to one, and small group instruction in all the core content areas. Many students get back on track with credits and skills and on a path towards earning their high school diplomas. However, for those youth that are older and have a high likelihood of never earning their diploma, the ALC offers a unique GED track. First, GED candidates are pre-tested in each of the GED subject areas: Science, Math, English, and Social Studies. Next, PA subject certified teacher review the results and designs a plan to help them fill in areas that are of the greatest need.
Only after each teacher and student believe that they are ready for the actual GED exam, the student is retested. Based on these results,the student sits for the content area exams he is proficient in and continues to work with in the areas of need. Using this approach we ensure success and reduce the chances of the student being overwhelmed . “Our pedagogy is that each and every student can learn and advance when given the right opportunities. Our goal as educators is to find and provide hose opportunities. As our students population changes we are dedicated to meeting their needs by adapting our program accordingly.”
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.
People are just terrible at telling when people are lying. In fact, it turns out that people are worse than chance at detecting lies. So what is left to those of us who work with teenagers who we think are struggling and won’t talk about it?
How can we really get at what the youth we work with are thinking, feeling, and doing when they are often desperately trying to hide from us? We think we know when youth are telling the truth, but decades of research tell us that our “gut sense” of truthfulness or deception is often simply wrong. Even the best therapists are left scratching their heads, trying to figure out fact from fiction. How about that famed “clinical sense” that therapists talk about? You would think we would really know those we know best—their “tells,” so to speak—but, guess what? They know us, too. They know what we want to hear, what will make the most sense to us, and they definitely know our blind spots.
Adolescence is that rare, sweet time when we think we really do know better than everyone. Teenagers are highly motivated to keep their lives secret—their comings and goings, what they’re up to, and who they’re hanging out with. Some of that withdrawal is part of a healthy process of individuation—a desire to form an identity separate from the parents who haven’t yet figured out how to let go. Sometimes, though, all those secrets serve to hide children from themselves, a process that can quickly become soul-sucking and damaging. And, while teenagers may ask for help in getting rides, money, and other favors, they rarely ask for help when they really need it—when they’re scared, sad, guilty, or desperate.
The woods are magical in many ways, but there is no plant or animal out there that will make teenagers open up and divulge their secrets. The therapeutic milieu at YSA ACT program offers a different kind of option for truth-seeking: time, energy, and lots of observations. Teenagers can lie to themselves and us for a long time, but they can’t do it 24 hours a day without slipping up. The therapists, youth mentors and other kids will notice inconsistencies, and those inconsistencies will grow. And an even more powerful force is at work: social pressure. Because other kids in the groups have faced the stark realities of their lives and lived to feel the incredible relief in sharing with others and admitting truth to themselves, they offer a lot of encouragement and support in helping newer or resistant group mates to open up.
Kids who formerly put much of their energy into deftly escaping a tough question or even a good, hard look in the mirror are carried along in a wave of authenticity by their peers until they begin to paddle themselves and eventually propel others along. And, there is the magic of the woods, there is something about all that fresh, clean air and those beautiful vistas that make truth telling and soul searching much more appealing. Only when we have a clear picture of a teenager’s inner world can we really know how to help them. We don’t need a polygraph test or lie detector; we just need time, the woods, and a lot of well-trained eyes.
Working with highly resistant teens and young adults is hard! Many programs rely on behavioural approaches that are designed to compel, rather than inspire change or purely physical techniques to control client behavior. But these approaches fail to respect the dignity, individuality, and humanity of young people and don’t lead to lasting change. This kind of change does not last because it depends upon environmental factors that disappear once treatment is over. We seek internally motivated change—the kind that lasts a lifetime. YSA’s ACT program operates from the understanding that healing must come from the inside out, not the outside in.
YSA seeks the kind of internally motivated change that relies upon an alliance between the client and the team of Youth Mentors and other staff professionals. This kind of alliance requires staff that are creative, caring, authentically engaged, and well trained. Each of our Youth Mentors is trained in a trauma informed, strengths based method of behavioral support called MAB (Managing Aggressive Behavior). Don’t let the name fool you, the MAB program emphasizes PREVENTION and non-physical intervention strategies, and teaches non-pain producing physical intervention techniques to protect youth and staff alike.
MAB heavily emphasizes the importance of maintaining therapeutic interactions while youth are meeting behavioral expectations and during times of crisis. This allows us to assist the youth in the development of life long skills in preventing undesirable behavior. While still possible, the need for physical intervention is reduced based on MAB’s methods of prevention and de-escalation, blending. With a goal of eliminating restraints, we currently have multiple full time on site staff members who are NCRYS certified MAB trainers, allowing continual reinforcement of all MAB philosophies.
Our minds are constantly working. Research shows that the average person has more than 50,000-70,000 thoughts a day (Davis) or about 35-48 thoughts per minute! Imagine if we payed attention to, or acted on each thought we had, not only would we be overwhelmed, but everyday tasks would become more difficult and almost impossible. Interestingly, “nearly 50% of our awake life is spent mind-wandering. However research has demonstrated that, lower levels of happiness, possibly through pathological forms of self-referential thought focused on the past or future, such as rumination or worry is associated with a wandering mind (Marusak).
With regular mindfulness practice, youth can control wandering thoughts, decrease anxiety, depression, maladaptive behaviors, and impulsive behaviors (Marusak) and can develop new habits and healthier ways of thinking or dealing with their emotions. This “rewiring” of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Students at YSA’s ACT residential program learn that through mindfulness practice they can gain control over the dysfunctional thoughts that contribute to their anxiety, depression, impulsivity, etc. Being present in the moment, focusing on breathing, labeling thoughts as they enter the mind, and letting thoughts go are tools we all can use throughout our lives no matter the situation.
Failing to let go of certain thoughts can cause a youth to spiral into a depressed or anxious state or react impulsively with disruptive behaviors. We routinely work with adolescents who meet their need for power and control by sabotaging relationships and sacrificing values that are important to them.
Our rustic therapeutic milieu provides a safe environment to practice mindfulness with instant feedback and support. Mindfulness practice is incorporated into our regular routine. Therapists utilize a variety of assignments and tools to assist students in becoming more aware of how the body connects with the mind. At YSA, we teach students how to take power and control over their thoughts, feelings, and emotions so they can nourish healthy relationships and decrease their destructive, impulsive behaviors.
Brain HQ, 2015. https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/brain-plasticity/what-is-brain-plasticity
Davis, Bruce. (2013).There Are 50,000 Thoughts Standing Between You and Your Partner Every Day. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-davis-phd/healthy-relationships_b_3307916.html
Marusak, H. A., Elrahal, F., Peters, C. A., Kundu, P., Lombardo, M. V., Calhoun, V. D., . . . Rabinak, C. A. (2018). Mindfulness and dynamic functional neural connectivity in children and adolescents. Behavioural Brain Research, 336, 211-218.
Adolescents are biologically driven to explore their identities and to try new things. The ever evolving brain is still developing its judgement and self-in¬hibition systems. As a result, youth are easily influ¬enced by their peers, act impulsively, and seek out new and exciting sensations. For many teens, these impulses cause them to begin abusing drugs and alcohol. Many of the students at the ACT camp have similar histories and our individualized services of¬fers a unique behavioral intervention.
Our treatment model is effective first because teens are removed from the environment they are cur¬rently struggling in and don’t have access to drugs, alcohol, or negative relationships encouraging their use. This provides distance from the current influ¬ences and stressors of their life so they are able to in¬crease their understanding around their substance use, and develop a commitment to sobriety. The previously harmful and destructive environment is replaced by the peaceful and therapeutic environ¬ment of the ACT camp.
Adventure activities provide natural consequences. Forgetting to pack an essential item before a long hike will quickly teach you this. Once a teen strug¬gling with substance abuse takes responsibility for their actions, the result is personal empowerment, greater awareness, and improved behavior.
In addition, over a period of time with us our stu¬dents improve their overall health through a variety of high-impact, challenging physical activities that push them to expand their limits allowing them to accom¬plish goals they never thought possible. Our students routinely go outside their comfort zone which can be a dynamic and exciting treatment process for some¬one struggling with substance abuse. Additionally, participation in such challenging physical activities also teaches healthy activities he or she can continue to participate in for a lifetime.
We do not offer a “one size fits all” approach. After being properly assessed, our caring and experienced counseling staff develops an individualized treat¬ment plan based on each youth’s substance abuse history. This approach has been clinically proven to be effective.
Research using a large sample of participants (774 adolescents) in wilderness programs for troubled teens with anxiety, depression and substance use reported greater therapeutic engagement and readiness for change, reduction in stress levels, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression. Stu¬dents also reported freedom from substance abuse and dependency. Participants were re-visited af¬ter six months, and the vast majority of behavioral changes had been maintained.
With more than 25 years experience working with at-risk youth, Kris Caffier LCSW, CAADC returns to the camp with passion and vision for the program and she is ready for the challenge ahead. “We strive to give our kids the tools they need to break through boundaries, build self-esteem and establish health¬ier ways of dealing with their stressors. That means really working with kids as individuals and seeing their issues as unique to them.”
From a new logo to new therapy modalities to hu¬man and financial capital investments, Kris has wasted no time making improvements to the pro¬gram. She has added a new Director of Education, Lisa Jenkins, who is focusing on improving the ed¬ucational experience for students at the camp’s on-site private academic school, the Adventure Learn¬ing Center (ALC).
“We have upgraded our security camera system, as well as our student computer lab. Our culinary servic¬es have already greatly improved, as we believe this is an integral component to our milieu. Both students and staff are already complimenting the change.
We are bringing on more youth mentors, professional master’s and bachelor’s level therapists, as well as an addiction counselor. We are centering on a strengths based perspective with our students and increasing opportunities to “catch them doing something right” by utilizing incentives such as voices in student gov-ernment, students of the week, and other ways of ac¬knowledging their strengths.”
Kris looks forward to the year ahead and is excited about the changes that will be coming in 2018. “Over¬all at the ACT camp, we are redefining our program as a therapeutic milieu, which integrates our unique wilderness environment and adventure-based activi¬ties with clinical evidenced informed practices.
We are not trying to have a “one size fits all” ap¬proach. That being said, we will offer specific treat¬ment modalities: anger management, drug and alcohol, family and individual therapy, trauma coun¬seling, skill-based groups, vocational programming to name some. We will be emphasizing family in¬volvement, which is probably my favorite modality of choice.
Specifically this year, we will be expanding the scope of our ACT weekend program. Beginning in early spring, when the weather breaks, the weekend program will be offered every weekend. The core components will remain the same, but with improved programming targeting true community service, adventure based treat-ment, supplemented by therapeutic groups. We have terrific events lined up for spring where these youth will be supporting community non-profit organizations such as the Lehigh Canal Recreation Program.
We have purchased a new strengths based curriculum to use with all students, which integrates relational theory, resiliency practices and skill building. Additionally, our Youth Mentors will be trained in team building exercises. As I said before, family therapy will be a primary focus for many of our youth, as will drug and alcohol interventions. I am excited that our own professionals, who have training and experience in their respective fields, will provide these services on site.
This year, we also anticipate re-affiliation with PACCT, which will bolster the vocational offerings for students. We anticipate running a summer enrichment school program, as we have in the past.“
With Kris at the helm the program is back!
Kristin DeForest, LPC is the new Executive Director of Youth Services Agency and brings with her ex¬tensive knowledge about juvenile justice program management, regulatory and compliance issues, performance and quality improvement, treatment best practices, team-building, and outreach from her work as ED at Edison Court. There she has been an instrumental leader in the company’s expansion and accreditation.
Kristin’s background includes volunteering as a Peer Reviewer for the Council on Accreditation (COA) and serving on the board of a local chapter of Meals on Wheels in addition to serving as the Vice President for the Board ‘s of both ECI and YSA. Her work with other nonprofits gives her credibility with the staff at YSA and makes her ready to lead the charge with a new mission at YSA. In a recent sit down, Kristin discussed her vision moving forward.
Can you talk a little about what partnership with Edison Court means for YSA?
Simply put…the best of both worlds. YSA will now have the oversight and support proven effective at ECI, especially in the areas of clinical programming, compliance, and contin¬uous quality improvement. Our dedicated and experienced management team is excited about reinvigorating such a unique and effective program for at risk youth. By invest¬ing in the Human Capitol necessary to deliver top notch services, the Camp will soon be able to excel at what they do best….providing a peaceful environment full of quality services such as top notch educational instruction; individ¬ualized group, family, and individual counseling; meaningful community service; empathy enhancing animal care; and adventure programming.
Why are you confident in the camp’s new direction and the future for it’s programming?
We have an experienced leader in Kris Caffier LCSW, CAADC who is committed to the program’s new mission. She is not only intimately familiar with the program but brings with her a clinical expertise which is critical in shift¬ing the culture to a more trauma-informed and therapeutic environment. We have been investing heavily in recruiting qualified direct care and clinical staff in order to provide a more substantive service to our youth.
Looking ahead-its six months in the future-what can we expect to see at the camp?
A high functioning academic curriculum that will rival the public schools, staffed by qualified and certified teachers and led by an experienced Academic Director with an in¬tense passion for ensuring that each and every student ex¬periences success.
Individualized clinical services provided by a Master’s Lev¬el therapist, Drug and Alcohol Counselor, and supporting Bachelor’s Level Counselors. Services to include individu¬al, group, and family therapy.
Direct Care staff more fully trained in Trauma Informed Care and ways to engage youth in a strengths based manner. A return to weekly ACT Weekend programming with a more structured service delivery communicated well in advance so referral sources have the information they need when deter¬mining which clients to refer and when based on their needs. A more formal means of tracking outcomes will be imple¬mented as well as a plan for continuous quality improvement at all levels of operations.