Testimonial contributed by Alumni Parent Charlie H.
Our 15-year-old son went to Open Sky Wilderness from January 17, 2019, to April 17, 2019. Leading up to that point, my wife and I had grown increasingly worried as we watched him lose his way. We continually observed him making poor decisions, often not telling the full truth, lost in cyber-relationships, and struggling to navigate his teen years. He was depressed, lonely, scared, and entitled, with low self-esteem. He hated me (his dad) but even worse, he hated himself. He was so unhappy, and our home and family had become miserable.
Over the course of 92 days, Open Sky would ultimately strip away every creature comfort that my son had surrounded himself with, so he could begin to find his true inner self. The first few weeks for my son were filled with crying and anger. He was reluctant to participate. However, the program’s magic was working beneath the surface. My son’s mind slowly began to emerge from a dark, lonely space of self-loathing. He began to acknowledge how grateful he was to be in such a special place, with the time to work on himself. My son thrived in this environment, embracing what he refers to as “Total Emotional Safety.” The Open Sky team would openly discuss any and all topics, as the boys are taught to listen with compassion; without passing judgment. Can you imagine sitting around a snowy campfire, exhausted from the day’s hike, openly discussing your deepest fears and insecurities with a group of peers, without reservation?
Indeed, Open Sky Wilderness is a far cry from the real world, yet it creates the ideal container to facilitate difficult and necessary tectonic change. With much support from his field guides and his team, my son dug deep to discover his underlying demons: resentment, entitlement, self-hate, anger, and sadness, just to name a few. His 13 weeks in the winter of the Utah desert were filled with learning to thrive outdoors, hiking each day, carrying the essentials in a backpack, sleeping beneath shelters made from tarps, and building fires with a spindle, bow, and dry sage. Free time is filled with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises, combined with powerful therapy sessions around a blazing campfire. My son went in a boy and came out on the other side a changed young man.
After graduating from Open Sky on April 14, 2019, my son transitioned into an aftercare residential treatment center. This has been instrumental in helping him take his growth from wilderness and transform it into a permanent set of life skills. His week is comprised of group therapy, family therapy, and one-on-one therapy. They start each day with chores around the dorms and end the day with accredited high school academics. There is a very strong LGBTQ group, which he strongly supports and identifies with. The supportive environment has helped him build confidence and resiliency and has served to foster lasting change.
As I reflect back on the entire Open Sky experience and the months since, I am filled with joy over the growth I see in my son. Much of this growth started in small, incremental ways, like a little flower struggling to pierce its way through the hard desert soil. His journey has led our entire family down a parallel path of internal discovery and deeper emotional work. The experience has brought our family much closer together. We are working hard to interact and communicate with each other in much healthier ways, free of judgment and shame. My son is able to express his emotions in ways that most adults have not yet achieved. He is now grounded and calm and displays little social anxiety. He genuinely expresses that he is grateful for simple things and reminds me that it is “OK” if he feels sad from time to time because he knows he the tools to be aware of his emotions, mind, and body. Most importantly, my son now loves himself!