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Open Sky’s early adolescent program has now seen over a year of operation. Since our launch in June 2021, the early adolescent team has been hard at work treating the unique developmental needs of kids ages 13 and 14* while actively engaging the family system in the therapeutic process. The culture in the early adolescent team is thriving, and we are honored to see the continued positive impact the program is having on students and their families.   

Intentional Programming

When we launched the early adolescent program, our hope was to create a clinically appropriate experience where both students and families can feel safe, comfortable being themselves, and connect with others going through a similar experience. Since our launch in June 2021, parents and professionals have sought us out for our niche group.  

While other programs serve a wider age range, we have crafted an intentional program to meet the unique needs of younger students. Open Sky’s early adolescent program incorporates experiential programming such as equine-assisted learning and horticulture, increased family involvement and services to maintain connection while in the program, and adjusted expeditions and specialized gear to support physical needs. 

As early adolescents grow out of childhood and enter adolescence, they need a high level of adult support along with ample opportunities to become more independent and explore who they are and their capabilities. Our experienced team of guides and therapists act as a secure base in which students can feel both challenged and supported in this growing process.   

Student Profile

How We See Early Adolescents Arrive  

The early adolescents we treat have big hearts but are struggling in certain areas. At their cores, they are lovable, sweet, creative, curious, kind kids whose challenges are dulling their spirits. 

Many of the students we see are dealing with their feelings and problems by lying or acting out. They are often unable to develop and maintain friendships. Some kids struggle to attend school, fail to complete homework, and get into conflict with parents and peers because they don’t have the skills to work though challenging conversations. Many of the kids we see at Open Sky feel sad, anxious, and insecure. They know they need help but are refusing it from their parents. Generally, they lack the insight, skills, and confidence to face their fears and address their problems.  

Fortunately, our team is well-versed in the unique challenges kids this age face. We understand each of them is special in their own way and strive to provide a tailored experience to help them reconnect with their inherent gifts throughout their time in nature. At Open Sky, they learn to finally see themselves more clearly. They get to know their strengths and gifts and leave with a better understanding of both their struggles and the tools to manage them. After a year of operation, we’ve seen Open Sky make a big difference in the lives of these young people and their families.    

The Open Sky Difference  

How We See Early Adolescents Leave  

Sense of Community

Students in the early adolescent program frequently share that they feel they have finally found friends who understand, see, and accept them. They are excited about the connections they’ve made in the field and the team culture they’ve contributed to building. While many students do experience friction with their team members, they learn how to communicate, listen, and work though their issues together. Indeed, many students say that these challenges and moments of friction led them to greater growth and a sense of connection. Many students also speak to the deep level of care and support they feel from the Open Sky community at large. 

I really enjoyed the close-knit community of students that I was able to work with. I felt really connected and supported by each of them and was more motivated to hold emotional safety for everyone in the team.
Creative Expression

Students also feel the support from their different experiential learning opportunities. Through the combination of equine-assisted therapy, art, music, and community activities, students develop a deeper understanding of who they are and explore taking risks in a secure environment. They have a chance to work through and let go of heavy feelings, which many of our kids carry.  

 The early adolescent students we see are animal, nature, and art lovers. Some kids gravitate toward games and adventures. Some love to sing and make music. Others most appreciate learning to prepare delicious meals. They are introduced to a range of creative and practical skills they can bring forward into their lives after Open Sky. 

Appreciation for Wilderness

Students also really love the backcountry expeditions. Our Utah teams explore the desert and all its cultural wonders, such as petroglyphs and granaries, and in Colorado they hike under the aspens and even summit some 12–13,000-foot peaks! They gather under the stars, enjoy delicious meals together, and connect around the crackling fire. Our kids leave with a deep appreciation and wonder for the wilderness and feel proud of all they’ve accomplished while living in the elements.  

My biggest fear was that my child’s relationship to nature and the outdoors would be ruined. This did not come true at all! His love of nature and connection to the outdoors increased exponentially, and he gained some impressive skills that he’s very proud of.
 Increased Confidence and Self-Understanding

We see students leaving the early adolescent program with newfound confidence in themselves. They feel like they have the skills and tools to tackle whatever challenges they might face. They are impressed with themselves and proud of their accomplishments. They discover they are incredible cooks, caring friends, effective leaders, and have the strength to hike more miles than they imagined possible. They develop perspective, empathy, and a deeper understanding of themselves and others. They better understand what drives their behaviors, how to hold boundaries, and how to use their voices to speak up. They know that they matter and see all the brilliant ways they can positively contribute to relationships within their system of family and friends.  

My favorite part of the program was summiting mountains. Whenever I summited a mountain, I felt like I was free, and I felt pride when I accomplished something that not a lot of people can do in their life.
Deeper Connection to Family

Having a strong connection between parents and children is extremely important, and that’s why we continue to offer increased family support and services for our early adolescent program. Early adolescent families receive two field calls and parent coaching sessions in addition to the regular services Open Sky provides. It warms my heart to see the ways parents and students support each other throughout this process. We know the power of the group experience, and I’m grateful parents have that same opportunity to feel seen, heard, understood, and supported. 

On the Horizon

At Open Sky, we are always learning, growing, and examining ways to make this a powerful experience for young people and their parents. We want to stay true to the beauty and wisdom of the wilderness experience while honoring the unique needs of early adolescents. As we move forward with the program, we have our sights set on some exciting goals. We hope to: 

Develop a robust alumni community by reconnecting with alumni students and families via Zoom calls, email chats, and occasional in-person visits. After developing such deep and meaningful relationships, we understand it’s an adjustment for students and families to transition into life after Open Sky. We want to support that experience and keep them connected to all they’ve learned while with us. We love it when alumni families send updates on how they are doing. After working so closely with someone, it’s nice to know where they are and how they are doing on their life’s journey. 

Expand experiential opportunities and local partnerships. We currently partner with Buffalo Woman Ranch to offer students equine-assisted learning. We are looking forward to forming another partnership with Montezuma School to Farm Project (MTSTFP) to offer students experiential education at our greenhouse in Mancos, Colorado. At the geodome students will learn about food production, resource conservation, and nutrition. They will plant, harvest, cook, and engage in interactive and educational sessions. Each session will end with creating a dish from the vegetables and herbs the team produces in the dome, something the whole team will enjoy.   

Continue to deliver high quality programming and hope for the future for early adolescents and their families! We are deeply grateful for the families and professionals who have supported us since our launch and set the tone of the early adolescent program community. Open Sky offers the most transformative experience I’ve witnessed as a professional, and I’m deeply honored to be a part of this team of incredible humans who are passionate about serving families. We look forward to all the memories we have yet to make with this unique age group and their parents. 

*12 year olds accepted on a case-by-case basis. 

It’s difficult to pick one favorite part of Open Sky. The therapists, the setting and activities, the guides, the communication.... altogether, it worked for us!

December 7th, 2022

Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LCMHC, RPT | Early Adolescent Clinical Program Director