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Embracing New Adventures: An Early Adolescent Program Update

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LCMHC, RPT | Mark Sobel, LCSW | Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT

Open Sky’s early adolescent program has now seen its first students from enrollment through graduation. Since the program’s launch in June, 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. We recently sat down with Early Adolescent Clinical Program Director Liz Lucarelli and Clinical Therapists Mark Sobel and Julia Lehr to discuss how thfirst six months unfolded and what’s next for the program.  

How has Open Sky tailored its programming for early adolescents?

Liz Lucarelli, Early Adolescent Clinical Program Director: Like our adolescent and young adult students, early adolescents benefit from healthy food, mindfulness practices, activity and adventure, and caring relationships; however, the treatment modalities we might use for our older populations aren’t always the most effective for students this age. We have tailored the traditional Open Sky programming to meet our early adolescent students’ clinical needs based on their developmental stage.  

For example, traditional talk therapy requires students to rely on verbal or abstract reasoning skills, which are not yet fully developed for pre-teens and early adolescents. We have added an emphasis on experiential programming, such as equine-assisted learning and expressive arts activities, to help students build important interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. We have also wrapped the early adolescent families with thoughtful clinical support. Hunter King is the Family Care Coordinator for the early adolescent program and I facilitate parent coaching (included in tuition) for all early adolescent families. Coaching offers parents the opportunity to dig into their own parallel process and feelings. It also gives them a space to practice skills, deepen their understanding of their child, and learn how to support them better moving forward.

Mark Sobel walks through a field while speaking with a pre-teen student at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

How are students and students and families responding to the program? What general themes have you noticed?

Liz: From the Student and Family Pathway work to expeditions to equine-assisted learning, the students and families are responding very well to our program. We have been thoughtful with our group size and make up, which means strong bonds have formed between students, guides, and therapists. It is impressive to see our younger population doing such hard but important work. They are giving feedback, practicing assertive communication skills, helping their team members, and learning how to respect each other. While the early adolescent students are creating bonds in the field, so are the parents through the Open Sky community and the additional services we offer for families.  

Julia Lehr, Clinical Therapist for Early Adolescent Girls: Within my team, the students really appreciated the Student Pathway. They were motivated to engage in the curriculum, and I was impressed with their level of dedication to completing all their assignments in a detailed and diligent way. They looked up to students who were farther along in the program and aspired to head into that place themselves.  

They also took ceremony very seriously. Whether that meant incorporating poetry, art, or metaphor into individual and group therapy sessions, ceremony was a huge part of the culture. Deeper level thinking and forming relationships with each other is something all these students are working on. Ceremony helped them figure out how to drop into connection with each other in ways that were healthy and appropriate and develop their own voices within a community. 

Mark Sobel, Clinical Therapist for Early Adolescent Boys: The students consistently proved to themselves that they are more capable and resilient than they realized. Many kids came in with a low level of self-belief and embodied a general sense of, “I can’t do this.” Eventually, each student learned that they could rise to the occasion. The difference between students during the first week and last week was profound. 

A mother hugs her daughter at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

What has impressed you most about the early adolescent students?

Liz: The early adolescent teams quickly adapted to the beautiful Colorado backcountry and hiked the same, and sometimes more, than the older teams! They are such a capable and caring bunch. I think the students were surprised by how competent and strong they are and many left hoping to integrate the outdoors into their lives down the road.  

Mark: I was most impressed by the students’ capacity for being vulnerable with each other, especially during impact letter groups. It takes a lot to create an intentional space where pre-teen boys are going to share anything real with each other, and the group consistently showed up, read their letters out loud, and held the space for each other without judgment. The amount of courage it takes when you’re that age to put yourself in a place where you could so easily be judged and trust that you’re instead going to be supported is astounding.  

Julia: One of the most impressive themes for me was how efficient the team was. They took a lot of ownership over their space, and the team camp site was highly clean and organized. For a lot of students, chores were a struggle for them at home, as was independence related to task completion and hygiene. At Open Sky, they were able to practice some of those skills and hold themselves and each other accountable. It was a testament to how much they cared about each other and creating a strong group culture. 

A group of students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy hike through a green meadow in the Colorado mountains.

How has the group dynamic been in the teams? How did it develop over the last six months?

Mark: At first, students were just trying to figure out what it means to have team culture and values. Over time they began to better understand their impact on the world around them and take ownership over their choices. They realized that if they wanted to feel emotionally safe, that depended on how they showed up in the team environment. And if things didn’t feel good, they had to take accountability and responsibility for it. I don’t know that any of these kids had been part of a group where they had so much influence before. It was impressive to watch them become proud of and even protective over the dynamic they had built together, especially around step-up culture, teamwork, and holding group spaces sacred.  

Julia: One of the unique things I saw students do is work through conflict together. They practiced using assertive language and “I feel” statements to share how they felt and how each other’s choices and actions affected relationship and the team environment. I think that work and dedication within the immediate team supported them in working on their relationships with their parents. Whether they were on family phone calls in the field or on Family Quest, they learned how to have challenging conversations and share their experiences rather than bottling things up or shutting down when things got difficult. They increased their tolerance for discomfort and complex emotions and learned how to articulate those feelings in a way people can hear it.  

A group of pre-teen students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy do yoga together in a field.

What were some highlights for you?

Liz: For me, it would have to be seeing the bonds that were formed within the teams, all the hard work that parents and their children participated in, the guides who embraced this young but rewarding population, all the mountain tops they reached, and the fun that was shared through games, skits, songs, art, talent shows, and more. I also loved watching parents and their children connect on calls or at graduation. There were so many highlights! 

Mark: The highlight for me was having the first set of students graduate; it felt like a full-circle moment. They were the founding members of this team, and who they were when they had arrived and who they were when they left three months later was a stark comparison. They grew in such profound ways. 

Julia: I loved watching the work the students were doing through equine-assisted learning. It was amazing to watch them assertively lead horses through obstacle courses and practice communicating with them. I think it proved to students that it doesn’t matter your size or your age; you are powerful and can lead not only this big animal but also yourself and others. 

Clinical therapist Julia Lehr and early adolescent program director Liz Lucarelli pet a horse with an Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student at Medicine Horse Center.

What are you most looking forward to as the early adolescent program heads into fall and winter?

Mark: I’m looking forward to doing therapy around campfires. There’s something special about doing a therapy session in an environment that feels raw and real. It’s hard to articulate, but if you’ve ever sat around a campfire with others, you know that you can’t help but delve into authentic conversation. There’s something fundamentally human about that. It feels connective and foundational to what we do at Open Sky. 

Julia: I’m excited about working on more traditional skills with the students. That could mean carving something out of wood or weaving a basket from plant materials. I want to encourage students to look around at natural resources and create something that is interesting to them. Practicing these crafts teaches students a lot of different qualities, such as increased level of patience, problem solving, and commitment. Traditional skills also encourage students to invest in their process and take ownership and pride in their work. 

Julia Lehr teaches pre-teen students in the early adolescent program at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy how to bow drill.

What would you say to a parent considering enrolling their child in the early adolescent program?

Julia: It can be difficult for parents to know what the most supportive and helpful option is going to be when their child is struggling. Wilderness therapy offers so many opportunities for growth and allows students to make a high level of change in a relatively short amount of time. At Open Sky, we’re teaching students practices that are going to support them for their entire lives. Working on these skills now and early not only reduces potential struggling, but also sets students up for transitioning into adolescence with pride and confidence. 

*12 year olds accepted on a case-by-case basis. Please contact Admissions for more information.

November 15th, 2021

The Open Sky Team