The sun sets and cloaks the sky in color as a family gathers around a crackling campfire. A sixteen-year-old boy looks into his mother’s eyes and says “I’m sorry”. After a brief pause, his mother returns his gaze with an embrace and replies, “Thank you…I love you.”
Earlier that day, a father cried as his daughter shared that she had never before seen him express emotion. He realized that for too many years, he had kept these feelings almost entirely in his head, a place of cognition and safety.
And across camp, a mother was confronted with the fact that she was too busy with life to be emotionally available to her children, who acted out as an attempt to be seen.
These are just a few examples of the deep and meaningful experiences that happen at Open Sky during Family Quest. A Family Quest is a multi-day family therapy intervention in the wilderness with the individualized attention of a Family Services Therapist and Wilderness Guide. The concept of Family Quest comes from the age-old Native American practice of the “vision quest”, a rite of passage in which an individual enters the wilderness to gain insight about himself or herself and the world. While certainly not identical to these traditional practices, a Family Quest is a rite of passage for the family.
Family Quests naturally shed light on the dynamics of the family system. As a Family Services Therapist, I help the student and family put into practice the skills they’ve learned along their respective journeys at Open Sky. Each family member has the opportunity to vocalize the sentiments they’ve been sharing through letters as well as those that they’ve kept inside. They get to look each other in the eye and see each other in the most authentic sense. It is often a heartwarming and illuminating experience.
Prior to a Family Quest, I communicate with the student’s primary therapist to form individualized treatment objectives and goals for the family. Our team often uses an exercise called “the 4 R’s”: the sharing of Requests, Regrets, Resentments, and Respects. This practice helps individuals organize their thoughts and feelings and formulate how to share them. As I coach a family through the 4 R’s, I explain that the sentiments contained in the four categories live deep down in our hearts, but we may brush them under the rug or express them in reactive ways that don’t align with our values. With the communication skills that they have been learning along the way, they are able to express these thoughts intentionally and articulately.
Throughout the intensive, the deep therapeutic work is intertwined with opportunities to relax and interact lightheartedly as a family. Parents and siblings also get a taste of what it is like for their loved one living in the wilderness. The family may not have much, if any, experience camping or being immersed in nature. During Family Quest, families hike, make fires, play games, prepare and enjoy healthy organic meals, and receive education on the history and nature of the land. Students are eager to show their families the physical and emotional skills they have learned thus far. Parents are often astounded, encouraged, and motivated by their child’s growth. Likewise, the child takes note of the hard work the parents have put into their parallel Open Sky journey. These observations and realizations spur everyone on in their personal work during and after the Family Quest.
Through the Family Quest experience, families begin to resolve issues from the past and initiate a healthy path for the future. Open Sky’s core purpose and belief says, “We activate the potential of the human spirit and believe all people have the capacity to thrive.” The truth of this statement is clearly evident during Family Quests. I cherish the opportunity to guide families through the process of healing, pursuing healthy relationships, and realizing their full potential as individuals and as a family system.