Featured Team Members: Nick Lenderking-Brill, MA, LPC
Nick Lenderking-Brill, MA, LPC began his time at Open Sky as an intern in Family Services while pursuing his master’s degree at Naropa University. In this Q&A, he shares how he discovered his passion for wilderness therapy and the journey that led him to his dream job as Clinical Therapist for adolescent boys at Open Sky.
When I was nine, my dad took me on my first backpacking trip in New Hampshire. We were on the Appalachian Trail, and he explained to me that it went all the way from Georgia to Maine. In my little nine-year-old brain, I thought, “No way. I need to walk this someday.” Even then, something about it felt healing and connecting and right.
Fast forward to when I was 23, I did thru-hike the AT. When it was over, I received so many unexpected gifts on a therapeutic level from having done that. I hiked out a lot of my own demons, and moving my body, eating well, and living outside for that long was so healing. It was my own wilderness therapy.
I then pursued a career path as a teacher. I lived overseas in Brazil and Thailand teaching to impoverished communities, learning the languages, and trying to immerse myself in those cultures. But something was missing. I liked teaching, and I liked being of service, but it wasn’t quite getting at the thing that would feed my soul.
Then, in an unexpected turn of events, my grandmother, who I was really close with, died suddenly. It was a traumatic event for my family, and I found myself in a deep depression. I knew I had to get out of my house and do something different, so I went on a 10-day meditation retreat. I had this moment around day five or six. Tears. Letting go. Forgiveness. It was such a powerful experience, and I knew I needed to share this sort of thing with other people.
As soon as I got home, I Googled “meditation wilderness therapy” and the first hit was Open Sky. From that point on, my path was clear. I drove to Colorado, enrolled at Naropa University, came to Open Sky, got my master’s degree, and have been living my dream ever since. It’s been my soul’s calling.
I started at Open Sky as an intern in Family Services while I was finishing my master’s degree at Naropa. I did a little bit of everything that year. I led around 30 Family Quest™ intensives, spent a few weeks in the field, supported graduations as a transition mentor, and provided coverage for a therapist who was on sabbatical.
My internship was such a valuable experience because it was so experiential. I had support and supervision from people like Family Services Director Matthew Krugh, MSW, some of the more senior therapists in Family Services, and the Clinical team. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it paved a clear pathway to the role I’m in now. I learned how the company works, sharpened my tools as a therapist, and gained clinical experience early on.
Once my internship was complete and I got my master’s, I was hired on as a full-time therapist in Family Services and led a bunch more Family Quests. Open Sky then started me on this rotation where I spent two months shadowing and being mentored by senior clinical therapists like Chris Blankenship, LCSW and Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC. I sat in on their sessions and got to learn and watch and ask so many questions. This was an important step in my development, as it provided a great learning ground for understanding the role. Then, two years ago, there was a need for a team for adolescent boys. I started Team K and then gravitated over to Team G and have been in this role ever since.
Being a therapist in Family Services is so useful in terms of preparing clinicians for the primary therapist role. When you’re running Family Quest week after week, you get a good sense of how family systems work. You learn how to hold parents accountable, identify and track patterns, and listen and hold space for challenging situations. Those lessons are so applicable to my job now. When I make parent calls, I’m not just updating them on how their kid is doing in the field. Each of those calls is therapeutic. I’m naming systems. I’m offering coaching. I’m giving feedback. I’m peeling back layers. I have experience and confidence doing that because of all the Family Quests I did.
Field guides are so essential to the work I’m doing; there’s no one I work more closely with. I go to the field two days a week to do sessions and develop a treatment plan. I then trust the guides wholeheartedly to implement that plan. We’re constantly in communication, giving and receiving feedback from each other. At Open Sky, we talk about having an integrated treatment team, and I take that really seriously, especially with field guides.
I would also add that having guiding experience is so beneficial to becoming a primary therapist. Not only do field guides understand what happens in the field and on expo, but they’re also really honing basic skills of listening, talking, validating, holding space, and tracking patterns. Being a good guide provides the foundation for being a good therapist.
The family systems approach is not only effective, it’s crucial. Every human is a product of their family, culture, and society. These are the things that shape us, and family is the primary shaper. For every kid who comes to Open Sky with depression or anxiety or substance use, family has played some role in that. That’s not to judge or say that parents caused these challenges, but there is going to be some family connection to them. That’s the case for every single human.
It doesn’t make much logical sense to extract a kid from their family to do all this therapeutic work and then put them right back in the family. Three months of wilderness therapy, as powerful as it is, cannot undo 16 years of the same pattern if the family is not involved. The family system needs to be on board with the work the student is doing. They need to learn the vocabulary. They need to expand their own emotional capacities. They need to learn how to communicate. The change needs to be systemic.
Therapy is all about relationship. It’s the building block. I’ve definitely got a lot of adolescent boy left in me, so I draw on that part of myself to drop in and connect with my students. I talk about school, video games, sports, and just build rapport and find what we have in common. Once we have a relationship, I start to weave in the therapeutic elements. It’s a very natural process. They trust me and know I’m going to hold the space for them. I know how to challenge them as well—accountability and integrity are my top values. My aim is to help them change old patterns and poke holes in destructive ways of thinking. If I didn’t hold up a mirror to my students, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
I try to be very nonjudgmental and client centered. My whole philosophy is that no one is broken. The kids I work with are not damaged. They are just responding to their environments and stimuli and trying to meet their needs in the best ways they know how, which are oftentimes destructive. I work with students to find a way for them to meet those needs in a way that aligns with their values. I’m all about having your cake and eating it too. In fact, I tell students all the time, “Dude, you can have both.” You can have a relationship with your family and fit in with your friend group. You can feel powerful and not destroy your ties with your parents. Let’s find the way that works for everyone.
I love being in the field, spending time in nature, watching the sunsets and sunrises, and sleeping under the stars.
I love being in session, working with the students, and watching them change. I especially love graduations and witnessing the systemic change taking place. It’s amazing to see families who just 12 weeks prior were struggling and unsure, heal and grow.
Finally, I love the community. Most of my friends are Open Sky people, and I’m grateful to work for a company where everyone has similar values. We’re all on this mission to do good work in this world, and also everyone is so passionate about what they do. I learn so much from the people I work with.