A student is nearing the end of his or her stay at Open Sky. For the past 10-12 weeks, this student and the family have grown in immeasurable ways. So, what happens next? How is this growth integrated into life beyond Open Sky? Transition Mentors, part of the Open Sky Family Services Team, are entirely dedicated to answering these questions and supporting families throughout the graduation and transition process. Transition Mentors Amy Hartline, MA, and Mary Burchard, BA, fill these roles with dedication, passion, teamwork, and excellence. We recently sat down with Amy to learn more about this important role.
A: As Transition Mentors, Mary Burchard and I provide guidance and attention to students and their families as they graduate from Open Sky and transition from the program on to the next steps. Each aspect of the graduation process is intentionally designed to help our students and families reconnect and begin to integrate the skills they’ve been learning independently. It’s also a chance to mark an important milestone together.
To give the most attuned support to families and students, Mary and I have different focuses as transition mentors. My focus is to support parents and the family. For them, the graduation experience begins on Monday during the week of their child’s graduation. We go over some of the foundational skills they’ve learned in other aspects of their Open Sky experience, such as Wellness Weekend, Monday Night Parent Support Calls, and the Family Pathway. On Tuesday, we head to base camp to reunite with the students, stay overnight, and take part in graduation activities on Wednesday.
Mary is focused on supporting the students experience throughout graduation. She is in the field with students the week before they graduate to help prepare them for the process. She then meets with the graduates again on Tuesday morning prior to reuniting with their parents. Mary also arranges many of the field logistics for the experience.
One of us is always on call for families during the week of graduation. We provide a 48-hour Transition Line for students and families to call if they require extra support in those two days following graduation. We also encourage families to work with their Family Care Coordinator to schedule a follow-up call with one of us within 24 hours of graduation. This is an opportunity to check in about how the process is going and review any mindfulness or communication skills that can help the transition.
We schedule calls with families three months after graduation to check in again. Our Alumni Communications Coordinator, Peter Frankel, connects with them six months and a year after graduation.
As you can see, graduation and transition is not an abrupt cut off of Open Sky resources and support. As an organization, we are committed to a successful transition for our students and their families.
A: Leaving the wilderness and moving on to whatever is next is a very significant time. Just as students aren’t simply dropped off at Open Sky and expected to jump right in and know everything, we don’t just wave goodbye and expect our students to adapt immediately and perfectly to a new context. Students and families are eager to put into practice everything they’ve learned and it’s important they have support in doing so.
Parents often have their own anxieties about this stage of their child’s growth. By providing Transition Mentors, we help parents slow down and take everything step by step. We come alongside them in the big picture of reuniting with their child and in the small details such as final paperwork. No other program brings the family into the process and supports them so deliberately.
Once reunited, families have time to be together and start to integrate “I Feel” statements and other skills that they’ve practiced on their own, in letters, and during phone calls. With the exception of families that have participated in a Family QuestTM, this is their first chance to practice face-to-face. Graduation staff are available for guidance and support throughout these important moments.
Additionally, graduation is a wonderful opportunity for parents to develop a better understanding and empathy for their child, experiencing just a taste of his or her life for the past several weeks. They are able to meet many of the students and staff with whom their child has developed relationships throughout his or her stay. This is a meaningful experience for both families and the student.
A: Our respective backgrounds benefit our roles tremendously. Mary’s time in the field at Open Sky as a Senior Field Guide is invaluable. She has worked in every student team at Open Sky and therefore has a profound awareness of the student experience. Throughout her two and a half years as a guide, she has learned the Open Sky model inside and out. Her passion for Open Sky’s core values, the skills we teach, and for shared connection in nature shines through her work and her words.
I bring years of wilderness therapy experience to my role. I received a Bachelor’s degree in Wilderness Therapy and a Master’s in Transformative Leadership, studying how people, families, and communities change. I worked as a wilderness therapy guide in my 20s, supervised field staff for an outdoor education program, and taught courses in wilderness therapy for Prescott College. I’ve also studied meditation, yoga, and Hakomi, a body-centered psychotherapy.
In this role, I see all aspects of my prior experience coming together. I’ve been behind the scenes and I’ve been the “boots on the ground”. Personally, one of the most significant and applicable aspects of my background is being a mother to my son. I know the time, energy, and intention that parenting requires. I believe that parenting and connecting with other people is one of the most important skills to develop because its impact continues generation after generation. As humans, we are constantly developing and cultivating patterns.
It’s really fun to weave together all that I’ve learned and experienced throughout the years to be able to support and empathize with parents in this process. It’s so rewarding and inspiring to me to work with families who choose to learn to grow together with more skill, intention, and heart. This makes a tremendous and profound impact on future generations and the world.
A: A really cool aspect of interacting with parents at graduation is that they often are already familiar with me through other Family Services. I lead some of our Monday Night Parent Support Calls, facilitate Wellness Weekend occasionally, and often meet parents who come to base camp for mid-stay Family Quests. These multiple points of contact deepen the family members’ feelings of familiarity, comfort, and connection as they come to Open Sky for graduation.
Another highlight of my job is the opportunity to collaborate with other members of the Open Sky Family Services Team. We learn so much from each other. Being connected as a team is crucial to providing the highest quality and most seamless support for families. Matthew Krugh, the Family Services Director, has a clinical background that is a huge resource for me as I work with families. Norman Elizondo, the Family Wellness Counselor, is exceptional at bringing mindfulness into the process in a way that is digestible. Each person’s gifts enhance our team and the services we provide.
A: As families are coming into the graduation experience, my best advice to them is to trust the process. Open Sky is tremendously intentional and thoughtful about the experience we provide. We manage the details with such attention and care, creating an environment for families to stay present and receive our support.
When leaving Open Sky and transitioning to what’s next, my advice is to remember that at its core, Open Sky isn’t trying to create perfection. Rather, our aim lies in our mission: to “inspire people to learn and live in a way that honors values and strengthens relationships.” Sometimes, life can be messy and challenging. The idea isn’t that life will be perfect; it’s for our students and families to face those challenging times in new ways using the tools, learning, and growth they’ve gained here.
Recently, a father attending graduation shared something that really resonated with me. He said, “As a parent, we thought loving our child was enough. At Open Sky, we’ve discovered we need mindfulness and we need tools.” Parents do love their kids and want the best for them. The Open Sky process equips them with the tools and skills needed to manifest that love in the healthiest and most beneficial ways possible.