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A Natural Fit: Wilderness Therapy and Adolescent Girls Therapist, Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC

Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls Group

Featured Team Members: Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC, EMDR Certified

Q: Why do you choose to work in wilderness therapy?

A: In the early 90’s when I was in graduate training, I had never heard the term “wilderness therapy” before. It was at that time that my younger brother experienced wilderness therapy as a student. He expressed that the experience changed his life. I and the rest of my family could see this change and the positive impact it had on him. I tucked this unfamiliar term and idea away as I continued training. I later moved to Massachusetts and was trained in adventure-based counseling. I was sold.

I found a temporary job at a wilderness program in Crested Butte, Colorado. After my time in Crested Butte, I worked as a wilderness therapist at a program in Oregon. During these experiences, it was phenomenal seeing how quickly students responded to the wilderness and its immediate consequences—ones that are natural and not contrived.

Wilderness therapy was different in the 90’s. It didn’t really include family-systems work, and aftercare and transition support were not part of the experience. I was pretty uncomfortable professionally, knowing my clients were going back into systems that couldn’t support them and their growth. After nearly five years of working in wilderness therapy in Crested Butte and Oregon, I left wilderness and continued my career in other capacities. I did private practice, taught Masters of counseling courses, and supervised counselors in training for the state of Oregon. As a licensed school counselor, I also worked with high school, middle school, and elementary school children. After many years of deep and varied experience, my heart led me back to this field and I found Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.


Q: What strengths do you bring to your role as an Adolescent Girls Clinical Therapist at Open Sky?

A: In these 25 years I’ve been working with young people, I’ve practically seen it all. I’m not shocked by behavior, so I bring a sense of calm when working with my students. I don’t get caught up in or distracted by the behavior. Rather, I am curious and strive to take the time to discover what is beneath the surface that informs it.

Throughout my career, thoughtfulness and organization have always been priorities. I put a lot of thought into what my therapeutic goals are for my students. I try to bring clarity to the intentions behind interventions. My primary modalities are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). I’ve honed those skills and can use them in a variety of situations with my students at Open Sky.

Another strength is what I bring to the family work, a centerpiece of programming at Open Sky. I’ve worked with families throughout my career in many different capacities. I really understand the importance of focusing on family systems and healthy communication. I recognize that no individual behaves within a bubble; we are each impacted by our environment.


Q: What do you value about working with adolescent girls?

A: I love working with all populations and every stage of life. Each stage has significant needs and goals. For me though, working with the adolescent stage has been a favorite.

Adolescence is an important time of transition. It’s a time of grieving an end to childhood and embracing the future of adulthood. Even the parents experience both the grief and excitement. It’s a vibrant developmental stage and one that can cause the most upheaval for the individual and family. An adolescent is trying to differentiate and create his or her own identity, which can be really impactful on the whole family. Developmentally, there are many inherent layers of emotions and behaviors to this phase, bringing great energy and sadness.

For me, the adolescent stage was a really important phase of my long-term development and I believe that it is for the adolescent girls I work with as well. I know it’s an exciting time filled with much emotion, body changes, new interpersonal experiences, and personal identity development. Adolescent girls tend to try on many different hats throughout this phase. The support that I had from others around me really helped me navigate the transition during adolescence from childhood into adulthood. I value the opportunity to be a part of that process for these girls.


Q: What are you most passionate about in your role at Open Sky?

A: The power of the wilderness is a great passion of mine and one of the main reasons I returned to wilderness therapy. For instance, last week with the afternoon monsoon rains, I loved seeing how girls that have struggled day-to-day really stepped up and were able to take care of themselves. The rains also initiated a very raw, emotional moment to occur for a student who needed a breakthrough. That relationship we have with the wilderness is special and it helps us build confidence in ourselves. The weather, the wildlife, the changing seasons, you name it…it can all drive home important points, help turn ideas into tangible lessons, and require resilience we didn’t know we had within ourselves.

I’m passionate about the real-time nature of the therapy. Rather than talking about different experiences that occur between traditional talk therapy sessions, I’m actually able to see these experiences unfold in the moment. I see how my students react to struggle and get to celebrate with them in successes. I love to see a student’s face light up when she overcomes a challenge, like starting a bow drill fire.

Finally, I’m passionate about the family piece of my work. Parents often have their own thoughts of guilt over their parenting. These thoughts are distortions and are not helpful. I believe that parents do their best based on what they know. I love to help them to learn more about what healthy parenting is; to encourage them to feel more confident in their own skills.


Q: Tell us about Junebug, Team Firefly’s favorite therapy dog!

A: Junebug is my co-therapist. She is a rescue animal and I specifically chose her for her temperament to be trained as a therapy dog. I use Junebug with specific interventions, such as helping students practice assertiveness skills. I will have a student give Junebug certain commands or tell the dog “no” when she enters personal space. When the student states the command in a timid voice, I have her practice again with more assertiveness. The student is then more confident in carrying that assertiveness into the team or in communicating with family.

What I appreciate most about Junebug is her ability to enhance the sense of emotional safety for students. Especially for students who struggle with opening up to others, they often express themselves in a more comfortable and vulnerable way when Junebug is present.

I’ve learned a lot about my students from Junebug. She has a way of seeking out the students who are the most reserved. I will watch who she is drawn to in the group and will gain insight into who might be struggling in certain ways. She is a great addition to the team and brings another level of assessment and healing.


Q: What are your passions outside of work?

A: Music has always been an important and enriching part of my life. I actively engage in music through writing, recording, and performing. Songwriting is a way to communicate and express myself. I love that it is also a way to prompt creativity in others when they interpret my music however they choose. It’s a great creative outlet and a lot of fun.  

I love to bring this passion into my work in wilderness as well. We have a ukulele in Team Firefly. It is not uncommon for me to bring lead sheets along with me, especially if a student requests a certain song. It’s a lot of fun when a student knows or learns to play it during her time here. I have had some students with phenomenal voices and musical talents. I’ve loved learning from my students and their varying styles.

I occasionally bring my personal ukulele (named Rosie) out to play together in the team. There is something about being in a circle and singing together that breeds feelings of connection and joy.



July 25th, 2018

Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls Group