Open Sky’s experienced and passionate Operations Team works both behind the scenes and hands-on to develop, construct, and maintain program infrastructure and processes. The team flourishes under the leadership of Operations Director, Greg Ooley. Prior to joining Open Sky in 2013, Greg managed outdoor expedition companies in Alaska and adventure education program operations. Greg’s extensive experience informs and enriches his essential role at Open Sky. We recently sat down with Greg to learn more about the vital role of the Operations Team in setting students up for success at Open Sky.
A: At Open Sky the role of the Operations Team is to ensure our program is operating smoothly, safely, and efficiently. Open Sky is a complex organization with many moving parts. My department is responsible for our vehicle fleet, student clothing and gear, the transporting of students, and the maintenance of multiple facilities and base camps. As Operations Director, I work with other department leaders so that the work of the Operations Team supports the broader goals of Open Sky.
A: Our first priority is, of course, safety. Operating any wilderness therapy program is complex. Open Sky is unique in that we have not only a base camp model but a dual base camp model, with operations in Colorado during the spring and summer, and in Utah during the fall and winter. Achieving the benefits and success of this model takes a great deal of foresight and careful planning. There are unique challenges to managing two base camps, but the experience and competence of each person on the Operations Team allow us to take on these challenges successfully.
The Four Corners Region is ideal for a wilderness therapy program because the weather is mild. It makes Open Sky’s location unique and is advantageous to the safety and goals of wilderness therapy. As we all know, however, weather has an inherent degree of unpredictability. Though we can’t perfectly anticipate the elements, we can ensure we are prepared for whatever comes our way. We do this through regular, mandatory trainings and in-services, risk management planning, and through our relationships with gear and clothing vendors, public land managers, and local experts on our region. Our systems are very dialed in, thanks to Open Sky’s dozen years in operation and the extensive experience and expertise of our Field and Operations Program leadership.
A: We have developed extensive and long-term relationships with several different vendors who understand our unique needs. These vendors are dedicated to supporting the work we do so that our students and staff have the proper gear for changing weather conditions. When we purchase gear, we work directly with the manufacturers or with local Durango retailers like Backcountry Experience, which has been in business for nearly three decades. This shop’s owner and employees have insight and expertise specific to our region and company needs. Their knowledgeable staff walks us through the technical specifications of the gear and equipment we purchase. For example, one of their employees recently conducted an in-service to train our team on properly fitting students for hiking boots, as hiking is an essential aspect to our program and properly-fitted boots are critical.
We also work directly with reputable manufacturers to evaluate, select, and purchase quality gear. Though the manufacturers have their own standard testing processes, we also have our staff test much of the gear out in the field, to make sure it lives up to our expectations and requirements before we add it to our standard-issue gear package. We continuously evaluate what we use and test items that have the potential for being even better.
Our well-established relationships with manufacturers lead to quality innovations that benefit our students. For example, we worked directly with a manufacturer to actually customize a highly-durable and warm sleeping bag for our program. The sleeping bags we issue (one for summer and one for winter) are rated for much lower temperatures than the students will ever encounter in the respective season.
Student-issued jackets are considered “three-in-one”, meaning there is a puffy insulating layer, a rain shell, and the capability to combine the two. The boots we issue contain 200g Thinsulate™ insulation, are lightweight and come with orthotic insoles. The boots are waterproof and their rating exceeds any conditions we may encounter. In the winter, students also receive lightweight over-boots for muddy and wet conditions.
Each winter, I attend the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Denver with a colleague. By attending the tradeshow, we can visit manufacturers, put our hands on the gear, and see what the latest and highest quality products are. It’s a way to know we’re providing students the best-possible gear and clothing to meet their physical needs. By setting students up for success on a physical level, they are better positioned to dive into the emotional and behavioral work.
With the span of temperatures our students experience, layers are the solution to being cool enough when it’s warm and warm enough when it’s cool. According to the season, students are issued a combination of long underwear, fleece pants, nylon pants, rain pants, gloves, hats, and more. Each student has a sleeping pad and a personal tarp for inclement weather. With each item, the emphasis is on helping students understand the item’s function and how to utilize it properly. We put forth a great deal effort to make sure students are aware of themselves and the elements, are not overdressed or underdressed, and are keeping things dry and well cared-for. Learning these skills builds self-reliance, which ultimately plays a role in a student’s overall growth while at Open Sky.
A: When I started at Open Sky, our Utah property amounted to 60 acres and five permanent student group campsites. In 2017, we purchased another 100 acres and started a project that involves expanding to 9 group sites, building new roads, installing a new cistern, surfacing trails with gravel to manage mud, building two massive firewood sheds for the 130 cords of firewood we purchase every year, adding canvas tents and kitchen shelters to every site (scroll below to see pictures)… and the list goes on. In 2018, we’ve turned our attention to enhancing the infrastructure that supports the Family Services experience, including the design and construction of a large pavilion where we hold our graduations, group meditations, and talent shows.
A: The infrastructure at Open Sky enhances the wilderness therapy experience without taking away from the benefits of living in the outdoors. Everything we’ve added or improved at base camp is intended to meet the basic human needs of food, water, warmth, and shelter. For example, every team site in Utah has:
It is wonderful to see the students step up by taking pride in their group campsites and taking care to keep everything organized and maintained. This, in and of itself, initiates skills and attitudes that they can apply to relationships in their teams and their lives beyond Open Sky.
We’ve put many resources into reliably meeting the basic needs of our students. This sets the stage for field guides and therapists to work on the higher-level needs of security, love and belonging, self-esteem, etc. The Operations Team literally builds the foundation for the real magic of wilderness therapy.