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Episode 34

Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Students in Wilderness

Episode 34

The world is becoming more open when it comes to inclusivity surrounding gender and sexuality. At the same time, many young people in the LGBTQ+ community are still struggling with mental health issues; higher rates of suicide; and lack of acceptance among family, friends, and society. In this episode the SKYlights Podcast, Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC, Clinical Director and Senior Clinical Therapist, discusses why this issue is at the forefront of our minds, some sobering statistics that highlight the importance of providing support for LGBTQ+ individuals, challenges for family and friends, as well as how to create safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community.  



Mariah Loftin

Mariah Loftin

Clinical Director and Senior Therapist

Mariah joined Open Sky in 2012 and has been an integral member of the clinical team ever since. As Clinical Director, Mariah leads Open Sky’s treatment team in delivering a transformative therapeutic experience for students and families. She is attuned to the evolving needs of the Open Sky community and is known for her passion and skill for leadership and development. In addition to her work as Clinical Director, Mariah carries a caseload of students. In her work as a clinician, Mariah skillfully blends her background as a psychotherapist, behavior analyst, and art therapist to build deep and positive connections with students and parents while supporting the family system through change. She is recognized by clients and peers for her positive nature, open personality, and tenacious dedication.

Mariah is experienced in a variety of treatment modalities, including art therapy, behavior analysis, body-centered psychotherapy for trauma, dialectical behavior therapy, family systems therapy, motivational interviewing, and acceptance and commitment therapy. She is quickly able to assess and appropriately treat students, masterfully illuminating the issues that are difficult for them to face and supporting their work on those core issues.  She excels at helping students examine and appreciate the many dimensions of themselves, including their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Before joining Open Sky, Mariah worked as a clinician for Imagine! Colorado and had a private practice comprised of group and individual sessions. She has over 15 years of experience working with young people and their families.

When Mariah is not in the field at Open Sky, you can find her in her art studio, hiking with her dogs, river rafting, gardening, or touring on her bicycle around the world.


When people start to live in this brave, open sharing way, particularly about their gender and sexuality, I think this more visible way of being in the world, it gives people examples of how they can actually belong. How they can be themselves. And so of course, just like tattoos, we see it with TVs, movies, magazines in our communities. We look around and we see diverse ways that people are showing up, people are expressing themselves, and I think we’re seeing more examples. So that’s notable, how we see evidence of it in our communities.

Parents can really struggle with different feelings. It might be hard to let go of particular expectations that they had of who their child was going to be, how their child was going to grow up and live out their life. And in that, parents need a lot of support in order to go through their own process. And I think it’s relevant that parents have room to feel their own emotions too.

It’s important to just start trying. And you’re going to make mistakes and you can acknowledge them, you can apologize and then move forward. And so I think the first part is to educate yourself on what individuals are identifying? How do they actually identify for themselves? How do they feel comfortable in themselves? What is the best expression for themself? That to me is an important part of establishing connection and communication and also establishing, “Hey, I care, I’m paying attention.”

I think if a child sees their parents and family members as people who are accepting and supportive that it allows them to really step into their whole selves because they know they have their family behind them. And I think that allows them to authentically express who they are.


Emily Fernandes

Emily Fernandes

Executive Director & Co-Founder

On a wilderness trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1995, Emily discovered she could combine two of her passions: working with youth and being outdoors. Since then, she has worked for Aspen Achievement Academy, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and Connecticut Wilderness School. She was part of the founding team at Open Sky.

Emily worked as the lead therapist for adolescent girls for her first 5 years at Open Sky. Her areas of clinical expertise include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma, self-harm, disordered eating, and adoption and attachment issues. Her clinical approach is informed by cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family systems, and attachment theories. Relationship building through letter writing is a major focus of her work with students and families.

As a founder and owner of Open Sky, as well as the Clinical and Executive Director, Emily brings a breadth of knowledge with her background as a therapist, field guide, trainer, logistics coordinator, emergency responder, and field director, Emily is known for her direct, caring leadership style, her ability to inspire excellence in others, and her team oriented approach. The student treatment plan is her compass for her decision-making regarding Open Sky’s students, families, and employees.

Emily loves reading, writing, yoga, mountain biking, telemark skiing, rock climbing, spending time with friends and family, and cooking with foods from the local farmers’ market.


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