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Rite of Passage

“The critical problems of becoming male and female, relations within family, and passing into old age, are directly related to the devices which the society offers the individual to help him achieve the new adjustment.”  ~ Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, 1908

Throughout humanity, rites of passage have functioned as an essential tool of individual renewal and cultural cohesion. In contrast, modern western society provides little to no structure for transitioning from one life phase to the next.  Without access to healthy rituals, young people are lost and confused about how to move consciously and confidently into the responsibilities of adulthood.


The process of embarking on a transformative “rite of passage” is foundational to the Open Sky experience.

At their most basic, all rites of passage are characterized by three distinct phases: separation (leaving the familiar), transition (a time of testing, learning and growth), and return (incorporation and reintegration).


For students at Open Sky, the separation phase begins with leaving the familiar, known world, and the comforts of modern life.  This separation results from either external pressure from parents and loved ones and/or from an internal desire arising from deep within.  This stage is defined by the courage to heed the call to adventure and step into the unknown.

At Open Sky, separation means detaching from familiar social structures and being immersed in nature. The challenges and hardships of living outside provide the first and essential step from the known to the unknown. Inherently unpredictable and inspirational, living with a small tribe in the natural world provides a powerful setting for the journey of self-discovery.


The heart of the Open Sky experience takes place in the transition phase, known as the “road of trials.”  The student crosses the threshold into the wilderness.  It is here that the student faces tasks and ordeals that must be overcome. The program’s developmental model, The Circle of Four Directions, provides the structural and symbolic pathway for growth.

In the transition phase, students build connections with other students, guides, and therapists.  Trust is forged in this new community of peers and elders. Challenges revolve around day-to-day activities: making fire, building shelter, cooking food, and working with a group.  Students face fears, doubts and insecurities.  They develop greater understanding of themselves and their role within their group, their family system, and in society.

Every day at Open Sky provides opportunities to work through interpersonal issues, learn how to successfully cope with stress, develop healthy relationship skills, and experience strong connections with peers and adults.  Students learn to listen to their heart and discover what truly matters to them. This enables the young person to experience authentic connections with themselves and others.

Breakthroughs and transformation take place in the transition phase.  The student experiences being “seen” by others.  Being seen allows one to see oneself more clearly.  Awareness and awakening arise through self-reflection and the metaphors of nature.  Students begin to experience themselves as capable, competent, worthy and powerful.  Through confronting one’s fears, there comes new life.  Knowledge is gained.  Confidence takes root.  The young person experiences his or her capacity to thrive.


The final and pivotal step of the rite of passage is to integrate the lessons of the transformational experience.  The world outside has not been transformed.  Thus, the challenge for our graduates is to retain the wisdom gained on their journey, integrate that wisdom into their life beyond Open Sky, and, ultimately, share that wisdom with the rest of the world.

The weeks leading up to graduating from Open Sky have a series of challenges and experiences to prepare the student for a successful return.  Family Quest can be a key part of the Return phase, a time for students and family members to integrate the wisdom from their separate journeys into their work together as a family.  The final step of the Return phase is a graduation council and ceremony in which the graduate’s achievements are honored by family and the Open Sky community.

Intentionally celebrating and acknowledging the student’s journey revitalizes the learning and growth that has taken place over the previous months.  It also serves the family and the community by reinforcing the ideals, values, and identity of the collective.

“If the fires that innately burn inside youths are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth.”

~ Michael Meade, 1993

Areas of Impact

Open Sky transcends traditional wilderness therapy by delivering an experience greater than the sum of its parts: treatment for the whole family, a powerful and transformative experience, a focus on total health and well-being, and an unyielding belief that everyone has the capacity to thrive.