Featured Team Members: Sam Verutti, MSW
Meet Sam Verutti, MSW, clinical therapist for adolescent boys at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. Sam’s clinical approach is enriched by his childhood immersed in the outdoors, his experience as a wilderness therapy student, and over three years working as an Open Sky field guide. His journey has come full circle since earning his Master’s of Social Work degree and returning to Open Sky as a family services therapist and primary clinical therapist. Get to know Sam in the Q&A below, where you’ll hear about his background, education, and clinical experience.
A: I grew up in Davis, California, widely known as the “bicycle capital of the world.” I was riding my bike to school by 1st grade and cycling became a big aspect of my life. I lived directly across from the University of California, Davis, which has a huge campus. Some of my fondest memories as a kid were riding my bike around the campus, exploring the natural environment of the arboretum, and seeing the birds at the school’s raptor center. I also attended summer camps as a kid. They would take us to Putah Creek in Davis, where we’d go canoeing, practice archery, have campfires, and learn about the outdoors. I also spent a lot of time camping with my father. We’d go sailing in Regattas and I’d be part of his crew, managing the foredeck of his boat. It would get pretty wild on windy days. Fly fishing with my dad has always been a huge tradition as well.
As I grew older, I became a member of the local climbing gym. I probably spent way too much time there, but it was a great outlet for me. Traditional school was always challenging, and my outlets were important. Connection to the outdoors was a big part of that. Davis is an hour from the Sierra Nevada mountains and an hour from the coast, so as I grew older, I would venture out of town, skiing in the mountains, playing in the ocean, and going fly fishing with my dad. I’d say these experiences planted the seed for my love of the outdoors.
A: I was actually a student of wilderness therapy at Aspen Achievement Academy back in 2002. That was my most significant exposure to the outdoors and when I fell in love with wilderness therapy. The experience had such a profound impact on my life, my relationships, and my future. When I graduated, I remember telling my parents I’d be back to work as a field guide in wilderness therapy someday. So, it’s really no surprise I’m here.
After Aspen Achievement Academy, I went to a therapeutic boarding school and had a teacher who made a huge impact on me. She had graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango and at one point, told me that I reminded her of Durango. I always wondered what she meant by that. Later on, when I was finishing my associate degree and wondering what was next, I remembered her comment. So, I took a flight out here. I immediately fell in love with Durango and decided it was where I needed to be. As I was applying to Fort Lewis, I read about the adventure education program, which had a blurb about wilderness therapy. It was pretty surreal, actually. From there, everything just clicked. I transferred to Fort Lewis with the goal of becoming a field guide. After I graduated, I spent some time guiding in Colorado Springs, mainly river and rock climbing. I wanted to strengthen the skills I had learned in school, but really what that experience did was solidify my goal of becoming a wilderness therapy field guide. So, I applied for Open Sky and moved back down to Durango. My love for this work has only grown since.
A: My own personal journey played a huge role in my desire to pursue higher education. Learning to navigate the challenges of my youth led me to the passion of helping others, but my time as a field guide shaped that passion. I think I worked about 500 field days over the course of three years while initially at Open Sky, and that time was spent working primarily with adolescent boys. That is really what led me to begin exploring the idea of becoming a therapist. My time guiding taught me a lot about people. I worked with so many incredibly talented students and a theme that stood out was that, a lot of times, their perception of themselves was so far from my perception of them. It was fascinating. I began to recognize how a person’s environment, or struggles, can shape how they see themselves and how they navigate the world. As I stepped away from wilderness therapy and into other settings, I continued to notice that theme. For a period of time, I worked as a case manager in community mental health and it just seemed more intensified.
I really began to miss wilderness therapy when I left Open Sky. So much that I took a job working for a transitional program, mentoring students returning home from wilderness. It allowed me to stay connected to wilderness therapy, while also providing enough flexibility to pursue my master’s degree. I worked with many students struggling with their transition home, which only strengthened my desire to work in this field. So, I always had my eye on returning to wilderness. Similar to my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to gain well-rounded experience, so I spent a few years working in other fields. I worked as a social worker in the school district, and as a child and adolescent therapist in community mental health, but I knew wilderness therapy offered so much more. That is when I made the decision to return to Open Sky.
I returned as a Family Services Therapist because family work is a core component of what we do. Family engagement is critical in helping the student to internalize their process and I have always appreciated working with families. When I guided, I had opportunities to facilitate graduation counsels and I loved leading those experiences because they were always so inspiring. Parents would come into the group and get an opportunity to witness the magic firsthand. Our Family Quest™ experience allows them to engage in such a meaningful way. The entire family has an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned, and they grow closer as a result. It is so incredibly powerful. My role as a Family Services Therapist has been a cornerstone in my transition to the clinical team. It has informed the way I integrate skills from the Parent Pathway, engage with parents over phone calls, and support them in addressing issues within the family system.
A: What I love about wilderness therapy is that it removes the student from what may be a problematic or unhealthy environment and places them in the solitude of the wilderness. It allows students to look back on their issues, gain perspective, and then offers endless opportunities for them to look inward and forward. As a therapist for adolescent boys, I witness firsthand how vital this process is for internalizing change. As students engage in the group process, many of the patterns that took place within the family or social settings back home emerge with their peers, guides, and therapist. We then have the ability to mirror these patterns back to students and help them identify how they showed up in their lives back home. We support them as they work to find new healthy behaviors, practice healthy coping skills, and begin to prepare for their lives moving forward. It allows students to gain insight and try something different in a safe and supportive environment. Finding success through these changes is ultimately what inspires continued healing and growth.
I’m inspired by the ways that parents and children learn to communicate more assertively and empathetically throughout wilderness therapy. I appreciate how we utilize the “I feel” statement to guide students and families toward navigating healthy conflict. Communication between family members is slowed down through letter-writing, which becomes much more deliberate and thoughtful. This allows both the student and parent to take time and reflect before responding, and then show up in relationship in ways that honor their values.
I also value the family-centered approach that we take at Open Sky. I believe challenges exist within environmental context, and this includes the family system. Therefore, parental engagement is critical to promoting lasting change. We provide infinite opportunities for parents to learn and grow at Open Sky. Parents engage in weekly phone calls with the primary therapist where they learn about their child’s process. They’re able to solidify their understanding of the Open Sky approach and work on personal well-being through Wellness Weekend. They have access to additional educational resources on the parent portal, can engage in individualized parent coaching, and may dive deeper into the work through engaging in the Family Quest™ intensive. I truly believe we are doing everything we can to serve our families in the best way possible.
A: Many of my strengths come from my experience as a field guide. It was the driving force that inspired me to become a therapist and has informed the approach that I take with my students. I am direct and compassionate. Students feel cared for and challenged by me, which enables me to build strong therapeutic relationships, strengthen rapport, and ultimately earn the respect of my students. I believe this is the foundation on which all therapeutic interventions rest. My time as a student in wilderness therapy has also given me a tremendous amount of insight into the student experience. I can relate, understand, and empathize at a deeper level through this shared experience. I am also extremely passionate about this work; there is nothing greater than being of service to people in this way. Connection and relationship are core components of humanity and I have a tremendous amount of passion for developing connection and trust with my students. I believe the people I work with feel my passion and that it has an influence on them.
A: My hope for my students is that they can ultimately live meaningful and productive lives. The journey is different for everyone and Open Sky is an excellent first step. My goal is to instill confidence and to provide my students with a solid foundation moving forward. Throughout their time at Open Sky, students develop insight to their struggles, learn the importance of building and maintaining healthy relationships, so that they can better understand what their work is moving forward, and have tools to manage their emotions and show up in ways that align with their values.
My hope for parents is to strengthen their own wellness and to absorb the information we teach about emotional regulation, effective communication, and healthy parenting. I hope that through this, they will also become more self-aware, so that they become better prepared to support their child.
A: Simply put, my passion is adventure, specifically white water kayaking, rock climbing, and fly fishing, but all sorts of adventure. For me, adventure is my greatest form of mindfulness. I search for those moments in life where time seems non-existent. As an example, in kayaking, while running a challenging drop, you’re not thinking of anything else. You are completely in the moment of that drop, focused on the minutia paddle strokes you need to be making. As human beings, we are such thinkers, planners, and doers. It’s almost completely against our nature to be completely in the moment. For me, these types of activities get me out of my head and into my body. A huge part of fly fishing for me is turning over rocks, tapping into the ecosystem, and determining what larvae the fish are feeding on. I then use that information to go home and tie flies that mimic what I was finding on the river that day. I am very detail-oriented, and these kinds of mindful activities have become a huge outlet for me.
Connection with others is also important to me. I’ve always been a sensitive and caring person. Helping others has always been a huge aspect of who I am and a passion both within and outside of work. Wilderness therapy helps me to live this passion. My family is also extremely important to me. I spend a lot of time with my partner and her son, which includes backpacking trips with our fly rods, river trips, or taking our dog to the dog park. My parents and siblings all live in California, but we visit each other as much as time allows. My father visits Durango annually so we can continue our fly fishing tradition.