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Helping Others Help Themselves: A Q&A with Therapist Kalen Koch

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Kalen Koch, MA, LPCC, NCC

Kalen Koch, MA, LPCC, NCC works with families and students as a therapist at Open Sky. She left the beaches of Florida for the mountains and desert of the Southwest. In the Q&A below, learn more about Kalen and her passion for helping others help themselves.

Could you share about your years growing up? How did you develop your passion for helping others help themselves?

I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida as an avid beachgoer. I also played on a travel soccer team. Every weekend we’d go to a different Florida city, which was such a fun bonding experience with my family and team. I’m also a big Jacksonville Jaguars fan. We’re one of the worst teams in the NFL, but going to all the home football games while growing up was a fun way to support and develop community. Singing was also a great passion of mine. I honestly don’t know how this came to be, but I started singing national anthems around town. I loved performing and found a passion for the creative side of life with singing.

My passion for helping others help themselves came from my parents and grandparents. My dad and his dad would always say, “the greatest joy in life is helping others help themselves.” I would hear that weekly and asked myself, where can I take this in my life? I had great opportunities as far as volunteering in the community at local education centers and tutoring kids after school. I realized that I felt really fulfilled when I was helping others and wanted to go into the helping profession. I think that’s where my true passion lies. Hearing that line over and over and over from my parents and grandpa started it all.

Describe your educational background and clinical experience prior to Open Sky?

I went to Elon University, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina. That was my first time living in and exploring a mountainous area. It was eye-opening for me to drive only twenty minutes and then get to hike a mountain. That’s when I realized my love for hiking, the mountains, and being outdoors.

I also had an incredible experience and opportunity to travel when I did Semester at Sea, which visited 13 different countries and went to New Zealand for another month-long program. That was when I gained the most education and knowledge. I witnessed firsthand the overall power of human connection among different cultures and collectivistic societies. Growing up in the US, the emphasis is so individualistic. Many of the communities we visited really prioritized family and relationships. That allowed me to rethink my priorities and seek a life rich in relationships and connection.

I was originally studying biology, but when I came back from that experience, I added psychology to my degree. I really wanted to understand and work with human connection rather than just the human body. I went straight on to graduate school at University of Central Florida in Orlando and got my master’s in clinical mental health counseling.

During that time, I was expanding my knowledge in overall, holistic health. I went through a ten-month yoga teacher training, which was not only enriching but also a form of self-care. I would spend one full weekend a month doing yoga all day and learning about myself and how I wanted to integrate this practice into my life. During my internship year in grad school, I worked at a holistic private practice that incorporated yoga, as well as nutrition, acupuncture, and counseling. It was focused on overall wellness rather than in-and-out talk therapy sessions. That work inspired me to keep seeking out a long-term career focus on integrating the whole self, not just the cognitive side of things.

Also during that time, a cohort member and I created a mindfulness and resilience curriculum for adolescents and kids. We believed that if we could give adolescents and kids the tools to build a resilient mindset, that would act as preventative care for them and could really make an overall difference in the big life transition happening post-high school. We went into different middle and high schools in the Orlando area and facilitated group sessions on coping skills that would cultivate mindfulness and resilience. That was when I realized that I wanted to keep working with that population. I love working with adolescents. Their brains are still evolving, so we’re getting them at that age where there’s so much potential for the rest of their lives.

What pulled you from the Florida beaches to the Four Corners region? What excites you most about the region and the work of wilderness therapy?

When I’m out hiking and taking in the views, I feel this overall sense of wonder in my body. I get chills when I’m on top of a mountain. As I was experiencing that in undergrad, I knew I had to keep seeking out that feeling of awe and wonderment, so it was this natural decision to gravitate more towards a mountainous area. Colorado seemed like the place to be as far as mountains and hiking go, so I made my way over here. The lifestyle here immediately attracted me. I remember moving here and noticing how many people seemed to be outside constantly running, walking, exploring, and intentionally being active, rather than just walking from one building to the next, as can be the culture in other cities.

I also came here to push myself outside of my comfort zone.  One of my best friends created this art piece for me that says, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” I keep it in my room where I can see it all the time. It’s a constant reminder to step into discomfort and growth, and that’s definitely what this area provides for me. I have a great group of friends here who take me whitewater rafting and skiing and hiking longer than I ever thought I could. I think it’s an area that pushes people outside their comfort zones in a valuable way.

I hope that by stepping outside of my own comfort zone, I can model for the young adults, adolescents, and families at Open Sky that within discomfort lies growth. They realize that they can move through hard things and gain resilience and grit as they accomplish all the rigor that this experience has to offer. It’s inspiring to witness the students as they grow in their own self-efficacy and overall power as a human. They realize, wow, I can do this. I can do challenging things.

I’m also excited by the intensiveness of wilderness therapy and Open Sky. Day in and day out, the students are moving through emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental work. So much growth and transformation can take place.

What is your clinical approach with families and students? How do you build rapport in order to develop effective treatment goals?

My clinical approach is first and foremost relational. I truly value human connection and want to meet people where they’re at on their journey. I think this is what helps build rapport, when I release my own clinical expectations and get to know people on a person-to-person level. I also incorporate strengths-based, family systems, body-centered, and emotions-focused approaches. I wholeheartedly believe in Open Sky’s purpose of activating the potential of the human spirit and that all people have the capacity to thrive.

It’s inspiring to witness people grow in their own self-awareness, confidence, and ability to show up in life the way they’ve always wanted. I try to highlight when those moments occur and take space to acknowledge my client’s growth and strengths. I also provide space for people to connect with their heart and body rather than just their mind. We live in our heads all day, so if I’m facilitating a Family Quest or in a student session, I find it helpful to just pause the session, pause the talking, and bring people into feeling their emotional experience. So often, people may not know what an emotion feels like in their body, and I believe there is tremendous power in developing this overall self-awareness.

How do you love to spend your free time?

I really value cultivating the connections that I have in my life, so I’m oftentimes with other people. I’m very blessed in my friends and my family. I’ve found an awesome community here in Durango that takes me on their adventures with them. If it’s summertime, we might be whitewater rafting. In the winter, we go skiing every weekend. I’m also going hiking more than I ever thought I could. We have a lot of adventures.

I also try to see my parents and sister as much as possible. We’re often planning for when we’ll have our next family adventure. We explored the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone on our last family trip, and we’re thinking of exploring around Zion next. When we’re not together, I like to stay connected with my family and friends through FaceTime and phone calls.

I also value alone time and finding comfort in just being with myself, which is definitely a practice. I was not always like that, but I’m now at a point in my life where I feel like I enjoy my own company. I like to light a candle, read my mystery thriller book, learn guitar, or practice yoga. I still try to sing as much as possible, too. My neighbors might not appreciate it as much, but sometimes I love to just blare some music and sing at the top of my lungs.

March 16th, 2021

The Open Sky Team