Featured Team Members: Kelly McGrath, LSW, CSW
Kelly McGrath, MSW is a therapist with adolescent girls at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. Get to know Kelly and her canine co-therapist Zuri in the Q&A below!
I learned that phrase from a student I worked with while river guiding in Grand Canyon. At the time I met this student, I was guiding for a nonprofit out of Flagstaff, Arizona that worked with a lot of adolescents and adults with varying abilities. Many students I worked with were coming from troubled homes, and this particular student had his own set of struggles. I remember having a conversation with him and seeing that he had “find love in the chaos” tattooed near his clavicle. It resonated with me. I believe in building relationships and rapport. I was able to do that with that student, and he was able to soften with me and talk openly about his struggles.
That phrase also resonated with me because we were on a Grand Canyon river trip. There is a lot of chaos and turbulence within the water and we have to find our best line and go through it. Navigating the river is a similar process to navigating wilderness therapy or anything we do in nature. It’s wild and it’s humbling and comes with challenges. I have shed many tears in the backcountry and had to work hard to make it work for myself in a way that honors who I am. I’ve felt self-doubt and questioned, can I do this? Am I strong enough? I’ve always been able to get to the other side and say yes. For me, it’s all about being able to get back to that foundation of love, even among all the challenges and chaos.
Until I went to grad school, I wasn’t technically a therapist, but most of my outdoor education experience has been through a therapeutic lens. I had two jobs right out of school. One was working with adolescent girls doing backcountry trips. The focus was finding confidence in being a young woman in the wilderness. We did yoga and meditation, and there was also a big emphasis on eating a whole foods diet and cooking our own food. I also ran a program in Portland, Oregon out of an alternative high school. It was for kids who had been through some pretty traumatic experiences. We would spend half the time in the field doing things like service projects, trail building, and invasive plant removal and the other half of the time in the classroom. We would also do four or five trips a year where we would spend a week out in the field.
I took the kids from the Portland program to Grand Canyon for a service project and just fell in love. I knew I needed to be there, and eventually moved to Flagstaff and became a Grand Canyon river guide. Guiding has been a huge part of my outdoor education and therapeutic career; I’ve guided all over the west and internationally as well, but most of my work was done in Grand Canyon. I started as a commercial guide and had a lot of fun, but I wanted more. I started working for two nonprofits and spent four or five years creating and leading backcountry experiences for wounded veterans. I also worked with spouses and children who had lost partners or parents in Iraq and Afghanistan. All those trips had a therapeutic component; the foundation for them was based on loss.
One of the biggest projects I did was spend a year working with Eric Weinmeier, the first blind person to climb all the seven summits. He eventually had a goal to kayak the Colorado River in a hardshell kayak, so I worked with him for a year as one of his support guides. I also led river trips on the Colorado River for adolescent kids who were visually impaired and hearing impaired, and I worked with adolescents and adults who had limited physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries or multiple sclerosis. I worked with people on projects that were therapeutic based and utilized wilderness as a tool for their growth and transformation. A lot of these trips were turned into documentaries that focused on telling these important stories. Finally, I’ve also worked with adolescents with autism spectrum disorder, both in the classroom and doing therapeutic recreation.
I feel to some degree that I’ve been a therapist my whole life, even if I wasn’t identified that way and didn’t recognize it myself. Each trip I did or program I ran kept pushing me in that direction. Connecting with people and place is my calling. It aligns wholeheartedly with who I am.
I grew up in Ohio and did not spend a lot of time outside. It took me moving out west to become connected with nature. And once I became connected and had the opportunity to explore, I came to realize that when I am disconnected from technology and the chaos of what goes on in the day-to-day world, I am my best self. I’m in my body. I’m in my heart. I’m in my mind. I am my most present, and I feel most connected to myself and others and place.
In wilderness therapy, the phones are gone, the computers are gone, the clothing is different. All the things that we often identify with to create our personas are stripped away and we’re left to be our most authentic selves. I have worked with students who have never stepped foot on anything but asphalt or cement, have never seen stars, the Milky Way, or Orion’s belt. I’ve seen students come into a trip hardened and bitter and frustrated. It’s amazing to watch as they soften, become wide-eyed, let go, and become playful kids again. I don’t expect everybody who does wilderness therapy to become an outdoor enthusiast by any means, but I do believe that nature can help us explore who we are and at the end of the day become better people.
In wilderness therapy, the students are constantly in a therapeutic environment. Whether it’s collecting firewood, hauling water, busting a coal, leading a hike, or sharing how they’re feeling, they’re surrounded by therapeutic opportunities with constant feedback from their environment, peers, guides, and therapists. They learn to adapt and thrive in a variety of settings, which helps build self-confidence and efficacy. Wilderness, and especially wilderness therapy, puts people in their work.
I also think wilderness therapy is an effective intervention for the fun and relationship-building it facilitates. I think it’s so important for young people to be able to play and just be a kid in the wilderness. There is still a lot of hard work to do, but I see a lot of fun being had in the field. That’s something I value tremendously. With that, students start to build relationships with their peers and teams. They get so much feedback from each other and are very motivated by their peers. They start to build a culture around integrity and compassion and authenticity, which is so powerful. Working with their guides and therapist might also be the first time some of these young people have had the opportunity to build healthy relationships with adults. The relational aspect of wilderness therapy is tremendous.
Overall, I have a very integrative approach that pulls from a multitude of modalities, such as mindfulness, somatic experience, and interoception. My intention and hope is to link theory, evidence-based research, and technique in my practice to best meet the needs of the client. I appreciate that the integrative approach recognizes that each person is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. I think that wilderness therapy as a whole, though, works for everyone. That’s why I love Open Sky.
My approach is also strengths-based. That means I look at the positive attributes people have and help them focus on those. Of course, we have to talk about the challenges and negative thoughts that someone has, but I try not to go too far down that rabbit hole. So many people, myself included, aren’t always able to see what their strengths are. I recognize that I can’t force someone to see their strengths or appreciate their positive attributes, but through therapy, intervention, and experience, I try to pull those out in conversation. I come from a very relational place. If I’m not able to build rapport and healthy relationships, I’m probably not going to be able to do anything else.
Zuri is an Australian shepherd blue heeler mix and a certified therapy dog. She and I have very similar personalities. She’s very playful and loves to run around the woods chasing pinecones and ravens, but she can also be serious and slow down when she needs to. She’s amazing. I believe one of my strengths is my ability to connect with other human beings and see them for who they are almost right out of the gate; when Zuri is with me, I can build that rapport so much more quickly. She has this way of being with people that is just so calming, and she’s also very cuddly. If students are sad or crying, she’ll go up to them and lie on their mats. Therapy dogs just bring something that we as humans cannot offer. They’re a tender, calming, nonjudgmental presence. I’ve watched hardened young men who were struggling with significant substance abuse issues, who have been hurt in so many ways and didn’t want to talk to anyone, just crumble and soften for her. She’s an amazing co-therapist.