Featured Team Members: Norman Elizondo, BS
Wellness Weekend has been a foundational component of family programming at Open Sky since our inception in 2006. It is one of the hallmarks of Open Sky’s family-centered approach. Guided by a team of Open Sky professionals, families participate in rejuvenating and healing activities that our students participate in each day, including yoga, meditation, and psycho-educational groups. Parents learn about real-life applications to support overall health of the body, mind, and heart through the development of a Personal Wellness Plan. This Friday evening to Sunday afternoon experience is offered to all currently enrolled parents, step-parents, and other caregivers involved in supporting the student’s therapeutic process. Best of all, Wellness Weekend is included in tuition.
Traditionally an on-site experience in Durango, Colorado, Wellness Weekend recently moved to a live, interactive video-conferencing experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As wilderness professionals, the Open Sky team is highly accustomed to adapting to change. Our Wellness Weekend programming has been successfully adapted to an online platform, without compromising the quality, professionalism, community, and outcomes our families experience.
Below, Family Wellness Counselor Norman Elizondo describes more about this fundamental component of the Open Sky.
A: The purpose of Wellness Weekend is to provide parents with an encapsulated experience parallel to that of their children at Open Sky. Parents learn the same skills for communication and emotional regulation—requisite skills for them to be able to hold boundaries and to repair their relationships with their children.
There are 3 central themes in Wellness Weekend:
The first evening, parents may feel a bit tense or awkward; maybe even resistant. These feelings are normal. They are the start to their parallel process: experiencing some of the emotions their child might’ve felt arriving at Open Sky. Throughout the weekend, parents develop connections with other parents in the group and come to understand they are not alone in this journey—similar to what their kids experience with peers in the field.
Additionally, research shows that if parents do their own work, then the child’s mental health gains are longer lasting. I’ve seen students’ jaws drop when I tell them their parents are participating in Wellness Weekend and share what they’ll be learning. Students gain a tremendous amount of confidence and appreciation when their parents know how to reflect an “I feel” statement, do a feelings check, and are doing their part in the process of family healing. It truly motivates the students to engage more deeply with their work.
A: Authentic connection and, arguably, love are impossible without some level of self-awareness, emotional regulation, and ability to communicate. There are specific tools and skills that can help people do these things. These skills—like the ability to validate other people and use reflective listening—are superpowers, so to speak, in escalated situations. Parents get to practice them at Wellness Weekend.
The “I feel” statement is one of the primary tools for discussing anything with emotional charge. The basic structure of the “I feel” statement involves 5 separate skills:
That’s just the speaking part! The listener also has a part—in developing listening skills to say what they’ve heard without adding or subtracting anything…another huge superpower!
To know in moments of exchange that emotions are in play, to be able to use the directness of the body and the breath to be aware of and regulate these emotions…these are all superpowers.
A: We carry out the purpose of Wellness Weekend through a series of psychoeducational presentations, group discussions, yoga, and meditation practice. The central messages I spoke to earlier are introduced and repeated throughout the weekend.
At Open Sky’s inception, yoga and meditation were not buzz words in our culture like they are today. We were committed to including them in student and parent programming, knowing the research-proven benefits they can have on mental health and personal growth. These mindfulness practices were foundations of our program at the beginning and continue to be today. During Wellness Weekend, parents can get a direct experience of what it is to practice mindfulness and be embodied. This is a chance to experience for themselves just how powerful it is to cut through all of their worry, anxiety, and repetitive thinking by learning how to be mindful.
All of our practices are backed by scientific research and data. Every aspect of what we do has a very clear purpose and intention. Though we’ve sharpened and enhanced the format of Wellness Weekend over the last 13 years, it is essentially the same as it was in the beginning because it simply works. There is an incredible amount of information and experience offered. I’m proud of its precision.
A: Wellness Weekend is a fundamental part of the parents’ growth and personal healing, which in turn brings more health to the family system. It creates a space for parents to really dive into the therapy assignments in the Family Pathway. The tools and skills learned at Wellness Weekend are the very same used during the Family Quest™ wilderness intensive. If a parent participates in Wellness Weekend prior to doing a Family Quest, families are a dozen steps ahead already, expanding and deepening the work and healing that can happen in the family wilderness intensive. Wellness Weekend also prepares parents to meaningfully reconnect at graduation and prepares them for transition after Open Sky.
A: Even though I was a part of developing Wellness Weekend and leading it since the beginning, it’s really hard for me to take it for granted over 14 years later. Every time, people tell us it was life-changing. The depth of personal insight and the restoration of hope that can happen in just a three-day experience is astounding. It holds true that everyone benefits from the sense of belonging and connection in the community of parents. Parents leave feeling empowered to actually change and improve how they communicate and work with their emotions.
Many parents have also reported that the communication and self-regulation tools that they learn here have done wonders for them professionally; that they have been useful in having challenging conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and supervisees. The tools also work well with other children, family members, and spouses. Many have shared that they see their marriages and partnerships improving. Learning how to be a genuine and assertive person, to give voice to one’s authentic self…there is no limit to the benefits.