For seven years after graduating college with an environmental engineering degree, I struggled to find a direction in life. I waited tables, spent three years holed up in a cubicle working as an environmental and a civil engineer, de-iced aircraft at the Philadelphia International Airport, traveled around the world, and even did some writing and photography on the side.
But in 2017, I found myself in a new line of work.
Rain fell steadily as I stood in the middle of the White Mountain National Forest in western Maine, surrounded by ten other people and an endless stands of spruce and hemlock. Two teens worked together to prepare dinner -- a mixture of instant rice, freeze-dried vegetables, chicken and barbecue sauce -- for the rest of the group. Five others worked to set up tents and organize gear. One teen in particular, Jeremiah, stood silently in the rain, refusing to put on his rain layers or help with tasks.
I was one of three guides in the midst of a four-day expedition, or “expo,” leading a group of eight teens who had enrolled at the wilderness therapy program I was working for, Summit Achievement.
The students, all of whom were struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, ADHD, executive functioning skills, or a combination of the five, were on the final day of the expo, waiting to head back to campus to dry their gear and take hot showers. Jeremiah, a five-and-a-half foot tall student with black hair and glasses, struggled immensely with the anxiety that built in moments of discomfort, and would often resort to “shutting down” entirely.
Summit Achievement was founded in 1996 in western Maine, and focuses on at-risk teens and young adults between the ages of thirteen and twenty. While the outdoors have long been used therapeutically, modern wilderness therapy programs began gaining traction in the 70s, taking influence from Outward Bound, an outdoor-oriented leadership program.