Roads to Roam 

Inner Roads takes at-risk youth and their families to new heights

“Nature,” writes Lucius Seneca, “has given us the seeds of knowledge, not knowledge itself.”

This summer, a new program for teens called Inner Roads will help nurture those seeds by taking 10 at-risk teenagers and their families from the Missoula area into the heart of the Montana wilderness. For 24 days, teens with emotional or psychological problems—depression, substance abuse, truancy, even criminal behavior—will backpack in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and use the challenges of backcountry living to develop a sense of personal responsibility, teamwork and self-worth.

While they’re away and after they return, their parents or guardians will attend an intensive series of parenting classes with mental health professionals, working on ways to transpose the lessons learned in the wilderness back into community life.

But unlike most wilderness-based programs, which can cost upward of $400 per day, Inner Roads will cost the teens and their families nothing, except for a firm desire and commitment to change the troubled road they’re on.

Inner Roads is the brainchild of co-directors Erika Czerwinski and Michael Hudson, both of whom have years of experience in wilderness-based therapy. This time around, their goal is to target local teens from families who cannot afford expensive wilderness programs and whose therapeutic needs would otherwise go unmet.

“One of our goals was finding a niche for the kids who are getting into trouble and starting to spin out a little bit, but haven’t been adjudicated yet,” says Czerwinski. “They’re going to be a lot more successful if that intervention comes earlier rather than later.”

Wilderness-based therapy is hardly unexplored terrain. For years programs like Outward Bound have taken at-risk youth into the woods and used the challenges of the physical landscape to help teens develop tools for navigating the troubled emotional and psychological landscapes of their daily lives.

What’s unique about Inner Roads, however, is its ambitious goal of bridging the lessons of the wilderness with their lives back in Missoula.

“Wilderness therapy … does a great job at giving kids a lot of new tools and very powerful experiences that get them motivated to start taking steps in the right direction,” explains Hudson. “The problem is when they transition back home and their parents haven’t been doing the work and the community doesn’t understand what they’ve been through. Then there’s very little chance of holding on to what they’ve learned.”

As a result, Inner Roads will establish a mentorship program similar to Big Brothers and Big Sisters that will pair teens up with an older mentor who will meet with them regularly once the program is over. Staff will also stay in weekly contact with their families throughout the years to gauge their progress.

Nationally, the statistics on teenagers with unmet emotional or psychiatric needs are profound. A U.S. Surgeon General’s report from January estimates that 20 percent of kids with psychiatric problems will never receive treatment. In Montana, where one in five teens lives in poverty, the rate of teenage suicide is the fourth highest in the nation, with suicide the second leading cause of adolescent death.

But programs like Inner Roads go a long way toward breaking the cycle of teen depression, alienation and criminal behavior. Studies of wilderness-based therapy programs have shown that juvenile offenders who go through such therapy are two to three times less likely to become repeat offenders as those who don’t.

Interestingly, while teens from wealthier families may have better access to treatment and therapy programs, those from lower-income families often do as well—or better—in the wilderness.

“I remember doing a trip with one kid from a low socioeconomic group and he’d been homeless for a period of time,” recalls Hudson. “The other kids were all from upper-middle class families to very wealthy families. He ended up being the leader of the group and they had a lot of respect for him, partly because of his innate survival skills, his ability to read people and his ability to work collaboratively with other people. He understood the importance of being in a group.”

“Inner Roads gives the kids an opportunity to face challenges as far as Mother Nature is concerned that they can’t manipulate their way through,” says Joel Stinton, club coordinator for the Missoula Boys and Girls Club. “They can skip school and they can skip appointments with their counselor or probation officer, but they can’t skip their experience out in the woods.”

Admittedly, measuring the success of wilderness programs is not always a cut and dry affair. Hudson and Czerwinski say they will look at quantitative indicators like rates of truancy, criminal offenses and psychiatric hospitalizations before and after the program, as well as periodic reports from parents, school officials, cases workers and psychologists.

But in the long run, the success of Inner Roads will likely be measured in less tangible ways.

Czerwinski recalls a letter she received from one teenaged girl she worked with one summer who at the start of the program was “sort of a princess” who worried mostly about her hair and nail polish. Afterwards, however, her priorities took a decided turn.

“She’s a 15-year-old girl who never would have been caught dead in the woods,” says Czerwinski. “Now she tells her mom that one of the things she really wants to do is go into psychiatry and do wilderness therapy with kids like herself.”

Inner Roads will hold a fundraiser barbecue at Marshall Mountain on Saturday, June 2. For more information or to volunteer, call 370-3660.

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