The Wilderness Experience from the Field
David Chandler, Field Director at SUWS of the Carolinas
Brenda Zane is a Sky’s the Limit Fund board member, Founder of Hopestream Community, and podcast host of Hopestream
About the episode:
A birds-eye conversation with David Chandler about a typical day in wilderness for youth and young adults and the work of the field guides. He shares how his passion for nature and adventure helps his well-being as well as providing support to families through wilderness therapy.
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Hello, welcome back to another Sky’s the Limit Fund’s Speaker Series session. I am very excited to be here today with David Chandler from SUWS of the Carolinas sorry, I always try to spell that out. And we’re gonna have a great conversation about wilderness therapy, what that’s like for kids, and a little bit about the staff. But before we do that, I just want to welcome you to the Speaker Series, we do this as an organization to just provide some education and let you get kind of an insider’s peek at what wilderness therapy is, if you’re thinking about that for your child, or maybe if they’re there now. And sky’s the limit fund is really on a mission to help fund this treatment for kids who need it. For families who don’t necessarily always have the access to it, it is quite a costly treatment program, incredibly effective. But we work really hard with all of our donors who we appreciate so much, giving to the fund so that we can help kids and families when they’re in crisis, to have access to this incredible, incredible treatment modality. So thrilled to be here today. I’m Brenda Zane. I am a board member for Sky’s the Limit Fund. And I get to have the privilege of having these conversations with all the incredible people that we talk with. And today is no exception. We have David Chandler with us, like I said, from SUWS of the Carolinas. And David is the guy who trains all of the field staff, he manages them, he coordinates everything that’s going on with them, he helps keep them motivated. And this is a difficult job that these young people are mostly young people are doing. And so he is responsible for that he has worked over 100 shifts. And what that translates to, we were just talking about this is over 1000 nights in the field, in the dirt with the kids. And so if there’s anybody who knows what’s going on, in wilderness therapy and how it works, and what is going on with the kids, it is him. So David is also we are so appreciative because he’s also a huge fundraiser, he’s very passionate about wilderness therapy and Sky’s the Limit Fund, helping us be able to give to families to get their kids into treatment, when they’re in crisis. He has done a run across America, he’s done a bike across America, he’s now doing a year long bike challenge. So we love his enthusiasm, and of course, the monetary support that comes with that. So
welcome, David to the to the broadcast.
Hey, thank you so much for having me. That was a very kind introduction.
Yes. Well, I know as an alumni of wilderness therapy, as a parent, you really do wonder who am I? Who are my kids, you know, is is my kid gonna be without their, you’re usually kind of in a state of panic, things haven’t been going well at home. So I just think this is an incredible opportunity for parents to get to meet you to really understand, like we were talking kind of be that fly on the wall in wilderness therapy. But I would love to first just hear quickly about this fundraising that you do what has spurred you on to do this. And you biked you’ve run? Just tell us a little bit more about that.
Yeah, so starting to work in wilderness definitely made me grow as a person too. And part of what I realized when I was working this weird week on week off schedule, is that I really had to prioritize the things that mattered to me and the things that helped me to just refresh myself as a human. And so I got into Ultra running and ultra biking. And then after a couple of years in the field, I realized that I either needed a break from working in direct care, or that I was going to burn out and be done with it enough to move on. And I wasn’t ready for that. So I found a different job for a while and then realized that when that job ended in California, one of my co guides basically asked me why not when I was talking about someone else who was running across the country. And so like, why don’t you do that? I’m just like, Oh, cool. Yeah, I guess I’ll just run home to Asheville. And so ended up running across the country to be able to come back to work at Soos and raise some money with you guys for that first time. And that whole process in that community that I connected with you guys and connected through Soos just really made the work that I do with the kids just so much more meaningful and attach that to my life in a way that I can’t imagine how I kept showing up for work before that. So I went back to the field for another year, year and a half and wanted a little bit more time and space to take care of myself again. And so me and my brother, who was also working at CES with me in the field, biked across the country, the other direction, so from North Carolina back across to California, and to raise a little bit more for sky’s the limit. And after that break, came back to SUWS, refreshed and feeling like a more full version of myself and being able to show up more present for the kids as part of that. And through that process, now that I’ve stepped into a management role, it’s a little harder to do a bigger adventure to be able to cross the country again. But being able to do some small things here and there, just continue to put those values of being able to help others at the forefront and remind me why I keep coming back.
That’s amazing. We really appreciate your passion for that and your skills to be able to run and bike so far. And it sounds like it’s, it’s part of your self care of it, this is a super challenging job. And we’ll we’ll talk a little bit more about what people in the field do. But it just sounds like it helps to keep give you a little bit of balance. to reignite that passion to for the kids, but also just to take care of yourself.
Yeah, just being out there sacrificing literally half of your life is at work, when you choose to stepping in the field of wilderness. I do a lot of our phone interviews, at SUWS. And what I’ll tell anyone before they take the job is this is probably going to be the most difficult job that you will ever look, they’ll do plenty of other difficult jobs that you might not love. But this is going to be the most difficult job that you’re ever going to love. Just being able to show up with that attitude that yeah, this is difficult. And we’re going to be in the nitty gritty of a kid who’s upset and throw in their trap set or bow drill set down the mountain. And we’re just gonna be able to sit there and help them work through it. And then either help them find that bow drill set they found through down the mountain or just be able to sit down with them and help them make a new one.
Wow. Yeah, I can only imagine. I remember when my son went to wilderness, I thought Who in the world wants to go spend this much time with my kids? Who is kind of a nightmare right now. And so I think that is kind of a question that parents have is who what are the kinds of people that are out there in the field? And you obviously know, because you’ve done it so much, and you train these people, but kind of what makes a really good field, staff person? And then what are some of the things that they’re doing with our kids when they’re out there?
Man, that’s there’s a lot of things to that question. I think I’ll start with who is out there. And that is the piece that keeps me coming back to the this job more than anything is the community that gets drawn to this field is such a weird combination of souls, that all come together in a very beautiful way. It’s the most growth oriented, supportive community that I’ve ever been a part of. And that’s true of SUWS. And every time I connect to any of the other wilderness programs, that’s also true there. It’s definitely just a bonding experience that is so different from anything else in life. And so I’ve worked with people who have been investment bankers who’ve been lawyers who’ve had very typical nine to five in the office jobs who got sick of it and realize that they just wanted to go out into the woods and help people or people who went right through college and sort of just stumbled into this, maybe their professor told him about it, or a lot of people who have just finished the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. So you get this weird combination of people coming into it for the wilderness, their peoples coming into it, because it’s just something different, or one of their friends told them about it. But it’s just such an odd combination of souls that gives you so many different experiences and perspectives and combines into just such a supportive community.
That sounds like a really interesting group where kids would learn and get feedback from lots of different perspectives, which is so helpful. And I wonder if you could just take us through maybe what kind of a typical day or maybe a week if a week is a little bit more representative. But you know, I think as parents we have practical questions about like, where did where do they sleep like my my kids or city kid never been camping before? Could they even do this? Like who teaches them how to set up a tent or you know how to sleep in a sleeping bag outside? Maybe you can give us a little glimpse of what that would be like.
Yeah, I can give you a glimpse into what Sue said. Is all of the different therapy programs have slightly different models. But frequently, the structure in at least like week long process is pretty similar. So when they do get to us, at least at Seuss, we’re at base camp model. And so they will go to the base first, sort of help ease that transition. And so they’ll be in a cabin for the first couple nights as an instructor sort of takes them through the like, Hey, this is your backpack, this is how you fit to it. This is all your piece of gear right now teaching them how to wear all of their different layers and how to keep themselves safe, warm and dry, in the winter is just a huge added difficulty for the kid to learn to. So after they’re there for a couple of days, and especially during COVID, we give them there for a couple of days before joining the group just to have a little more separation to make sure that we’re not bringing that into our community. But once I get out to the group, sort of what the standard hiking day is gonna look like is just waking up in the woods with the instructors and starting to pack up your sleep system before breakfast while we’re heating the pot up. And once all of our sleep systems are packed away go into a separate place that we call the kitchen to eat in a different area so that we’re not bringing in all the critters bears anything into our camp, but going up there for breakfast. And before every meal we do hand wash and grateful circle. So just having a moment to say what you’re grateful for, which could just be one thing, some of our kids have a list of like 20 different things that they say the exact same thing every single day. And it becomes a nice little routine and pause moment throughout the day just to force ourselves to slow down and realize that even when we’re pissed off and angry, there’s there’s at least one thing that we’re grateful for before every meal. And so going into that into breakfast, which at Seuss is typically a meal of oats with the kids will have hot chocolate packets, or honey packets or peanut butter and who can make the best weird combination of boats, it’s definitely a large conversation. And so having oats and go on over a feelings check and doing a little morning circle each morning, talking about the day and setting goals for the day. And from there packing up camp and go into the next campsite. Which that might be a short half mile hike, it might be a five or six mile hike is probably going to be about as far as we go. But could take 20 minutes to hike and could take the whole day into right up until dark. And so that definitely controls a lot of our day and has a lot of the process for the kids. Some kids will love those long hikes and some kids are going to be wanting water breaks or stop breaks or trying to shut down on trail every 10 minutes. And as instructors sort of just meeting kids where they’re at in those moments of just being there with them and sitting down with them and encouraging them through those hard parts. Because when you first put on a weighted backpack with all of your gear and a week’s worth of food, that’s not an easy hike when it starts going uphill. Yeah. And so hopefully it will get to camp with a lot of time to do some things in the afternoon. And when we do get to camps and up camp again. And at that point, as an instructor, one of my favorite things to do at that point was just play a game. I worked a lot of the substance abuse group. And one of my biggest things that I would tell my kids is if I can teach you how to have fun and play games with nothing but a water bottle in the woods. Imagine how much sober fun you can have when you have things like an Xbox at home, right. And so just playing games and having fun and being kids as well as just like when you see these tough, 17 year old boys who may have been selling drugs at home playing in the creek and catching crawdads and just like getting stoked about it and running up to you and showing it to you. It’s just like, oh man, it is great to see these kids just be kids again. So just creating space for that, as well as working on those wilderness skills. And the way that they get home is by working through a Facebook that has some writing prompts and journal topics and on communication skills and wilderness skills and identifying trees and the things around them. And working on those the hard skills, the wilderness skills of being able to strike a fire, being able to set up default traps and bow drilling. And so having that time and space with them throughout the afternoon. And then from there going into dinner time, which at Seuss is a combination of rice and beans and lentils and couscous. And again, that’s a large topic of who can make the best meal. Every kid will tell you like this and instructor who makes the best meal. And also it’s probably going to be one of their favorite instructors if they can cook really good, too. Yes. And every group will have, you can work towards being at the pace that the kids can cook, and Macknight is every Wednesday night. And what kids can make the best macaroni will last months after that kid has left groups, we’ll still be talking about like, let’s say Bob was the kids named Bob made the best mac and like, here’s the recipe that he left the last kid who left the last kid. And that’s just a really funny thing to see stay in culture of just Who makes the best macaroni. And from dinner, coming back in one of the best parts of the day is coming back having a fire and doing what we call true circle. Other programs call them different things. But that is just the point in the day where hopefully we can slow down and have some type of intentional therapeutic circle every night. Sometimes staff is going to lead it sometimes students is going to lead it. And it could be story could be poems could be a couple of questions, but everyone gets the chance to share and to open up. And that’s the time of day that we always ask everyone to try and show up and be serious. And even in some of my most chaotic groups frequently, that space is still held by the students, even if no other moment in the Day is held. So that’s a really cool moment and process to see. And the week picture. So that’s generally most days. But Tuesday, Wednesdays are the big days for Seuss for kids, because that’s when therapists show up. And that’s when letters show up. So Tuesday morning, the therapist will come out. And that’s when they get their letters from their parents. And so Tuesday can be a roller coaster of a day because maybe the kid is getting that letter that says that they’re going home after off. Or maybe that kid who swears that they are going home and 30 days just found out that they’re going to boarding school and 90 days. So that can be a rollercoaster of a day of just being able to help the students being able to slow them down and sit with whatever they receive in their letter via good news, bad news. As well as encouraging them to slow down before writing that letter back to their parents. Part of the beautiful process of wilderness is that so much space and time is created between the students and their parents that when they came to us, they were likely in this chaotic reactive circle to each other where everyone was just responding to each other so quickly without realizing what was being said. And no one can take the time to slow down at that point anymore. Right? So letters are just such a great way to force you to be able to if you get that hard news of boarding school news, I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen write a letter back that’s just full of all of these FAQs. How dare you and sit with that letter because they’re not allowed to turn into the therapist and the therapist needs Wednesday afternoon. And so generally by Wednesday afternoon, just like oh, man, I don’t know if that’s what I want my parents to hear. And so just being able to have that time to write that off letter and to be pissed. Because a lot of times that does feel like a betrayal from the kids perspective of being sent to boarding school because they didn’t know that that was even a thing until they got here. And so it’s it’s a fair feeling that they just don’t know how to respond to unless they have that time to sit with you. And so being able to slow that process and that relationship down is a really beautiful part of that.
It’s amazing. A couple of things that you said really kind of stood out to me one being the the amount of fun that you’re having. Because I think as parents when you’re in the situation, life is not fun, right? Your kid is not necessarily having fun, you are definitely not having fun. So to hear that they are out there being kids. I’m sure that and we could talk about what that transition looks like as you see a kid maybe the armor starts to kind of chip off. But to to envision them having fun playing in a creek running, playing with a water bottle to me is just like, oh, that sounds really healthy. So I love that and then also and I saw this with with my son as well, that the kind of the competition around food and you know who’s making there’s there’s real bonding that goes on there. And that that’s that you would never envision or think about as a parent if you’re if you’re considering wilderness therapy. That’s just something that you would never think about. So I love hearing that there’s some real connection there and also kind of a sense of pride. I’d like I have the best macaroni and cheese recipe, right? Yeah.
Yeah. And part of that fun to me is being able to teach our kids because a lot of times, they’re really stuck in this wilderness sucks. And I’m not allowed to have fun. And being able to sit there in that moment with them and being like, yeah, wilderness does suck, it sucks when you’re cold and wet. And we can also have fun, it doesn’t have to not suck, you don’t have to just be mad, you can be mad, and also have fun while you’re here. And so being able to teach that, like, this complicated feeling of it doesn’t have to be this one thing it can be both, is a really beautiful process to see. Because like, you can still hate wilderness therapy, when you leave it, that’s okay. You can hate camping and hate all of the things that you had to do. And I’m gonna make you have fun while you’re here.
Right? Well, I love I would love to hear what you see. Because you’ve, you’ve seen so many kids. And like you said they might come in 17 test off drug dealing, you know, just kind of a mess. And then over the course, what do you see what are some of the core things that you see change in those kids?
I think sort of what I was just talking about, of just being able to sit with things. And students come in at all different levels of needing support or needing change, and they leave with varying degrees of how much change with how much openness they’re willing to show throughout the process. But definitely just an ability to sit in complicated or tough feelings, is a really big things that our kids learn. Because there’s no distractions out in the woods, there’s no TV, there’s no other friends or person to text or social media, you don’t really have a choice. And there’s no way to avoid all of the complicated feelings that we frequently avoid in life even as adults. And so just being able to hold space for this sucks. And this is weird, and this is uncomfortable. And I’m mad at my parents because they’re taking me to boarding school or because of whatever those are valid feelings, and then being able to sit with it is a really big piece of their process here. As well as definitely a big piece of what our kids learn is we forced them to do. I don’t know what other programs do. But it suits we have what we call fab seats, which is just a very structured way of saying how they feel. And so they have to do those at least five or six times a day. So they have to say how they feel five or six times a day, just that’s just a baseline. That’s not even if we’re making them do extra things. And so, by the end of it, the fab sees feel really weird and awkward, since they’re overly structured at the beginning. And then by the end of it, you’ll catch them throughout the day just saying the fabs the supernatural without even realizing that they’re doing it. And so being able to just notice how they’re feeling within themselves and being able to vocalize that is a really big part of that process, too.
Yeah, and I like that concept of being able to be both angry and pissed off and have fun, because I would imagine that that translates once they leave, maybe if they are going to a boarding school, which is not what they wanted to do, they could carry that and say, You know what, wilderness sucked. And I had fun, maybe this is gonna suck too for a while. But maybe I can also have some fun. So I could see how that could translate moving forward.
Yeah, and I think a big part of what I say when they’re able to sit in that and be able to hold space, a lot of times, if you can sit with it and be holding that space, what that also means is you’re going to be able to talk about it too. If you’re not able to let that feeling sit in your body or be able to hold that for a second, then you’re constantly going to be pushing that emotion away and pushing those thoughts and those feelings. And that’s when curse words in anger is going to come out versus just being able to be comfortable being uncomfortable, I think is a good way to say that. Yeah, and if you can be comfortable with that discomfort, then you can talk about it and work through it as opposed to just constantly trying to push it away. Because I think all of us in life have experienced that the more you push, discomfort away, probably the more it’s going to build.
Yeah, that’s a good thing to learn when you’re young. I can’t imagine if I learned some of that at 17 or 18. Yeah, and I think that that is also true that they are learning skills and and maybe you can talk about, you know, they’re learning really practical skills like how to not have theirs come find your food or how to tie knots Sir how to, you know, build a camp? And that to some parents might seem kind of like it, I just need my kid to stop doing drugs like, what does this have to do with anything? How does all of that tie together?
Oh, wilderness skills is one of my favorite parts of the therapeutic process, because it’s just this back door into therapy that kids aren’t used to. And it’s this moment of deadfall traps, that type of traps that we teach are, even as a staff who has done hundreds of them and can build one from scratch in a couple of minutes. still incredibly infuriating at times, even though I have mastered it. And so for this person to be stepping into that, it is just this weird, completely separate thing that they’re gonna get pissed off, and they’re gonna get angry, because everyone’s gonna get pissed off and angry at traps. It’s this moment to be able to sit with the kid and just whether that kid needs you to do to sit down next to them and do traps with them as their encouragement and or being able to sit with them when they’re yelling at their traps. And like, yeah, man, like, I remember how hard they were when I did it, too. And it’s just this moment to coach them through these feelings that have nothing to do with anything. And so it’s just this backdoor into therapy of creating a moment of these big feelings. But now cool, what do we do about those big feelings. And it’s just such a unique way to approach therapy. And I have worked in a few different therapeutic environments. And I love those moments and push wilderness skills harder than a lot of other staff even because I love those moments so much. Wow.
Yeah, that’s I like the term backdoor into therapy. Because I know and so many parents have watched their kids sit in an office park, in a therapist office in a couch or chair. Not that that can’t work. But I have seen and I’ve talked to so many parents who said their kids just shut down. Or they just start saying what the therapist wants to hear. Because most of these kids are brilliant. So they figured that out. And so I love what you’re saying about that backdoors they don’t even realize that that therapy is happening when they’re working on skills.
Yeah, and a lot of the kids that come to us are these families that they’ve tried everything, and their kids know all of the therapeutic processes. And so they know how to fake it. And they know how to do all these things, or because they’ve done everything, if they don’t know how to fake it, then they’re just not gonna engage because they’ve done everything and nothing works. And so when you have a kid who we’ve done everything and nothing works, you also have a moment as an instructor to be like, Cool, well, it sounds like you just want to go home and get this therapy thing done. They’re like, Let’s do your traps, because that’s going to help you get home faster. And so you have that moment of without them realizing at all, to be able to start working on them with that.
Right? Wow, such great insight. I love hearing kind of from the mindset to have somebody who’s working in the field, how that interaction happens and how you get to see. And I think parents would really love to be able to see that transformation, because we see our kids prior. And then there’s this period of time where they’re going through so much, you know, great stuff. And it’s good just to hear from you like some of those things that they’re experiencing. Yeah.
Yeah. And from a staffs perspective, too, I’ve definitely made a point to make a scene at times when my traps have failed, or my bow drill set has failed. And just being them being able to see staff fail no matter how much they’ve worked on it because sometimes the rain or weather or sometimes the rock that you’re using, as a trap just isn’t going to work for you that day. And so being able to show them that you can fail and be able to do it in a way that doesn’t set you back or put you further back is also part of that process, too. Right?
Well, thank you so much for giving us this insider peek and such good information about wilderness. And also thank you for your fundraising efforts. We appreciate that more than you can then you can know when we are able to give a grant to a family. That is just the best feeling ever. So we thank you for the funds that you’re contributing to that and also just the awareness and all the work that you do to make people aware of wilderness therapy and what that does for families. So thanks for joining us. And if you are watching, thanks for joining another one of our series and we’ll be back now next month with another one so thanks so much for joining us it’s been great great to talk to you
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