For the past twenty years, Summit Achievement has provided the gold standard of wilderness therapy and education at our residential facility in the mountains of western Maine.
Read on to learn more about how Summit Achievement got its start in the co-founder’s own words (excerpted from the book Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy).
In 1980, I started working with Outward Bound (OB) on Hurricane Island in Maine. I held a number of positions in the organization and met my wife, Candide Kane, there. At OB we worked with all sorts of populations, including Vietnam Veterans, older people, and teens. But both Candide and I loved working with adolescents with mental health issues. One of the frustrations for us, at the time, was that OB did not have mental health clinicians working with the kids, no family work, and there was no follow up. We still loved it, because we saw the transformative power of the wilderness when angry or disengaged kids completed an OB course and left being positive and open to change for themselves.
In 1987, Candide and I were hired on by OceanQuest; I was employed as a ship’s captain. Basically, we were running residential treatment programs on Tall Ships without clinicians on board. I hired Adam Tsapis at that time to be my first mate.
I was drawn to working at OceanQuest because I was a sailor and I had a kinship with some of the students I was working with. Now these were inner city young people, habitual criminal offenders from Philadelphia, and I was a guy who was kicked out of a boarding school as a kid, but there was a kindred spirit there. I was hired on by Chris as one of the mates. He was a real mentor of mine and inspired me to understand the power of being out in nature and at sea. The importance of the structure and routine was for the students to make change.
Over the years, Chris, Candide, and I talked about starting a program of our own. The kids at Oceanquest were really tough kids and I thought maybe we could work with kids, more like me when I was young, that were making lousy choices, being thrown out of their school, but fundamentally not so self- destructive like the kids from Oceanquest. We eventually left Oceanquest and headed up to New England.
We had a house in New Hampshire and found a great property right over the border in Maine. We started putting together a team of people and we kept hearing about this skilled clinician who worked at a local boarding school. His name was Will White. We got together with him and convinced him to help us start Summit.
I had been working at a boarding school in New Hampshire when Chris, Candide and Adam approached me. Previous to working at the school, I had taken a year off from being a psychotherapist to climb and study Buddhism in different parts of Asia, as I had become disenchanted with traditional outpatient adolescent psychotherapy. When I was at this boarding school, I was excited as I knew I could see the students in all sorts of situations—in dorms, meals, classes. The economy was really bad and school was struggling, so the school pretty much enrolled any student, no matter their behavior, as long as they would pay full tuition. Needless to say, there was plenty of work for me to help these students get through school without being asked to leave. This was in the early 1990s and there were very few therapeutic schools in the country.
At any boarding school, you have at least two jobs – I ran the outdoor program and was a counselor at the school. So I worked with all these boarding school students who had previously been at the existing wilderness programs: SUWS, Anasazi, and Aspen Achievement Academy. These kids did great in the outdoor programs that I ran, but at every faculty meeting, the teachers would complain about many of the kids from the wilderness programs saying, “These kids are not ready for the classroom.”
So when Chris, Candide, and Adam approached me I said, “This is great, but we have to have an academic component to keep the kids’ mindset as students and we have to be licensed as a residential treatment program.” There had been a great deal of negative press at the time about wilderness programs. As a clinical social worker trained in family systems, I also felt strongly that parents should interact with their child weekly over the phone or in person with a clinician facilitating.
We ended up calling it Summit Achievement as we were inspired by the mountains that we looked at every day.
Starting a wilderness program is about building a community of unique individuals around a mission to help young people via the wilderness. People who are referred to as wilderness program “founders” are usually those who have co-signed loans to take on the huge risk of getting a non-traditional business started. Under that definition, Chris Mays, Candide Kane, Adam Tsapis, Will White, and Andy Richardson (who trusted us when no bank would) are the founders of Summit. Yet, so many people over its 20 years have helped start, cultivate, and grow Summit to be the excellent program that it is today; there is just not enough space in this section to thank them all. We want to thank everyone (students, families and former and present employees) for their help in making Summit such a special place.
But what is Summit Achievement as a program? Summit Achievement is unique in the field for its integration of the best of evidence-based treatment provided by mental health professionals, accredited academic curriculum, and wilderness therapy. Summit stands out in the modern era of wilderness therapy as it is a “hybrid” program utilizing a campus. Students venture into the field every Thursday and return to the Summit Campus every Sunday and attend school, sometimes the most challenging part of the week, from Monday to Wednesday.
Summit’s campus has a main lodge with administrative offices, a clinician’s office, a dining hall, meeting rooms, and logistical areas. There are four cabins that each house up to eight students and two staff and a large academic building that includes five classrooms, plus offices for a physician and nurse, three clinicians, and our academic director. Students attend school Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, as well as participate in individual, group, and family psychotherapy. (The family psychotherapy is provided in-person, by phone and via video conferencing.)
Our model of wilderness therapy can be traced directly to Outward Bound’s mountaineering-style of expeditions. High-quality gear, team work, and healthy food all are part of our expedition model and have been since day one.
Summit was the first in the field in many ways. Summit was the first program to be licensed by the State of Maine as an adolescent residential treatment center providing mental health and substance abuse treatment and integrating an outdoor component to the program. Summit included family participation in the program, since its inception, which is evidenced by students having weekly family contact—not through letters, but over the phone or through video conferencing throughout their stay in the program. As a regular component of our families’ treatment plans, parents come visit their child and take them for an overnight visit into nearby North Conway, New Hampshire, and end the visit with a family therapy session on campus.
Summit was also one of the first programs to expand into step-down transitional services, with Summit Semester starting in 2007 (renamed Summit Traverse in 2012). This program was designed to help students transition from wilderness programs to more traditional environments in 2-6 months, such as with an extended academic week, Monday to Friday.
Summit is one of the longest-standing contributors to research in the field of Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare, having contributed our student-based data into a de-identified pool of data, for research by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council Research Cooperative. Studies by OBHRC and Summit’s independent research are available for review on-line (Summit Research). Summit is also one of the few wilderness programs fully accredited by the Association for Experiential Education/Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council.