Graduation x 7
January 4, 2011
Past Meets Present: My Reunion Experience
April 11, 2011

In less than an hour Lauren will pick her friend up from the airport and hit the road for Utah. The two young women have been dreaming of this day. Theirs is not a typical road trip. They are returning to the wilderness therapy program they graduated from four years ago.

In 2007 Lauren was an angry 16-year-old who found herself in the Utah wilderness after an unhealthy relationship ended in a suicide attempt. Besides anger issues and depression, Lauren had substance abuse problems her parents feared would ultimately kill her.

She spent 105 days at RedCliff Ascent.  “It felt like forever!” she says with a groan. 

It was hard. It was frustrating. It was horrible, she says. And, she adds, “I think it was the best experience of my entire life.  I was able to prove to myself that I could do something. All my life I had people bailing me out of everything,” she says. “I learned I was able to fend for myself and build up my own strength.”

“I’ve been dreaming every single day that I could go back there. This is a once in a lifetime thing for me. I’ve been waiting for this for years.”

***

At RedCliff Ascent, Executive Director Andrea Burgess is also counting down the days to the wilderness grads reunion – but for an entirely different reason.  “I’m a little bit nervous about what to expect,” she admits. She says the staff decided to host the reunion because, ”We simply couldn’t ignore it any longer. We’ve had requests for years.”

But she had some serious concerns as well. “We can’t recreate what the students experienced,” she says. “What if a reunion crushes the great feeling they had prior to returning? That would be worse than doing nothing.”

Burgess and the staff decided if they held a class reunion it wouldn’t be to attempt to recreate the graduates’ wilderness experience. It could only be an opportunity for them reconnect with the place and the people that inspired their change.

They decide to go for it. If 20 former students come it will be worth all the extra effort.

***

Lauren’s  traveling companion is a RedCliff peer who came all the way from Australia for the “class reunion” in the southern Utah desert. The two girls were in the same field group but Lauren’s friend graduated a month earlier. They reconnected via Facebook.

The RedCliff reunion comes almost two years to the day on the anniversary of Lauren’s sobriety. But her journey hasn’t been easy. When she returned home after RedCliff, Lauren also returned to bad relationships and drug abuse. She tried a local rehab clinic but relapsed again.

One day as she sat thinking about her wilderness experience at RedCliff, she had an awakening. “I realized I was worth something,” Lauren recalls. “I was worth something to myself because of everything I overcame at RedCliff. I was worth not using drugs any more.”

“That gave me a foundation. I had to finally decide I don’t want to do this with my life. I don’t want to be an addict.”

That was almost two years ago. Lauren started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and she’s been sober ever since.  

A college student majoring in psychology, Lauren is excited to share the story of her life after RedCliff.  She’s volunteered to lead a Narcotics Anonymous group. “I’m bringing all my NA lit,” she says with excitement. “I’m not really sure how this is going to go but I’m sure God will be with me through that one.”

***

Autumn Lynx, aka Alison Cox-Balagna, is ready for a break. “It’s been really hard doing the reunion and trying to do my job too,” she admits. Her title is Family Support Services. “For the last couple of weeks it’s been nights, weekends, whatever,” she says.  She’s been responsible for coordinating the reunion.  “At this point, I’m wondering if we bit off more than we can chew.”

Besides her regular duties, Autumn’s arranged for the construction of a new data base to keep RedCliff alums updated on the reunion. Afterwards, the system will be used to keep RedCliff grads updates on other activities, announcements and information. She created an on-line registration and gear ordering system.  Once the reunion gets underway, she’ll be responsible for feeding 60-100 people for the two day event. Autumn and her colleagues organized skills camps and instructors to run them, as well as transportation for students and their parents from RedCliff’s headquarters to Outpost – the field base camp. 

“My biggest worry is students that are under 18,” she says. “We just don’t want to worry about any kind of inappropriate behavior. Yeah, their parents are here with them but it’s hard to get out of the mindset of not supervising everyone.”

Six extra staff have been called in. Almost 20 administrators and clinicians will also be on hand.

And the students? “I thought we’d be doing really well if we got 20,” Autumn says. 47 students from all over the world have confirmed they’re returning to RedCliff.

***

“I am a little worried that it won’t be the same,” Lauren says. “We all crave the actual wilderness of it.” She adds with a laugh, “We want the misery back.”

Watch for a follow-up article after the April reunion.