“I had a lot of apprehension beforehand,” Andrea Burgess admits. “But it turned out even better than I thought.” Burgess is the Executive Director at RedCliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program for troubled teens. On April 7, the program hosted its first ever “class reunion” for wilderness graduates.
Graduates had been pleading with the RedCliff team for years to host an event where they could reunite with peers, therapists and staff. This year administrators decided to give it a try – not certain whether they could meet the day to day demands of running a therapeutic wilderness program and plan and execute a two-day event.
And just how serious were these grads? Would they really show up if the RedCliff team did hold a reunion? They put the question out on social media sites and the response was immediate. From all across the globe RedCliff grads were excited and willing to make the trip.
Burgess asked RedCliff Family Services Coordinator, Alison Cox, to organize the event. Cox created an online registration system and within weeks 50 graduates and parents had put a deposit down. One graduate even suggested a theme: “This time you knew you were coming.”
Burgess admits weather was one of her biggest worries. The fickle Utah spring didn’t disappoint. 50 mph winds gusted outside as attendees picked up their gear and got a brief orientation at the Enterprise office.
The temperature was dropping by the time the buses unloaded at Outpost, the center of RedCliff’s operation’s field. A canvas covered pavilion and a yurt provide permanent shelter at Outpost. RedCliff staffers brought in three additional large camp tents as a precaution. Their preparations paid off. By sunrise the next morning there was five inches of new snow on the ground.
Cox says the weather turned out to be a mixed blessing. Students and parents were still able to participate in skills camps, hiking, a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and sessions with therapists. While the snow fell outside, students and staff re-connected inside. “I think the snow and the cold really brought everyone together,” she says. “They’ve got a bond now and I don’t think we would have had that if the weather had been nicer and we’d been more spread out.”
Weeks after the event, RedCliff’s Facebook site is filled with students who are still talking about their return to the wilderness.
“I had SO MUCH FUN!”
“Can’t wait for my next rip to Enterprise!”
“Thank you to the staff who gave me the best weekend ever!!!”
Burgess says while she’s grateful for comments like those, this response from a former student made everyone pause:
“The years after my graduation until recently were very bumpy for me. I struggled with remembering what I was capable of and what I had accomplished. I began to lose track of myself and who I wanted to be. When my mom called me and told me she received an email from RedCliff inviting me to an alumni reunion, I was ecstatic, to say the very least. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but knew I was ready for whatever RCA had to throw my way, once again. I came to the reunion alone, didn’t expect to see any students from my stay in the program and was unsure if there would be any familiar staff left from my time there. Once sitting down in base with the group after arriving back for the first time in five years, I had no feelings of unrest. I knew few people, but was not weary. I quickly made instant connections with almost everyone I spoke to. I felt at home. It was so comforting to be back in the field even with lots of fresh faces. The reunion was exactly what I needed to remember everything I learned when I was a student at RedCliff. I regained my feeling of empowerment and felt happy for the first time since I left years ago.
I want to thank you all so much for more than just setting up a great and perfectly coordinated reunion for all the lucky alumni who got to attend, but for helping miraculously broaden my vision once again and helping me see that light at the end of my tunnel for a second time. I have no doubt the program saved my life, my happiness, and any hope I had for a bright future. No words can ever explain the deep, eternal gratitude I have for each and every one of the staff members who help change and save lives, like mine, every day. Thank you today, tomorrow, and for forever.”
“It was such a positive experience for everyone that was out there,” Alison Cox notes. “I’m still getting phone calls and emails from people saying it meant so much for their child to be out there.”
She adds, “Sometimes you lose sight of what the end goal is. We don’t see the students a lot afterward. Whether they’re doing well or stumbling, we still like to see them again.”
Looking back at all the worry and work, Burgess says she’d do it all over again. “I feel rejuvenated. I really do,” she says. “To have students return as adults, in school or as young professionals, and have this be so meaningful and life-changing, it was affirming for the work that we do.” She adds, “I would do it again, no questions asked, and so would everyone on the team. It was so much more meaningful than we thought.”
Alec, a former student, shared his thoughts in a recent Facebook post: “It’s nice to know we left a permanent mark on the place that left one on us.”
Video highlights of the reunion: