When students arrive at RedCliff Ascent, they find themselves starting at the beginning–as in the Stone Age. New arrivals receive Stone Age tools and are taught how to use them. For example, students learn how to build fires by carving fire-boards out of stone tools and sharp rocks.

As students advance through the program, they earn more advanced tools. One of the most useful tools for students earn, and the most coveted is a knife. The students who earn knife privileges are honored with a Knife Ceremony.

Not every student who goes through the program earns a knife, however, most of the students do. Some students make progress in other ways, but, they do not reach the level of trust to earn knife privileges. In those cases, students might achieve that level of trust in when they return home or are in their next placement.

To earn a knife, a student must fully participate in the program for at least 21 days. Therefore, receiving a knife is a genuine honor which represents not only the students’ hard work but having earned the trust of the staff and their peers.

Giving a Knife

“When the knife goes to the field, we don’t just hand it off, we like to do it very ceremoniously,”  said Field Director Justin Swensen.

Students and staff gather around in a circle. A staff member will honor the student who earned a knife by talking about the positive changes the student had made, and the way this student has earned and maintained trust.

Typically, staff members also describe progressing from the stone age to the iron age. This transition symbolizes leaving behind old behaviors and learning to function in more productive and positive ways.

“It is almost a magical moment when kids earn a knife,” Justin said. “In that moment they are being recognized for doing something good. That is important because these kids can get caught in patterns of bad behavior. They start to thrive on that because they are getting attention, even though it is negative attention. When they are honored in the Knife Ceremony, they are getting attention and being recognized for doing good things. It can really be a turning point for a lot of these kids when that recognition comes.”

Changing a Life

The Knife Ceremony can have a lasting impact on students’ lives. Field Support Manager Kaitlyn Jones described her experience with one particular student who transformed her life after her Knife Ceremony.

“A student came to RedCliff with a significant history of self-harm,” said Kaitlyn. “When she first came in, we did not know how far she was going to make it in the program because of how significant her self-harm history was.”

The student worked her way through the program earning privileges and receiving honors. Eventually, the student earned her Earth Name, which symbolizes lasting change. A few weeks later, her therapist, field staff, and administrators decided that the young woman earned knife privileges.

Kaitlyn said, “It was a big step in her treatment! She told staff that from that point forward, for the first time in her life, she wanted to be alive. She felt this intense gratitude for her life, which is something that she had never felt before. Then she went through the rest of the program being a huge positive influence for her group for her peers and graduated from RedCliff with no intent or desire to self-harm or to have suicidal ideation. In the end, she graduated with a giant smile on her face, and with this knife that she got to carry around her neck that represented the trust she had earned.”

The young woman continued to progress even after she graduated from RedCliff Ascent. After graduation, she went to work at summer camp.

“She had some ups and downs for a little while but we just heard back from her and she sent us a picture of herself skiing. And she is doing awesome,” said Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn believes that the trust the student experienced during the Knife Ceremony helped the student to permanently transform her life.