A Year on the Path of Growth

By Rob Jarrett, Admissions & Parent Communication Director

Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy ProgramIt’s a Thursday afternoon at 2PM PST and my blog article is due tomorrow. I know I’m taking it all way too seriously, but I just reread and deleted the rough draft that I have been working on for the last couple of weeks. As tempted as I am to pull it out of the trash and just be done with it, I’m supposed to be writing about MY experiences at Pacific Quest and what I’ve written so far has nothing personal in it. Last year I wrote about my work in admissions and the conversations that I have had with potential families, but there is so much more to it than that… I need to review and reflect on this last year, on my position change, and on any significant experiences in my new role as Parent Coordinator while I try to find a connecting theme…

It’s a Friday at 7AM HST and I’m at the adolescent camp in the Ka’u region of the Big Island of Hawaii.  The students in camp are all “Ohana” members, meaning that they have been in the program long enough to be invested in their own treatment and for the most part, they have forgiven their parents by now. I have already confessed to them that I am probably one of the people who talked their parents into enrolling them, and it is not clear whether they have forgiven me yet.

They know that it’s my job to explain to parents what the program is really like and that I intend to experience it like they did.  They are delighting in explaining hygiene procedures to me as I prepare to take a camp shower.  I know that they usually wait until the afternoon sun has warmed the catchment water tanks before showering, but I play along when they say “morning showers are the best; so refreshing…” .

The previous day, I had learned that the hardest part of the program for me is “Nalu time”. Nalu is the Hawaiian word for “reflection” and it involves quite a bit of sitting with your own thoughts. I followed all the procedures during my “outfitting” and gave up my personal belongings including my smart phone. I didn’t realize how dependent I was on this little device for “self comfort” until I spent several hours in my “hale” (a personal shade structure and the Hawaiian word for home) with nothing but those thoughts. I couldn’t even distract myself with writing or drawing because I had not earned my journal yet. I quickly caught myself going a little stir crazy, eventually singing and reminiscing about my own childhood. By hour 4, I was reliving childhood traumas and second-guessing parenting decisions that I made 5 years ago. Today, it is such a relief to finally be socializing with a group of people again. As much as I totally buy into the concept and power of Nalu time, I still don’t like it.

That previous day was certainly a contrast to the outing I would be going on the next day. With my honorary Ohana I would take an idyllic walk down a very private coastline past the ancient fishing village of Miloli’i which would culminate at the “salt and pepper” sand of Honomolino beach. The community service based beach cleanup would be a great precursor to the swimming, body surfing, and picnicking that was to follow, and would make me feel that I had done my “malama” (Hawaiian for stewardship) to the land and should feel as welcome as any native Hawaiian.

It’s a Wednesday at 1PM HST and I’m in in Hilo, swimming in Reeds Bay with a young adult student and his therapist, Toby Mautz. This student is really struggling with the idea of getting invested in the program and has yet to open up in a genuine way. All the students have individual and group sessions each week and I have been allowed to listen in and even participate in his individual session during my visit this week. I have always known that Toby has a unique approach but its not until we are swimming out past the sailboats and talking about our fears of sharks that it occurs to me that we are actually having the session right now, not just getting to know each other first.  We end up swimming under an underwater arch and sit in a unique rock formation called the “hot tub” when the student really opens up, talking about his father, their relationship, his problems at school and by the end he is agreeing to really give “PQ” a try. By this time we are fighting back up the channel against the freshwater current into the much colder “ice ponds” that grace the center of the campus at the young adult program. I’m sure that I’ve witnessed a significant breakthrough and that we have finally gotten the student to crack open and share the real him, but in a later discussion Toby disabuses me of this notion, telling me that “he’s still just trying to tell us what we want to hear… we’ve got a long way to go”.

It’s a Sunday morning at 8AM Eastern Time and I’m talking to a dad in Connecticut. I’m still in my bed in San Jose California where its 5AM but I’m grateful its not the 3AM that it is in Hawaii. This dad is facing one of the biggest struggles he has faced as a father. He has a little girl that has been adored and taken care of in every way for 15 years. He has protected her and fed her and comforted her… and rescued her from every hardship that she has ever faced until he just recently recognized that this was not enough, and sent her to our program in Hawaii.

Now she is begging him to rescue her again, and using the only techniques that she has learned; how to push her parent’s buttons. She has written a “rescue letter” from an organic garden in Hawaii. Of all the challenges she has faced in her life, this is the hardest. The truth is that she is surrounded by nurturing people who’s entire job is to help her take care of herself, help her make connections with her inner self, the earth, her family, and her peers. She exercises and practices yoga every morning, works in the garden, reads, journals, cooks, and cleans and talks about her life story with people who care every day. But she misses the freedom to make unhealthy decisions…

“I don’t see how this program can help me”, she writes. “If you just get me out of this place, I will do whatever you want. I know I said I hate you, but I don’t. I love you, but if you don’t get me out of here, I will hate you”.

The man is crying and asking if she will always blame him for this decision, has he betrayed her trust forever? I explain that until she stops blaming her parents for everything, she hasn’t even really started the work that she has to do at Pacific Quest and that I have every confidence that she will indeed turn the corner soon.

I am talking to the father about the value of resiliency in this life and how the only way that can be gained is by the perception of overcoming hardship; of facing adversity. I point out that if the retreat-like atmosphere of our program is perceived as a great hardship to her, then that is both a good sign that she will have an opportunity to gain this resiliency and an indication that this personal growth work is desperately overdue.

It’s 8AM Pacific Time and I am talking to a mother in Oregon. She is crying too, but these are tears of relief for a change.  Up to this point, the hardest part of my job has been working with a family that can’t afford the level of care that Pacific Quest provides.  We have always offered partial scholarships for families who needed a little help but recently we partnered with Sky’s the Limit Fund and are now able to provide even more assistance making Pacific Quest an option for some families that never could have afforded it before.

This mother is the first family that has qualified and I am letting her know that not only does she get the grant from Sky’s the Limit, but that we are going to more than match that amount. I can tell that the brave face she was putting on before was really resignation that this wasn’t possible and that right now is the moment that she is first realizing that it is really going to happen. She doesn’t know it yet, but her son is going to do really well in the program and eventually return home where he will turn around his grades, his health, and his attitude.

I don’t know it yet, but I am going to find myself eating breakfast next to my childhood football hero, Ronnie Lott, in the near future when he comes to support a fundraiser for the Sky’s the Limit fund. As powerful as his speech and presence are going to be, it is the stories from the actual students who went to wilderness as a result of these scholarships that make the event so significant. Unbeknownst to me, I can look forward to the donations pouring in, and over the next months, I will work with more grateful parents who are now able to give their children this amazing opportunity.

It’s a Friday night at 10PM Pacific Time and I’m in Northern California facing the fire-lit faces of potential employees. Fifteen men and women sit in a circle around a fire with drums in their hands looking at me. They have flown or driven from around the country to this Girl Scout camp for a three-day “hiring seminar”. They want to be field staff at Pacific Quest and are getting a realistic sample of what that will entail from both the student’s and the instructor’s point of view.

For the last two days, they have been learning about de-escalation techniques, horticultural therapy, observation/ “perching” methods, “The Hero’s Journey”, and the sustainable growth philosophy among other “offerings”. They have been cooking from the Pacific Quest menu and cleaning up or “doing pau” afterwards. Tonight they have participated in a Rights of Passage ceremony marking their transition from trainees to candidates for tomorrow they shall be tested during the “simulation” portion of the retreat. That’s when I will play a student who is “not invested” and even “confrontational”. I will try to break them. Last time we did this I made a candidate cry. But for right now I am still their friend and mentor…

… and I’m talking about art and music. I’m about to pass along some of the Trinidadian hand drumming techniques and rhythms that I have been fortunate enough to retain, but at this point I’m just sharing how important I think that art and music are to health and the human experience. I talk about my beliefs that all subjects from math to personal growth can be taught through artistic expression and how connection to the earth and your own creativity are some of the most powerful medicines that we have ever come up with. I’m about to teach some math, teamwork, and communication skills using the drums and before I know it, the firelight will be accompanied by the ancient rhythms that I love and illuminated by smiles.

It’s 11AM on a Friday, the day after I started this rewrite. As I read back over the significant moments I chose, the connecting theme that I’m really noticing is that this work is more than work, this job is so much more than a job. The people on the path of growth, whether they are helping others or themselves, are the people that really matter to me on this planet. This is exactly what I want to be doing with my life and these are the people I want to be doing it with.  I’m excited to see what the next year will bring.

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