We are excited to announce a new Culture Dose column subset, “Local Heroes,” to showcase do-gooders in the Seattle area and their work within our community. Our first column features Nathan and Emma Welch, who founded Rites of Passage as a way to continue their shared commitment to community advocacy, giving back and local outreach. They’ve thoughtfully designed expedition-based wilderness therapy programs for adolescents ages 11-17 and adults ages 18-30+ who struggle with such emotional and behavioral concerns as ODD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, mood disorders and substance abuse. “A boot camp alternative,” they explain, “…our programs are therapeutic, not punitive.”
Participants at Rites of Passage, now in its six successful year, work closely with field instructors, mentors, chemical-dependency counselors and wilderness therapists to acquire the coping skills, confidence and self-esteem needed to find new direction and motivation—all achieved in a safe and supportive environment. Find below an interview with these passionate, dedicated, do-gooders.
Seattleite: Nathan, are you both originally from the PNW, and has nature always played an important role in your lives? Can you tell us briefly how this organization came to be?
Rites of Passage: I worked in the outdoor recreation industry in my 20s and loved helping people and the experiences I had. I went through college and received my MBA and then was activated with the National Guard to go to Afghanistan for a year conducting route clearance. After that experience when I came home, my job was not challenging enough and I wanted more.
I had dreamed about opening a wilderness therapy company to the point that I wrote a curriculum when I was deployed. I received some encouragement from my family after I came home, and I started the company. It has been growing every year. We get students from all over the U.S. and abroad.
Wilderness therapy can be a catalyst for change in a shorter amount of time than a tradition rehab or weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. We have a curriculum that we take students through that is two-fold. There is a wilderness survival component to it and a community component. The community component is a family model that reflects a family system at home—that we dress up like camp, letting students learn from our “trail family” and see how that reflects in their own families back home. We have a therapist and staff that help students complete their curriculum and practice and implement their lessons from their therapist or the trail. Nature is a huge healing component that helps students learn and grow in a safe environment, while connecting with themselves and the environment around them.
S: What steps took you all from feeling motivated to positively impact others’ lives to actually putting the plan into action?
ROP: I feel like seeing true suffering in Afghanistan and the drug fields in Helmand providence made me see the true suffering of our culture in the States. It made me want to help my people here and create a legacy of healing change. I was making a good living upon returning home, but I was emotionally unsatisfied. You are never really prepared for a calling, and working with this population is a real challenge.
But it is also highly rewarding—being allowed into a family who is suffering and being able to bring some relief and some change to the sufferer. Our culture lacks a real rites of passage, and this stems into many problems for development. Rites of passage helps people empower themselves and cheats new coping mechanisms for students.
Some challenges our youth face are normal, and it’s teenagers just making some bad decisions. We help them see the decisions they are making and how that affects others around them—and to realize it will not serve them well in life to keep making those kinds of decisions. We help good kids who are making bad decisions. You can’t modify someone’s thought process or make them change. We provide them with the opportunity that many never get to look inwardly and see where they’re at and where they are headed.
S: What advice would you give others feeling inspired to launch do-good initiatives themselves?
ROP: I would echo that you are never really prepared for the challenge of helping people. I would often end up with challenges that I never saw coming. As long as you approach the challenges with a caring approach, you will get through to them.
S: How many programs do you currently have running, and how many participants (roughly) have you worked with thus far?
ROP: We have three programs and have helped over 100 families since 2010:
- Rites of Passage NW Wilderness Therapy: We work with youths and young adults up to the age 30.
- Rites of passage wellness and obesity camp: We work with youths and young adults up to the age 30.
- Rites of Passage NW Long Term Ranch Facility: This is secondary care after a young adult comes through our wilderness therapy program. We work with young adults up to age 30.
S: How many team members do you have on staff, and what are some attributes/passions/skills they all share?
ROP: During our peak season, we have roughly 20 staff members. They come from all over the country, and we usually have a few interns from different universities fulfilling their program requirements and having a dream internship. We have different mental health professionals on staff and wilderness guides, ranch techs and our administrative team. Having such passionate people come from all over to help people makes us great. We train our staff but rely on their best traits when it comes to care. We all posses different skills and talents when it comes to reaching and helping others. We all share a real passion for the wilderness and community, as it takes all of us to create an environment for healthy change and support.
S: Why do you believe wilderness therapy proves such a successful tool?
ROP: Wilderness therapy is a real catalyst for change; we help people with behavioral issues, chemical issues, weight issues, academic issues and bio chemical issues. It is a great medium using nature as a teacher. It is an intense experience that our students will remember for the rest of there lives. There is no going to your room or going to the cafeteria to eat your feelings away. You are with your trail family 24 hours a day, living in community, performing as a family model—for better or worse.
It’s not about the individual who can get through the obstacle course the quickest; it’s about the family that can get through it together. There is no escaping yourself in nature. You are left with yourself and your skills. This is a great position to start working with someone. You get to see who they are and how they see and approach life. This can take a very long time in a more traditional setting of therapy— once a week or an intensive out-patient.
Students are integrated into a group and work through our curriculum, which is a level system that metaphorically reflects a family value system. This is done in a wilderness setting with wilderness issues like pumping water, cooking and camp council. This is a great platform to see how students work individually and as a team that you would not get in a traditional rehab or therapy. Wilderness therapy better addresses the whole individual and his/her family dynamics.
S: What has been one of the hardest parts of your work with Rites of Passage? The most surprising? The most rewarding?
ROP: The hardest part of our work is dealing with the insurance companies. We have master degree mental health professionals who are licensed in the state of Washington helping our clients, but the insurance industry has no billing codes for doing therapy in a non-traditional environment.
I am always surprised to see what aspects of nature bring people joy…To see someone love the rain forest or the beach. It is very rewarding working with families and building relationships that last over the years and to have students come back and mentor new students. They can access new students (much quicker) in a way that we wish we could as staff. Mentors have been through it themselves and are coming from a different place than a staff member in a leadership role.
S: Do you have a success story or two that has impacted you the most?
ROP: Yes, we created our long-term ranch program to try and increase the odds for young adults. We realized that after the trail, there is more work to be done and this would give us an opportunity to see the job through. Our ideal ranch candidate comes through the trek program first, and it is their primary care. Then they come to the ranch as secondary care. During this phase, we reintegrate them back into society. We help them bring balance and a new passion to life. They volunteer in the community, go to support groups and have adventures throughout the months. This helps them model a balanced life and created a good self-care regiment. We like to transplant young adults to a new life. If you can relocate someone to a new set of challenges and transition rather than sending them back into their old life, they will perform much higher.
I am thinking of a young adult who struggled with hard drugs and was able to change his lifestyle and move to the PNW—and is living his dream life sober here. I think of his family members who send us Christmas cards and are so happy seeing their son living well and happy here. He has been out of our program for over a year and is doing great. He comes back to our alumni days and shares memories and experiences he had that he will remember forever—and the power they had to change his life. This is why I do this and why I will keep doing this. To see someone who used to never smile become free and smile again.
S: Anything else you’d like readers to know about the work you do?
ROP: We help the helpless. We get teens who are out of control and adults who have been through rehab before. Wilderness therapy is a great catalyst for creating willingness to change in a population that is stuck. We are a family-run organization that holds family values on how to care for someone. It is personal and real. We have been scouted by a production company to create a documentary series on the work we do and the impact we are having in peoples lives. We are very excited about the new seasons ahead, as all seasons bring new hope.
Learn more about this organization’s amazing work here.