Pathfinders Wilderness Program

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Information
Current status Closed
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Checked December 5, 2011
Open.gif Opened ?
Close.gif Closed 1996

Pathfinders Wilderness Program was a wilderness program for teens, run by Pathfinders, Inc., which operated primarily in New Mexico, and for a brief period in Colorado until the program's closure in 1996. The program recieved national media attention in 1996 after 2 youths contrated a rare infection, centalized in the hands of both individuals, which required hospitalization, and in one case, the surgical removal of tissue. Subsequent investigation by local authorities revealed that the program was operating illegally in Colorado and activites were terminated in that state. After briefly resuming operations in July 1996, the program has apparently been discontinued by Pathfinders, Inc.

Pathfinders, Inc.

Pathfinders, Inc. was founded by Mike Parr, a former employee of Rocky Mountain Academy and Vietnam War veteran. The company was created to run the Pathfinders Wilderness Program, which was designed as a form of therapy for "troubled youth". The company's offices were held in Corrales, New Mexico. The company also included Parr's wife, Jann, and his son, as well as numerous staff members hired as "counselors" to work in the field with the youth. The qualifications of these "counselors" is unclear, however, one staff member present in the summer of 1996 was hired solely because she had graduated successfully from the program a number of years prior to her employment.

Wilderness Program

Enrollment

Youths were sent to take part in the program for a variety of reasons. Typically, behavioral problems by a youth motivated a teen's parents to seek professional recommendations for treatment and modification. Pathfinders, Inc., as well as other similarily-styled organizations, formed close ties with eduacational institutions and professionals, particularly bording schools and educational consultants. Pathfinders also served as an outlet of punishment for disciplinary schools such as the Cascade School. In many cases, enrollment in a particular insitution would be more likely following successful completion of the Pathfinders program. Parents and guardians were presented with an informational booklet which emphasized the pleasant experience of living outdoors coupled with the important theraputic challenges presented to the teens by staff. In the booklet, the program is described as lasting for 6 weeks and promises that youth will continue to be educated, particularly with emphasis on the natural environment while they attend the program. Once enrolled, teens were either delivered to Mike Parr by their parents, or in some cases, forcibly abducted by professional security officers hired to escort the teens to the custody of Pathfinders staff. Enrollment in the camp was continous, with no more than 4 youths arriving to join the program in any given week (typically, 2 would arrive each week). Conversely, the same number of individuals would graduate each week, leaving the number of teens enrolled in the program at any given time somewhat constant.


Locations

Orginally, Pathfinders, Inc. operated the program in a rural area of Idaho. However, weather considerations forced Parr to seek a more temperate climate in order to conduct operations year-round. This led to a relocation of the program to New Mexico sometime in the early 1990s. In New Mexico, the program operated in two primary areas. During winter months operations were conducted in a desert known as Jornada Del Muerto, not far from the area used for the first test of an Atomic Bomb, the Trinity Site. In the spring and summer months, operations were held in a part of the Gila Wilderness known as the "Black Range". Part of the reason for the change in locations is due to the abundance of snakes and other potentially dangerous wildlife in the Jornada Del Muerto during the summer. Due to an increased risk of forest fire in the late spring of 1996, the Wilderness program functioned for a period of approximately 6 weeks in Colorado, in an area known as the "Flat Top Mountains" in Rio Blanco county.


Arrival at the camp

Many youth found life in the program was in stark contrast to their lives at home. Upon arriving at the site, newcomers were typically informed by other youths that the length of the program for each youth always exceeded the 6 weeks as described in the informational booklet. Pathfinders, Inc. included in their contracts a clause to extended the length of stay for each individual until they were satisfied that the individual was "ready" to graduate the program and leave. The contract allowed for a fee of $6,500 to be added initial cost of the program, which was $13,500. The additional fee would provide for the youth to remain in the program an additional 3 weeks. After completing 9 weeks of the program, if the individual was still not "ready", Pathfinders, Inc. would continue his or her "treatment" until staff were convinced of the youth's sincere change in attitude and behaviour. Rarely did youth graduate prior to being in the program for 9 weeks. Some teens remained in the program for as long as 17 weeks.

After being searched and given a pack full of supplies and gear by a staff member, the newcomer was led to a group of other teens (usually 8 - 12) and introduced. Normally there would be 2 groups of teens, each supervised by 2 staff members. During summer months, however, the enrollment would increase and a third group would be added. Once the newcomer was assigned to a particular group, he or she would be given a "buddy" (a teen who had been present at the camp for a number of weeks and who would serve to guide the newcomer). During the first week the "buddy" would be expected to teach the newcomer how to create certain necessary items from materials provided by staff and natural elements. These items included: a pair of Mukluks crafted from scrap wool and leather to serve as slippers, a wool cap, a pancho also crafted from wool and sewn with artificial sinew, a wooden spoon carved from wood gathered from the area, and a bow-drill set (used for making fire) created from gatherd wood and strewn with artificial sinew.


Daily Activities

Daily life at Pathfinders consisted of regular routines and chores. Early each morning, a staff member would shout loudly for the teens to awaken. Teens had only moments to awaken and stand, under fear of punishment from staff. After eating breakfast and completing certain chores required to lessen the environmental impact of camping, the teens would pack up their supplies into their large, hiking backpacks. Depending on the amount of food and water being carried, the weight of these packs ranged from 30-75 lbs. The group would then hike for most of the day, stopping ocassionally for water and food breaks. Upon arriving at a suitable area in which to camp, as pre-determined by staff, the teens would be assigned chores needed to establish a campsite. These included: the digging of a fire pit and starting of a campfire, "wood runs" (the collection of suitable firewood), the digging of a latrine, the collection of water (pumped from a local source, usually a stagnant pool), and in some cases the construction of tent-like structures, or "A-frames". After the completion of the chores, the teens, joined by staff, would then form a seated circle around the campfire and begin to prepare and consume their dinners. During this time, a teen would be assinged the chore of adding firewood to the campfire as needed. He or she would be labelled by staff as the "Wood Bitch". After dinner, the group would listen as the staff singled out one or more of the teens in discussions regarding his or her personal life. At times the staff would intentially provoke the youths in order to achieve an emotional response. Sometimes, other members of the group were asked to provide insight or feedback to the individual. These "therapy" sessions would, at times, prompt the teens to reveal embarassing or unplesant memories, thoughts, or feelings. Typically lasting a few hours, these sessions would end at the staff's determination. The youths would then be instructed to move to the area where the sleeping bags had been set up and to go to sleep. This pattern of daily activities was followed every day of the week except for fridays. Each friday staff members would arrive to relieve those staff members whose two-week shift had been completed (They worked two-weeks on, two-weeks off), as well as to bring food supplies to the youths. Fridays were also the days that teens graduated from the program. Due to these additional activities, hiking hours were shortened each Friday.

In the news

In 1989 a 16 year old boy went missing from the program. He was found unharmed [1]

The local police investigated them for child abuse. Among the claims were: punched in the face, slammed into trees and made to eat their vomit. When police were present, the detained teenager could show them that they were forced to carry their own excrement in their pockets [2]. At the time they were not license to operate in the state of Colorado.

According to the article some of the teenagers were sent to the hospital due to the order by the authorities:

A 15-year-old girl was evacuated from the camp by horseback on Friday and a 14-year-old boy was removed Sunday. Colorado health officials said they contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a severe skin infection.

Both were hospitalized. The girl was in fair condition with severe, infectious wounds on her left hand, but the infection was under control, authorities said. The boy's condition wasn't released.

They were also hit by a lawsuit [3]

An article on a site that functions as marketing firm for the industry mention the closure of the program in Colorado, but it remains unclear if they have started up in another state [4].

External Links

Info pages

Survivor groups

Message boards

References

  1. Diabetic boy, missing in Big Bend since Sunday, found unhurt, by CINDY RUGELEY, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, December 15, 1989
  2. Teen wilderness campers allege abuse, New Standard, July 12, 1996.
  3. The lawsuit
  4. Seen and Heard - Aug, 1996, Strugglingteens.com - internet marketing firm