SUWS was one of the oldest wilderness program. For many years it was not marketed as therapy but more like an outward bound program. Around 1980 the boot camp styled way of running a wilderness program was introduced. SUWS followed the market trend.
SUWS was located at two locations. Idaho and North Carolina. Some years ago the activities in Idaho were ceased. The program is estimated to last between 8 and 12 weeks. Research show that the teenagers who graduate the program opposite other teenagers need further placement at boarding schools or treatment centers. It is unclear whether policy inside the industry to pay referrals influence this result.
In 1985 a boy died during a hike at the Idaho location showing that wilderness programs are dangerous. Today we know that he was just one of many who didn’t return home alive. It doesn’t sound like fun being a teenager in such programs. In 2006 another boy died at the North Carolina location.
A special family version of the wilderness program was filmed as part of the infamous Brat Camp reality TV-show. 4 families from the United Kingdom were exposed to the harsh conditions and it was more than one of the parents could endure and she had opt out which was not an option for the children in the TV-show. Some time after the TV-show one of the children who had been in the show died.
During the time the wilderness program had been located in North Carolina, a number of teenagers have used the forest environment to run away from the wilderness program which means that costly resources had to be put in the recover them from the wilderness.
Their Idaho location closed around 2013 and in 2023 it was announced that the North Carolina would close.
- Dark side of a Bain success (Salon Magazine)
- Gregory Owens Jones – 1985 (Today a child died – memorial blog)
- Rocco D. Magliozzi – 2006 (Today a child died – memorial blog)
- Missing Teens from North Carolina wilderness programs – many from SUWS (Missing TTI victims blog)
- HOW DO BRUTAL TEEN BOOT CAMPS STILL LURE PARENTS? (OZY)
- IAmA person who escaped from camp SUWS (the youth wilderness therapy program in Idaho) in 2006 when I was 17. As far as I know I am the only kid to ever successfully escape from SUWS. AMA (Reddit Troubled Teens)
- Various testimonies from former SUWS students (Just another hike – testimonial blog)
- ‘Brat Camp’ teenager killed by drug cocktail (Oxford Mail)
- Wilderness therapy program in North Carolina closes after 23 years (Fox Carolina)
It was announced that the department in North Carolina would shut down. After two deaths it must have been enough.
Wilderness therapy program in North Carolina closes after 23 years (Fox Carolina)
I went through this program and it has stayed with me forever. I had not realized how much it scarred me until I found this and a few other things. I buried it, I guess. Thanks for letting people know.
I was there in 84. It was hell. I was determined to survive and keep my sense of self intact. I was called a freak and was treated with disrespect and disdain. And here’s a funny thing I have yet to read about SUWS Idaho anywhere: My counselors were all Mormons, and from what little I can remember about them I remember having their religion and politics pushed on me. Luckily for me I decided early on that they were of limited intelligence and insignificant, which benefited me as they had no influence on me personally. After arguing and rebelling initially, I was told they could keep me there as long as they wanted and what do you know- by morning I was a whole new girl. Angelic, loved Jesus, feminine, etc. So fortunate I happened to be blessed with natural acting ability.
They wrote gushing letters home to my parents about my big turnaround. I was a whole new child! I would no longer be the embarrassment. All my cool clothes were thrown out. All my old punk rock flyers (collector’s items now, I’m sure) were tossed. They couldn’t wait to meet their new daughter. Unfortunately for them I came back with a stronger sense of self, yet even more determination to stand my ground, and angry resentment that they were willing to trade me in for a less eccentric model.
In the meantime, we were given no water, hiked up to 17 miles in a single day due lack of suitable water which we weren’t’ allowed to carry – I threw up blood from my throat drying out, we drank water green and chunky with cow feces (with an iodine tablet mixed in,) had to strain water through filthy bandanas to avoid tiny poisonous leeches, etc. I remember sitting in a stream for hours after witnessing one of my co-hikers innocently napping while clusters of horse-flies congregated in her buttcrack. I remember our last stretch- a 3 day solo – being so weak I could only lay by a stream wrapped in a blanket, hearing one of my co-hikers screaming “We’re all gonna die!!!” in the far distance. Poor kid, he was the only one gung-ho in the beginning, but was a little meek and nerdly, and was scapegoated and ridiculed by everyone – even more so than myself. I still worry about that guy – he really cracked. His name was Greg and I didn’t realize that was the kid’s name that passed. I truly hope his parents didn’t send him back. 😦
I was there in 1984 as well. I believe that was the year, because I was 15. It was the most horrific experience of my life. I am forever scarred, just like you.
I will never forget my experience, and still to this day hold a bit of a grudge against my parents for taking away a piece of me that I will never get back.
I 3 day solo was such a traumatic experience that no 15 year old girl should ever have to go through. Making my friend jump in the lake fully clothed, with her hard hat, boots, etc on in the pouring down rain and make her continue to work her 8 hour shift brought tears to my eyes and I will have that image forever stained into my brain.
Im a graduate 1985. They said I was the youngest at the time. I turned 13 few days before. I had none of the stuff happen reported. My counselors Jim & Lisa were solid. The rumors of the kid in the other group were true. Seizure and apparently fell. Not sure why conspiracy because any of there remember the terrain. Done easily without a seizure.
-It remains the most stoic, horrible impressive things Ive ever done. 35 years ago this experience still shapes me. I always tell people I hated doing it. But deeply deeply love having done it. I saw girl have a miscarriage, learn what periods were. It was study of discipline and triumph. Impact hikes. Horrific. 15 miles hike for getting an attitude. Brilliant. I learned. Stolen food. He got 25 miler.
– Run in to me will remain the most haunting events of my life. Us carrying those shvtty horrible packs. I was tiny. All us filthy just finished Solo. I remember asking Jim why it was called Run In? He replied no one has ever walked it. My mom said it was the eeriest thing to hear the clanks of our cookware, and hearing our feet, the wailing, crying. The then final testing. How we all killed it and nailed it. Sp proud. We were returning to foster homes, me to divorce, same bs. Drugs. But in that moment it was only us who knew what we did. I say none of returned worse, that experience was to indelible.. As above lady mentioned, I came out of there a very serious version of myself. Mush respect to anyone you who went through this. df