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New Vision Wilderness: Interventions that Change Kids’ Lives: Providing Innovative Catalysts to Positive Growth

Jul 31, 2012 11:23AM ● By Linda Sechrist

To Drew Hornbeck, executive director and co-founder of New Vision Wilderness (NVW), outdoor adventures in camping, rock climbing, backpacking, canoeing and white water rafting have always been more than just stimulating hobbies that create an adrenalin rush.

Even in his youth and early adulthood, Hornbeck recognized outdoor adventuring as a way of developing respect for nature, as well as a valuable means of building confidence, self-esteem and necessary coping mechanisms for life.

“In 1996, my cousin returned from Montana and told me about his work with adjudicated kids in the wilderness. Before that, it never crossed my mind that jobs in outdoor leadership existed or that outdoor adventure even had an educational aspect,” says Hornbeck.

Using a Team Approach

No encouragement was necessary for Hornbeck to follow his bliss from Wisconsin to Colorado to Hawaii, then to Alaska, and back to Wisconsin. An integral team member in New Vision Wildernesswilderness therapy programs for 16 years, the native of Milwaukee even started his own adventure and personal growth company in 2003: Midwest Outdoor Experience. Utilizing a team approach to wilderness experiences, he was able to observe that while his adventures built self-esteem, communications skills, self-confidence and conflict resolution skills, the necessary component of clinical treatment was missing.

“I put my company on the back burner and flew to Sitka, Alaska, when I had the opportunity to work with a professional team of Alaska natives that used wilderness adventures to help indigenous people overcome substance abuse,” Hornbeck recalls. “When my wife called me on a satellite phone in 2004 to announce she was pregnant with our first child, I knew it was time to return to Wisconsin.”

A position as an experiential therapist at a residential treatment center offered Hornbeck the chance to work with kids during the next four years. “Our collaborative treatment approach included my adventure experiences in rope courses, mountain biking, canoeing, New Vision Wilderness Wisconsinkayaking and overnight backpacking with kids who were diagnosed with social anxiety disorders and obsessivecompulsive disorders (OCD),” advises Hornbeck. Although he was challenging the teens, Hornbeck believed he could impact them even more deeply if he could totally immerse them in a wilderness experience that would test their physical abilities, intellect and emotions.

Creating a New Vision

During his time at the residential treatment center, Hornbeck was introduced to Steve Sawyer, who was managing a large outpatient clinic in Milwaukee. “I Googled him and read his bio, which noted that he wanted to run the best wilderness experience in Wisconsin,” says Hornbeck. “After two meetings, we were business partners.”

Hornbeck’s diverse experience as a director, teacher and counselor was the perfect complement to Sawyer’s clinical, intensive

Drew Hornbeck
Drew Hornbeck
approach. Although Sawyer, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and certified substance abuse counselor (CSAC), conducted weekend backpacking group adventure therapy, he didn’t have a comprehensive expedition model. Hornbeck did. Knowing they had what it took to be successful, the two men conducted several trips, and when their employment contracts ended in 2007, they decided to take a leap of faith and leave their secure positions to incorporate New Vision Wilderness.

Providing accessible and affordable attachment, trauma and substance abuse programs for families in the Midwest that participate in their child’s experience is important to Hornbeck and Sawyer. “We saw no need to take 12- to 17-year-old kids to Utah or Colorado for a wilderness experience,” advises Hornbeck.

Steve Sawyer
Steve Sawyer
At any time during the year, there are kids from a dozen states involved in an open enrollment “immersion into the wild” program, as well as a 21-day wilderness intervention program, where one-on-one intensive therapy is provided by a team of highly committed professionals that make many personal sacrifices to work with struggling teens in the woods of Wisconsin.

To succeed in such a wild environment, Hornbeck suggests that it’s not enough to simply enjoy either working with kids or the outdoors. “We have dedicated professionals, who feel called to be with kids in the trenches where the temperatures sometimes fall to 20 below zero,” he explains.

Embarking Upon Therapeutic Journeys

Proud of the organization’s ability to retain a core group of such focused individuals, Hornbeck notes what he feels are the differences between New Vision Wilderness Milwaukeethe New Vision model and other programs. “Children need to feel secure, safe and cared for to embark upon a therapeutic journey, so we don’t want them eating rice and beans for 21 days,” he says. Five types of meat and six different cheeses keep the kids and the staff well nourished. Cell phones, radios, vehicles and a hand-held GPS navigation system provide staff support.

Another feature of the NVW treatment plan that sets it apart from other wilderness immersion experiences is the frequency of intensive therapy with three master-level therapists. A child in this program participates in three one-on-one sessions and four group therapy sessions per week. One intensive treatment used by therapists in the woods is a trauma-releasing therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy that helps resolve disorders caused by exposure to distressing, traumatizing or negative life events. The goal of EMDR therapy is to process distressing memories, thus reducing their lingering influence and allowing kids to develop more adaptive coping mechanisms.

New Vision Wilderness MedfordNot a boot camp that breaks kids down, Hornbeck and Sawyer’s version of wilderness therapy builds them up, challenging the young people while building relationships that take into consideration their strengths and interests. “Teens are resistant; what we break down is their resistance,” says Hornbeck, who notes that 90 percent of the kids that complete NVW programs recommend NVW to their peers.

Reaching Life-Changing Insights

After kids feel a connection to the outdoors, camping often becomes more than a coping mechanism; it evolves into an enjoyable activity that bonds them to themselves, to others, and to their natural surroundings. “Last year, several weeks after one of the teens completed a 21-day program, we ran into him and his family on one of the trails,” says Hornbeck.NVW Program Wisconsin

All NVW programs are designed to lead kids to their own insights into why they act out and use maladaptive coping strategies such as drinking and taking drugs. “It’s those ‘Aha!’ moments that wake kids up to a life-changing understanding about how their outer behavior is really the result of something inside. Up until that point they generally offer only superficial thoughts such as, ‘I smoke because I feel happy when I’m high,’” explains Hornbeck. “We help teens to become intellectually and emotionally aware of the core issues that generate their maladaptive behavior.”

NVW also addresses family systems and their dynamics. Family therapy begins with phone therapy while kids are in the woods. Hornbeck explains: “Family members come to our area and participate in family therapy, then the child goes back into the woods Programs for troubled kidsto process with the therapist. Families also come back for graduation, which is important.”

Hornbeck’s initial perspective on his work—if a wilderness experience teaches a child how to make better decisions, the work has been effective—is verified today by internal measures, questionnaires and surveys that offer him and his team solid evidence that their practices work. “It’s all about a child leaving us with increased selfesteem, self-worth and self-value—the solid foundation that kids count on to hold them up when they say to their peers, ‘I’m not going to smoke that, I’m not going with those people in that car, I’m not going to date or hang out with that person,’” says Hornbeck. “This is what makes all our work worth it.”

For more information on New Vision Wilderness, with offices in Milwaukee and Medford, call 414-801-9791 or visit

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