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Wilderness program designed to help youths

by Merrie Leininger

The Douglas County Juvenile Probation Department uses some unorthodox ways of keeping their probationers out of trouble.

The department has been providing the Wilderness Program for about 20 years. They serve high-risk and troubled youth in the community as a form of intervention and prevention.

n Unique program. Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Scott Cook said the program is the only one of its kind that he knows of and it has even won some awards.

“It’s the one thing that makes us different from other probation offices. Over the years we have been asked to train other departments,” he said.

Some probation departments have outside agencies provide a similar wilderness therapy program, he said, in which the teen-ager goes away from home for a couple of weeks.

“We’re the only one that it is an integral, ongoing part of our program and that’s really unique,” he said.

Shaunda Vasey has been the wilderness technician since the program became full-time in May with the help of a grant. Every weekend she takes a trip with teen-agers who are on probation. They go backpacking, rock climbing, snow camping, kayaking, cross-country skiing, white water rafting, scuba diving, hiking and other outdoor activities.

Cook said the experience gives the probation department a chance to observe a student’s actions outside the office and introduce the young offender to a new skill.

“One of the things we really use it for is a diagnostic tool. When you get them out there, you can watch them interact among themselves, and that’s not things you see in your office,” Cook said. “We learn a lot about the kid. There also is a lot of counseling that goes on. Shaunda is studying for her master’s degree and does some exercises that are thought-provoking and helps them think through things.”

n Strap on the skis. Last weekend, Vasey took four students, ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old, cross-country skiing at Red Lake, off Highway 88 right over the California line.

Vasey said the trip started like many of them do – the kids didn’t want to go and two of them didn’t even show up. In the first of many examples of her extreme patience and good humor, Vasey called the two and told them to be ready by the time she arrived at their homes.

The trip was still not ready to begin, however. The next stop was at the large shed where the department stores all of its equipment.

Twenty years of accumulating gear has resulted in enough to outfit all the teen-agers so they would be warm enough.

The skis and boots were also provided, in addition to backpacks so the kids can carry their lunch and their clothes.

After instruction from Vasey regarding the rules of the day – respect yourself and take care of yourself, respect others, and respect the environment, no littering – the group was on its way.

Vasey, who has worked as a ski instructor at Kirkwood Ski Resort, went over the basics after the skis were waxed and the kids were covered in sunblock.

Although the older boys had a tendency to wander off and try things by themselves, the younger ones, who had no skiing experience, listened attentively and seemed to be losing some of their earlier attitude toward the sport.

Vasey said that is usually the case.

“Some of them can be real stubborn, but sometimes you see them smiling despite themselves,” she said.

Vasey said some of the teen-agers really blossom in that environment.

“You really get to know them. You would be surprised about what kids will talk about around a campfire,” said said.

She said she is always looking for other adults to go with her because she can only take about four kids to one adult.

“I’m really lucky. All the probation officers really like to go, so I never have any trouble getting help,” she said.

n Back on the trail. After going up and down a small hill a few times, the group set off down the trail. Vasey always stayed behind the slowest skier, but never lost her interest in the activity, even though it was obviously not up to her skill level.

“I’ve been dreaming of skiing lately,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long now.”

You can tell Vasey really loves her job.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said.

She hopes to continue in the same line after she gets her masters in marriage and family counseling by having a private practice that specializes in outdoor family trips.

Part of her job through the department is prevention, so she spends some time at the Lake Tahoe Boys and Girls Club, and takes kids from Teens With a Future and students from area schools who wouldn’t normally get a chance to go skiing or camping.

n New skill. Cook said the program has been in existence since 1980, and is helpful in more ways than one.

“It is valuable often to get them away from their environment,” he said. “Obviously, the more we learn about them, the more we can serve them. It helps the kids with self esteem, doing things they didn’t think they could do, and just getting them away and having good, clean fun.”

Vasey writes reports to the kids’ probation officers and the teens write reports to her.

“It’s feedback for me. It lets me know what I can improve or if they think it was worth it.”

Just one look at the faces in the back on the van on the way home shows it probably was. All the teen-agers, even the ones she had to roust out of bed, were smiling and asking if they could go again.

“They learn a new skill and find out ways to have fun without getting high,” she said. “It does a lot for their self-esteem. You’re going up a big mountain and skiing down it, which you never thought you would do before.”

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