The Life of a Wilderness Therapy Instructor

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Bill Sassani has been a backpacking guide and outdoor instructor for several organizations, and is a NOLS Southwest Outdoor Education graduate and Wilderness First Responder. His formal education includes a B.A. in History from Penn State, as well as a Master’s degree in Outdoor Education from the University of Northern Colorado. Bill enjoys being a field instructor at Second Nature because he has the opportunity to combine his love for the outdoors and education in an environment dedicated to fostering growth and insight with youth. He has over 800 days in the field since starting his Second Nature career in 2006. – Via Second Nature Wilderness Therapy 

Being an outdoor guide has many rewards, like introducing others to beautiful places, teaching important outdoor skills, and empowering students and clients to be safe outside.  However, being a wilderness therapy guide has its own special rewards that are unique to the outdoor industry.

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Character Building on a Whole New Level:

One of the aspects that I enjoy most about being a wilderness therapy guide is the opportunity for intentional character development on a daily basis.  Character development can happen organically on any kind of outdoor trip.  For instance, having to hike all day to get to camp, and then having to do all of the camp setup and cooking dinner before really relaxing can be trying.  In wilderness therapy we can be more intentional and specific with the development of our students.  These could include:

  • Having to do things that are not easy, such as backpacking or learning how to create fire with a bow-drill set.
  • Developing craftsmanship through setting up a shelter, keeping one’s pack organized, or cooking a delicious meal.
  • Learning how to confront difficult situations, work as a team,  and hold others to a standard of accountability.

For some students these are new concepts, and it can be amazing to see their development from Day 1 to the day they leave.

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Maintaining a Therapeutic Environment

Another rewarding experience to being a guide is the therapeutic component.  We are not just teaching technical outdoor skills, but also healthy ways to communicate and express oneself.  The wilderness truly becomes our classroom, both literally and metaphorically.  I have worked with students who, when they got angry, only had one tool, which was breaking stuff.  By the end of their stay these same students could talk to someone and express what they were feeling without the need to be physical.  Granted they were not perfect every day, and we don’t expect them to be perfect, but at least they are aware of and are learning to make different choices.

Paid to Live and Work Outside

I once had a student say that if he was a wilderness therapy guide he would do it only if he was paid $100,000.  I didn’t respond back, but I did smile to myself.  If you are an outdoor guide you probably are not doing it for the money, and I would say the same is true for wilderness therapy.  Still, it’s cool to wake up to a beautiful sunrise or lead the group on an exciting canyon hike and know that you are getting paid to do it.  In my opinion, it’s better than any desk job could ever be!

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Learning New Things

I feel like every week that I work in the field I learn something about myself.  We ask students to reflect about themselves, so it’s only natural that we would be doing work on ourselves.  I love learning about a new therapeutic concept, or how to work with kids with particular conditions, or how to process with students when they are upset.  I feel like I have become a better listener, I am calmer when things get tense, and I have a better idea of my body’s capabilities and limits.

Looking Towards the Future

I don’t know if I will be a wilderness guide for the rest of my life, but I do know that the experience will stay with me wherever I go and whatever I do in the future.  I find it funny when I am out of the field in the “real world.”  Things that might have bothered me before seem less troubling.  It’s not like I walk around in a Zen state all of the time, but I think I’ve gotten better at dealing with the annoyances that life sends my way, as well as bigger problems.  I also think that I have gotten better at communicating with other people, especially with those that are close to me.

I will always love the outdoors.  It is where I have found adventure and solace.  But being a wilderness therapy guide has not only reinforced these feelings for me, but has also taught me how to be a better person.  That, is something I will always treasure no matter what adventures I go on in life.

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