At Vertava Health, we’re all working towards a common goal- helping those suffering from addiction find healing and happiness in long-term recovery. Together, we strive, push and help each other reach this objective every day. This is what makes our team more than just a team- it’s what makes us family.
Meet one member of our ever-growing family, Dalton. He’s been an integral part of our team at Vertava Health Texas since opening, constantly helping empower and educate our clients. He’s also the architect behind our Wilderness Therapy Program.
This unique program provides a curriculum that allows clients to reconnect with nature on The Treehouse’s beautiful 40-acre property (soon to be 65-acre property). By learning and completing a series of survival tasks, clients will gain a number of skills that will serve them throughout their recovery journeys.
How long have you been working at The Treehouse?
I’ve been here almost since it opened, so about two years and three months.
How did The Treehouse approach you about creating the Wilderness Therapy Program?
Our director of nursing at The Treehouse has known me for a long time- she knows that I’m in recovery and that I know a lot about the outdoors. The Treehouse has 40 acres, and they wanted to do something with them.
So she brought me in and I met with The Treehouse CEO and he essentially said, “I want you to take over the 40 acres and do something with it.”
It was a pretty broad ask, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when I got to The Treehouse. All I knew was that taking the clients outdoors and into the wilderness could be a great way for them to challenge themselves and get them out of their comfort zone- so I just went for it.
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Where did you learn a lot of your wilderness skills?
Honestly, it was mostly trial and error for me. I would literally go on YouTube and watch videos on how to make traps or start a fire. Then I would go outside and try to do it.
However, I did recently go to a survival school in Utah. It was a great refresher on a lot of survival skills I try to teach our clients- just a lot more complex and in depth.
What did the first version of this program look like?
I started with only three groups of clients. The program was not nearly as comprehensive as it is now.
In the beginning, we did a fire starting group, a water purification group and a trap building group. It was a small process and we didn’t really go that far into the woods.
Based on client feedback and input from the team here at The Treehouse, I started to build out the Wilderness Therapy Program more and more. Gradually, it started shaping into the program that we have now.
What does the program look like now?
Now, I run several different groups a week ranging from about 10 to 15 people per group- this is way more than I could have imagined in the beginning.
The program has always had a focus on trap building, but I’ve definitely started teaching much more complex traps to our clients. A lot of the people I work with want the challenge of building more complicated things- and it’s great to see the clients pushing themselves.
I’ve also started teaching a shelter building group where our clients learn to build a shelter made completely from materials you can find in nature. This one is a great teamwork activity- because the shelters they build will need to house more than themselves.
Our groups also learn how to catch, clean and cook fish now as well.
Do clients get a chance to test the skills they’ve learned?
On the week a client is due to graduate, I will take them and a group of other graduating clients off campus to a 400-acre piece of land that I manage for the day. I will give clients a chance to go through all the skills that they’ve learned throughout the Wilderness Therapy Program.
I’ll ask them to do the basic things, like build a fire and purify water. Then we’ll move onto catching, cleaning and cooking fish- which is a pivotal source of food if you’re actually trying to survive in the wilderness. I also want to see the clients build one or two traps.
When our clients are able to see the progress they’ve made during their time in Wilderness Therapy, it’s an incredible feeling. I never get tired of seeing my clients succeed.
What is it about nature that brings people out of their shell?
A lot of the clients I work with have never been off the concrete in their life. But as soon as they get into nature, they absolutely love it.
I think it’s the peace. You have to get away from all of the distractions of the world to truly start to find the stillness within yourself. When you’re in nature, there are no cars or cell phone signals or people to distract you from your healing process.
Nature is a place to feel free- a place where you don’t have to worry about substances.
There is also no one to judge you in the wilderness. Once clients learn that, being in nature becomes a safe space for them to try new things, challenge themselves, and be vulnerable and open to change.
What kind of recovery skills are the clients learning during Wilderness Therapy?
Just the other week, I had a new guy out in the woods trying to start a fire and he was really struggling. His hands were starting to cramp, he was sweating and frustrated- but all of his teammates came together and started rooting for him.
After about 20 minutes of constant trying, he finally got the fire started. As soon as the spark caught and the fire started to grow, you could see this immense look of pride and happiness on his face.
Learning to never give up on yourself is one of the most important things I can teach my clients. There will be challenges in recovery, but if you persevere and believe in yourself, you can live an incredibly fulfilling life in sobriety.
A lot of what I teach it also about teamwork. I bring everyone out in a group and I encourage them to work together in order build shelters or traps. Often, the shelters will have to house more than one person- so it pushes our clients to really rely on one another for support.
When the groups start working together towards a common goal it helps improve communication and teamwork skills- both of which are important to building a productive life outside of treatment.
How do you see clients using their Wilderness Therapy skills outside of treatment?
I love seeing photos on Facebook of my clients teaching their kids to fish, or camping with their families- it makes all the work I put into this curriculum so worth it. I’ve also had several clients find jobs in the forestry or wildlife industry after they leave The Treehouse.
The skills that I try to incorporate into Wilderness Therapy aren’t just recovery skills, they’re life skills. Teamwork, believing in yourself, communication, perseverance- it’s all part of building a meaningful life after treatment. If our clients just hold onto those principles after they leave The Treehouse, I know they’ll be successful.
Did you ever think you would be doing this?
Not in a million years did I think this is what I would be doing as a career- but I wouldn’t change it.
I have a client currently who’s having a baby with his wife. A week ago he was talking about how they couldn’t agree on a name. Then, just yesterday, he said I had so much of an impact on him here that they’re naming the baby after me.
Can you believe that? I actually started crying.
I know there are some skeptics out there- but you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I’ve seen the impact Wilderness Therapy can have on someone, and it can be life-changing.