Before Brat Camp, There Was the ANASAZI Way

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Arizona Charity Traces its origins and successful treatment methodology to the founders of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare industry.

Many viewers of the popular ABC reality series “Brat Camp” have no idea there is an entire industry that utilizes the outdoors and proven therapies to provide intervention services for troubled teens. Known as “Wilderness Therapy” or “Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare,” the industry is comprised of providers located throughout the United States, predominantly in the West. One of the first and most effective of these organizations is the nonprofit ANASAZI Foundation operating in the high-desert forests of Arizona.

Respected by behavioral healthcare professionals and program graduates nationwide, ANASAZI is best known for its 42-day outdoor program designed to help children ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-25 with depression, substance abuse, and other emotional or behavioral concerns. The organization was founded by industry pioneers Larry D. Olsen, author of the national bestseller “Outdoor Survival Skills,” and Ezekiel C. Sanchez, who was honored with his wife Pauline as Arizona Parents of the Year in 2001 and as recipients of the National Excellence in Parenting Award for 2002.

Dozens of wilderness therapy programs have been developed since Olsen and Sanchez first began taking students on wilderness expeditions in the late 1960s. A few (the most notable exception being the portrayal in the current Brat Camp series) remain true to the founders’ belief that the wilderness is not a harsh place to be conquered, but a place where young people may learn to walk in harmony with others and their surroundings.

“The wilderness provides a safe and quiet environment free from distraction where, with the help of qualified guides and clinicians, young people can sort out the problems of their lives,” said Mike Merchant, ANASAZI’s president and executive director. “Living comfortably in the outdoors requires responsibility, healthy decision making, and creativity. It invites introspection, gratitude, and ultimately a change of heart resulting in a lasting change of behavior.”

ANASAZI’s treatment methodology—the ANASAZI Way—includes a non-confrontational and caring approach that integrates the wilderness experience with an accredited educational curriculum and individual and group therapy conducted by a team of licensed healthcare professionals. This unique combination has allowed the organization to enjoy one of the best success rates in its industry—only 5 percent of the young people served by ANASAZI enter a subsequent inpatient treatment program.

A key element of ANASAZI’s success, in Merchant’s view, is family involvement. “ANASAZI’s experience has shown that repairing the bonds between children and their parents, or ‘turning hearts homeward’ as we call it, is the key to overcoming most challenges,” Merchant said. “For this reason, we require parents to attend a workshop, participate in weekly counseling sessions, and spend the final three days in the wilderness with their child. We feel this commitment is essential to developing a home environment that supports and sustains the child’s commitment to ‘walking forward’ in life.”

“The wilderness and our concurrent work with the family provide a unique treatment milieu that allows us to effectively address the biopsychosocial-spiritual aspects of a child’s life,” said ANASAZI Clinical Director Dr. Fred Dodini. "We work on relevant physical and emotional health issues like diet, exercise, sleep patterns, social skills, and emotional self-regulation. Most importantly, we help adolescents identify, through real-life experiences, the core values that form the foundation of their lives and provide the resiliency needed to face the challenges of today's world.”

The Brat Camp television series has placed the bright light of scrutiny on wilderness therapy—specifically on the confrontational and “manufactured” approach many have noted in the current program. While organizations employing these techniques have helped many children, the staff at ANASAZI believes it is important to understand there are more effective and positive ways to promote lasting change. ANASAZI’s years of experience have proven that children respond best not when they are labeled, embarrassed, or manipulated, but when they are truly cared for in the positive, peaceful, and uncluttered environment provided by Mother Earth.

Outdoor behavioral healthcare performed in a life-affirming environment has long been recognized as an effective method of intervention. As this form of therapy increases in popularity, it is increasingly important for parents and referring therapists to select a program they can trust. To assist them, ANASAZI and other leading healthcare providers formed the Outdoor Behavioral Health Industry Council (OBHIC), an association that defines standards and practices for outdoor programs committed to helping young people and families make positive change.

As the only year-round nonprofit organization in a competitive and now highly visible industry, ANASAZI works to ensure its programs are available to all families, regardless of their ability to pay. With this in mind, the organization continually raises funds from caring donors who provide scholarships to those families in need.

ANASAZI founder Sanchez marvels at the unprecedented interest in the industry he helped create. “Larry Olsen and I could not have imagined the legacy of those early courses, which were initially designed to teach the primitive living skills of America’s ancient inhabitants,” said Sanchez, who continues his work at ANASAZI. “Almost immediately, we realized that a peaceful walking in the wilderness offered our students and others facing significant personal challenges a much more important, life-altering service. I am pleased this type of therapy is as vital now as it was then, and I remain forever honored to help our remarkable young people learn how to walk forward in the ANASAZI Way.”


ANASAZI Foundation is a nonprofit (501c3), nationally recognized, licensed, and JCAHO-accredited behavioral healthcare provider for youth and young adults with depression, anger, aggression, school failure, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and other emotional or behavioral concerns. ANASAZI's menu of services includes a 42-day outdoor treatment program for youths ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-25, as well as parenting workshops, leadership and marriage courses, outpatient counseling, and community drug awareness and education forums. More information is available at


Sean Rourke

ANASAZI Foundation

480-892-7403 phone

[email protected]

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