SUWS Wilderness Program Restores Hope for a Family Struck by Tragedy: One Parent's Story of Finding Life After Death

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New Hampshire family looks to wilderness therapy for help after the death of beloved mother and wife, Carolynne St. Pierre.

When I picked Brian up from SUWS, I could see the peace in his eyes

SUWS of the Carolinas wilderness program in North Carolina was recently featured in the Concord Monitor, as part of the story of Carolynne St. Pierre who died Feb. 10, 2007, at the age of 44, after a three-year battle with a rare form of liver cancer. She left behind dedicated husband Rich, 14-year-old Melissa, 12-year-old Brian, and 4-year-old Elijah.

The Monitor followed the remarkable family for several years, chronicling each milestone and setback in Carolynne's battle to live. The story was accompanied by photos, which earned the Monitor and photographer Preston Gannaway the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2008. It was important to both Rich and Carolynne that she leave a legacy through articles, photos, video diaries, and letters for her children to remember her unwavering strength, beautiful spirit, and endless love for her family.

Between work, doctor's appointments, aggressive chemotherapy treatments, and running their three children to and from school and activities, Rich knew he needed help meeting Brian's growing needs during this time of crisis. At 12 years old, Brian had already experienced a lifetime of loss, and his acting out at home, in sports, and at school had reached a breaking point.

"Our family was disintegrating," Rich said. "We were all grieving and hurting. I truly didn't know how we were going to come out of it."

In the summer of 2007, Rich enrolled Brian in SUWS of the Carolinas. Like many children, Brian put up a fight when he was dropped off at camp, crying and begging to go home. But he adapted to his new environment, and even thrived in the wilderness.

"There's a lot of concern and worry when you do something like this," Rich explains. "But I knew our family needed a rest to gather ourselves, and we couldn't do it with Brian in game. Sometimes the best thing to do in a crisis is to step away. Looking back now, SUWS was absolutely the right choice for our family and Brian."

Wilderness programs have achieved impressive results with teens like Brian. At wilderness camp, teens struggling with behavioral problems like low self-esteem, poor school performance, defiance, depression, and substance abuse are taken out of their comfort zone and are placed in a new environment with few material possessions and a new set of authority figures, peers, and social norms. Teens quickly realize their behaviors have to change in order to function in the wilderness. Starting with a healthy, nutritionist-approved diet and physical exertion, teens shed their destructive behaviors and start fresh. Through the wilderness experience, students learn the value of teamwork and communication, which translates into healthier relationships at home.

"The level of support we received at SUWS was excellent," says Rich. "Brian's therapists were spot-on with assessing his needs and provided timely service and support throughout the program. We received telephone updates from our program therapist during our weekly treatment planning sessions, as well as letters home from Brian and websites with photographs and progress reports."

Wracking up thousands of dollars in medical bills and caring for three children on one salary, wilderness programs certainly weren't in the family's budget. During Carolynne's three-year cancer battle, Rich sold his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, his New Hampton, N.H., home, and land he owned to cover family expenses. Affording wilderness camp was a real challenge, but with the help of Carolynne's mother, Kathryn Seigle, and other relatives, the family came together in the midst of crisis to help Brian.

"When I picked Brian up from SUWS, I could see the peace in his eyes," Rich says proudly. "He was visibly different - calm and in control, he made eye contact and engaged with the people around him. You really can't understand the transformation until you experience it for yourself. Brian is more confident in his ability to succeed in the face of challenge and knows that what he learned at SUWS will stick with him for life. I have a new level of confidence and respect for him, and I can see he is proud of himself. I don't even want to think about where our family would be without the SUWS experience."

Since sharing their story with the media and the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize, there has been an outpouring of support for the St. Pierre family from people worldwide who have been touched by the story, who are struggling to care for a troubled youth, and many who are battling terminal illness themselves. Looking back on the series of hardships they've encountered, Brian and his family can be proud of having the strength to let Carolynne go, the resilience to rebuild, and the courage to keep on living.

Like many teens, Brian transitioned after wilderness camp to a therapeutic boarding school to continue working through his emotional issues. "Brian comes home from boarding school in three months," Rich says optimistically, "and we are looking forward to having the family together again."

SUWS of the Carolinas is a therapeutic wilderness program with a focus on clinical intervention and assessment. The program uses the outdoors as an alternative to conventional treatment environments, while engaging students using traditional therapeutic methods. Since 1981, SUWS programs have provided guidance and support to thousands of misdirected and at-risk teens experiencing low self-esteem, defiant behavior, attention deficit, depression, substance abuse, and other behavioral issues.

SUWS is a proud member of Aspen Education Group, the nation's largest and most comprehensive network of therapeutic schools and programs. Aspen Education Group offers professionals and families the opportunity to choose from a variety of therapeutic settings in order to best meet a student's unique academic and emotional needs. Aspen Education Group has been profiled by major news and television organizations around the world, including U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and People magazine, as well as on CNN, ABC's 20/20 and Good Morning America, NBC's The Today Show and Dateline NBC, National Public Radio, and the syndicated television show Dr. Phil. Aspen is a division of CRC Health Group, the nation's largest chemical dependency and related behavioral health organization. For more information about Aspen Education Group, visit http://www.aspeneducation.com or call (888) 972-7736. For more information about SUWS and the benefits of wilderness therapy, please call (888) 828-9770 or visit http://www.suwscarolinas.com.

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