At the Heart of Open Sky: The Unique Role of the Field Guide
FEATURED AUTHOR: Leah Dworkin
Leah Dworkin is an Assistant Field Director (AFD) at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, where she helps design and implement trainings and development opportunities for Open Sky’s field staff. Before becoming the AFD, Leah was a senior field guide and has spent more than 400 days in the field. Leah’s role as AFD allows her to integrate her two passions: time in the field with students and mentoring guides. In this blog, she describes the roles of field guides, as well as the multitude of ongoing trainings and certifications Open Sky’s field staff acquire throughout their employment.
In the human body, the heart is the epicenter of the circulatory system, working hard with each pump to provide oxygen and other key nutrients to the rest of the body. At Open Sky, our field staff are the heart of our program. Like the human heart, our field guides are hardworking, consistent, and help our students thrive in the field. They nurture our students back to life and support them in becoming their full selves.
The primary role of the field guides is to spend day and night with our students. They provide necessary structure and containment and complete normal day-to-day and night-to-night tasks within the team. These tasks include cooking and eating meals, hiking, bow-drilling, laughing, crying, and sharing emotions within their respective teams. Each field guide is assigned student mentees at the beginning of each shift, supporting them in completing individual goal plans (IGPs) assigned by the therapist. Guides also complete multiple check-ins to see how students’ weeks are going and to help them make progress through the Student Pathway.
Prior to entering the field with students, each guide undergoes an orientation and training process. During this orientation, prospective field guides learn about Open Sky’s core values and receive hands-on education that takes place in both the backcountry and “front country.” The initial training happens over the course of a week-long expedition in the wilderness. Trainees follow the same boundaries and protocols as our students and the trainers act as their guides. This firsthand experience helps trainees feel what it is like to be held in the Open Sky program, develop greater empathy for the student experience, and practice the hard and soft skills they learned at the beginning of the orientation. Trainees also have the opportunity to practice and display their abilities by acting as guides in certain scenarios. Throughout the week, trainers assess the prospective guides’ abilities to supervise, regulate their emotions, handle the physical rigors of the job, and employ therapeutic skills.
Like our students, each field guide receives a pathway at the beginning of their first shift at Open Sky. The Student Pathway and Guide Pathway are both meant to provide a framework to keep individuals on track to meet goals and create a consistent foundation from which to grow. The Guide Pathway consists of various levels, from apprentice guide all the way to senior levels 1-3. Like the Student Pathway, the Guide Pathway follows the circle of four directions – South, West, North, and East – with apprentice guides starting their journey in the Gateway phase.
Each level of the pathway is tailored to meet the needs of that specific guide level. The first section of each contains an area for guides to create SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. A guide completes their pathway by receiving signatures from co-guides, field leadership, the field manager and field medic, and at times, the team therapist. Feedback is also a key component of the pathway process and allows for guides from all levels to share observations and mentorship to promote growth. Additionally, pathways include resources meant to support the learning of both hard and soft skills, as well as integral steps which parallel the emotional process and work of Open Sky students.
In this phase of guiding, apprentices are expected to master the basics of the program and the expectations of the field. For example, they learn basic supervision, as well as various hard skills, such as tying knots, building shelters, and bow-drilling. They even carry C-packs for their first few weeks just like our students!
During the assistant guide phase, guides work on taking more initiative within the guide team, leading more parts of the day, learning about their strengths and growth edges.
In the West phase of the guide pathway, guides step into greater leadership and management of the team while navigating deeper emotional work and learning.
Becoming a senior of a team is the guide equivalent to the North. The senior guide is responsible for the overall management and risk-mitigation for the team: guides and students alike. The senior works closely with the team’s therapist to ensure students receive the treatment and care that best meets their needs. Beyond this significant milestone, our guides have the opportunity to advance to higher levels of “senior-ship,” with pathways in the works to extend from senior 1 up to senior 5.
In addition to the Guide Pathway, there are various trainings and certifications that our guides acquire during their time at Open Sky.
Throughout the year, we offer our guides other trainings to support their growth and equip our field department to attend to our students through all conditions. Before winter begins, guides attend a mandatory winter skills training, which is a fun and fruitful two days spent in a higher-elevation location. The training emphasizes how to keep warm in the winter and other important management tips and tricks for winter camping. On the other end of the spectrum, our seniors and soon-to-be seniors attend a retreat before summer. This required weekend is focused on learning new skills, brushing up on old skills, and building community. Other mandatory trainings include a 15-passenger van training on how to safely operate our vehicles.
Additionally, at the start of every shift, guides receive an in-service training on either hard skills (such as yoga and meditation, how to cook over a fire, and managing challenging terrain on hikes) or soft therapeutic skills, led by a clinician. Such in-services are aimed to support guides in areas such as working with more challenging students, navigating certain topics that may pop up in the group, and shifting the culture of a team.
While our field guides are not licensed therapists or counselors, they do receive training on how to support our students when encountering challenging emotions or situations. Guides learn how to validate and reflect, utilize coping skills, as well as ask questions to support students in their growth and healing. Guides also lead various groups during the week, based on the needs of the team and suggestions of the team therapist. Some of these groups may be more individually-based and part of a student’s Individual Goals Plans (IGPs), such as sharing their life story with the group or reading a letter they wrote to or received from their parents. Other group sessions involve the whole team and encourage students to share. Topics can range from times in their lives when they felt most empowered, to their most embarrassing stories.
It’s hard to describe accurately what being a field guide is actually like. Unless you’ve experienced the magic and challenges of field guiding, words cannot do it full justice. Guiding is a unique and special job, one that requires compassion, firmness, love, strength, and creativity. Without our field guides, Open Sky would not be possible. The relationships that are formed between students and guides often make lasting impressions, which students fondly recall many years down the road. Our guides are some of the most generous, heart-centered humans I know, and I’m grateful to be able to support and learn from them.