Meet Early Adolescent Program Director Liz Lucarelli
FEATURED AUTHOR: Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LCMHC, RPT
We are excited to welcome Liz Lucarelli to Open Sky as the early adolescent program director. Liz has extensive experience working with kids ages 12-14 and their families in wilderness settings. She brings this knowledge to her role at Open Sky, where she directs program and curriculum development, staff training, and clinical oversight. We are thrilled to have her on board! Learn more about Liz and the journey that brought her to Open Sky below.
Hailing from New England, Liz Lucarelli discovered the power of wilderness for herself at a young age. She spent 17 years involved in a traditional, all-girls summer camp in New Hampshire, first as a camper and then as a counselor. She describes her time there as the most poignant experience of her life. It was where she learned first-hand both the power of spending time outdoors and the value of strong role models and community support.
“There were so many things I learned and wrestled with about myself going through that experience,” said Liz. “I also formed amazing connections. I still remain connected with my friends from camp. The relationships you form in wilderness are just so unique.”
Liz went on to earn her undergraduate degree in wilderness leadership and experiential education from Brevard College. In 2005, she started working in wilderness therapy as a field instructor, an experience, she says, that changed the trajectory of her life.
As a field guide, Liz primarily worked with adolescent age boys and girls and thought she would stay with that population. When the organization brought somebody onto the team to start a middle school program, however, Liz decided to learn more.
“I didn’t know anything about that age, but there was something about the population that called to me,” said Liz. “I did the staff training and just knew I wanted to work with this age group.”
Liz went on to receive her master’s degree in community counseling from Western Carolina University. After graduate school, she worked with adolescent girls for a few years before landing a position as therapist at a middle school girl’s program. She has specialized in the early adolescent population ever since.
“I love working with early adolescents because they can be incredibly creative, heartfelt, kind, authentic, and resilient,” said Liz. “They’re also willing to be playful and have fun and do silly things.”
Liz, who is also a registered play therapist through the Association of Play Therapy, is well-versed in the unique developmental needs or early adolescents and what modalities are most effective for treating them.
“Early adolescents don’t quite have the insight or verbal skills to put words to their experiences,” said Liz. “They can show you things through play and expressive activities much better than they can find words for them.”
Drawing on her own clinical experience, Liz has thoughtfully designed the early adolescent program to be developmentally appropriate for kids ages 12-14. The program emphasizes creative and experiential activities, such as equine-assisted therapy, to help early adolescents build important interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
“Play is building insight. It’s making meaning. It’s exploring attitudes, thoughts, and feelings,” said Liz. “It can also be an action-oriented process, so it helps with integration of skills. In a way, wilderness therapy is like one big play therapy intervention.”
Within the realm of wilderness therapy, Liz is most excited about helping young people see aspects of themselves that they never would have seen before.
“Wilderness cultivates a mindset of resiliency and allows early adolescents to see that they have the resources and the skills to thrive,” said Liz. “There’s nothing cooler than having a kid say, ‘I can’t hike,’ or ‘I can’t build a fire,’ and then within a couple weeks, they’re saying, ‘I can do this!’”
Liz also values the opportunity wilderness gives early adolescents to experience community and build relationships with other people.
“A lot of kids coming to wilderness therapy haven’t had that before,” said Liz. “Maybe they come in feeling ashamed and discouraged. Wilderness therapy helps them see that they’re not alone. Being in the wilderness helps them make friends and figure out relationships.”
Liz notes that something else that makes early adolescents unique is that they still lean heavily on adults and are deeply connected to their parents. There is a high probability that they’ll be going home after treatment whereas for their adolescent and young adult counterparts, there may only be a small window of time before they go to college or make another transition.
“Because early adolescents are likely reentering the family system, I think we have a great responsibility to prepare both kids and families to do the work and practice the skills,” said Liz.
Powered by Open Sky’s commitment to treating the entire family system, the early adolescent program offers a variety of touchstones to support the parent-child connection while students are in the field. Parents have access to weekly clinical updates from their child’s therapist; six included parent coaching sessions, all of which are facilitated by Liz; and two phone calls with their child during the child’s stay. Occasionally, Liz will also join family calls as well to better understand the parent-child connection and support parents in their parallel process.
Parents are also supported with additional resources such as the Family Pathway workbook, Family Pathway class, and Wellness Weekend. They may even visit their child in the field, when clinically advised, by participating in Family Quest.
“We’re excited to offer so many opportunities for parents to get involved with their children’s process,” said Liz. “When kids know that their parents are willing to engage and meet them on their level, they really appreciate that. Also, if kids know their parents are engaged, the child is even more likely to engage and dig into their work!”