Operations: Building the Foundations for a Safe and Meaningful Student Experience
FEATURED AUTHOR: The Open Sky Team
Open Sky’s experienced and passionate Operations Team works both behind the scenes and hands-on to develop, construct, and maintain program infrastructure and processes. The Operations Team is responsible for the vehicle fleet, student clothing and gear, the transporting of students, and the maintenance of multiple facilities and base camps.
Operations Director Doug Maxwell leads the team in promoting and carrying out smooth and efficient practices, policies, and operations on a daily basis. “I am always struck by the passion of each individual on the Operations Team and the way we come together as a team to support Open Sky’s goals,” Doug said. “The student experience is at the forefront of every decision we make. We work tirelessly all year long; always a step ahead of the changing seasons and evolving client and organizational needs.”
Operating any wilderness therapy program is complex. Open Sky is unique in that we have not only a base camp model but a dual base camp model, with operations in Colorado during the spring and summer, and in Utah during the fall and winter. Achieving the benefits and success of this model takes a great deal of foresight and careful planning. There are unique challenges to managing two base camps, but the experience and competence of each person on the Operations Team allow us to take on these challenges successfully.
The Four Corners Region is ideal for a wilderness therapy program because the weather is mild. It makes Open Sky’s location unique and is advantageous to the safety and goals of wilderness therapy. Though we can’t perfectly predict the elements, we actively anticipate and prepare for whatever may come our way. We do this through regular, mandatory trainings and in-services, risk management planning, and close relationships with gear and clothing vendors, public land managers, and local experts on our region. Our systems are very dialed in, thanks to Open Sky’s dozen+ years in operation and the extensive experience and expertise of our Field and Operations program leadership.
Open Sky has developed extensive and long-term relationships with several different vendors who understand our unique needs. These vendors are dedicated to supporting the work we do so that our students and staff have the proper gear for changing weather conditions. When we purchase gear, we work directly with the manufacturers or with local Durango retailers who have been in business for decades, with insight and expertise specific to our region and company needs. These gear experts walk us through the technical specifications of everything we purchase. For example, our team is trained on properly fitting students for hiking boots, as properly-fitted hiking boots are critical to daily programming.
We also work directly with reputable manufacturers to evaluate, select, and purchase quality gear. Though the manufacturers have their own standard testing processes, we also have our staff test much of the gear out in the field, to make sure it lives up to our expectations and requirements before we add it to our standard-issue gear package. We continuously evaluate what we use and test items that have the potential for being even better.
Our well-established relationships with manufacturers lead to quality innovations that benefit our students. For example, we worked directly with a manufacturer to actually customize a highly-durable and warm sleeping bag for our program. The sleeping bags we issue (one for summer and one for winter) are rated for much lower temperatures than the students will ever encounter in the respective season.
Student-issued jackets are considered “three-in-one”, meaning there is a puffy insulating layer, a rain shell, and the capability to combine the two. The boots we issue contain 200g Thinsulate™ insulation, are lightweight and come with orthotic insoles. The boots are waterproof and their rating exceeds any conditions we may encounter. In the winter, students also receive lightweight over-boots for muddy and wet conditions.
Members of the Operations Team routinely attend the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Denver. By attending the tradeshow, we can visit manufacturers, put our hands on the gear, and see what the latest and highest quality products are. It’s a way to know Open Sky is providing students the best-possible gear and clothing to meet their physical needs. By setting students up for success on a physical level, they are better positioned to dive into the emotional and behavioral work.
With the span of temperatures our students experience, layers are the solution to being cool enough when it’s warm and warm enough when it’s cool. According to the season, students are issued a combination of long underwear, fleece pants, nylon pants, rain pants, gloves, hats, and more. Each student has a sleeping pad and a personal tarp for inclement weather. With each item, the emphasis is on helping students understand the item’s function and how to utilize it properly. We put forth a great deal effort to teach and model for students to be aware of oneself and the elements, to not overdress or underdress, and to keep things dry and well-cared-for. Learning these skills builds self-reliance, which ultimately plays a role in a student’s overall growth while at Open Sky.
In recent years, Open Sky started an expansion project in our Utah base camp. We added additional permanent group sites, built new roads, installed a new cistern, surfaced trails with gravel to manage mud, constructed two massive firewood sheds for the 130 cords of firewood we purchase every year, and added canvas tents and kitchen shelters to every site.
In 2018, the Operations Team designed and constructed of a large pavilion where we hold our graduations, community meditations, and talent shows. And most recently, the Operations Team has continued the enhancement of Family Services experience by improving camp sites for the Family QuestTM intensives. Each site will now have a tipi structure to provide shelter and warmth in inclement weather.
The infrastructure at Open Sky enhances the wilderness therapy experience without taking away from the benefits of living in the outdoors. Everything we’ve added or improved at base camp is intended to meet the basic human needs of food, water, warmth, and shelter.
Every team site in Utah has:
The base camp model encourages students to step up and take pride in their group campsites and take care to keep everything organized and maintained. These are skills and attitudes they can apply to relationships in their teams and their lives beyond Open Sky.
By meeting the basic physical needs of our students, the stage is set for field guides and therapists to work on the higher-level needs of security, love and belonging, self-esteem, etc. The Operations Team literally builds the foundation for the real magic of wilderness therapy.