Dan and Hilary Saracino had watched anxiously as their "delightful" young son Mario — whom they called "Mr. Sunshine" — grew into a street-hardened, macho teenager with drug and alcohol problems.
Despite being therapists themselves, the Saracinos felt helpless when it came to helping their 17-year-old son clean up his act, get along with his classmates, and chip away at the coat of anger that seemed to consume him.
"We had reached a point where we didn't feel like we could do anything for him," said Hilary. "He was out of control and he needed help — and we couldn't give it to him."
Fearful and desperate, Mario's parents turned to "outdoor behavioral health" in a last-ditch effort to turn their child around. Very early one morning last August, he was taken from his bed and escorted to the Catherine Freer Wilderness Trek Program in Albany, Ore.
"When I looked at him walking out the door, I was seeing him being busted, being arrested," said Hilary. "And then there was another side of me that said: 'No, these are angels that are taking him to figure this out, to get me my son back.'"
Mario was forced to embark on a 21-day wilderness therapy program, along with five other troubled teens and four counselors, an experience that would be the first step in helping him get clean, back on his feet, and communicating with his family.
In recent years, such programs have multiplied. Though the teens are supplied with food, water, a sleeping bag and other camping gear, the trek is still a demanding mental and physical test — because if they don't deal with their problems and change their ways, the consequences could be severe. For some of them, it may be their last chance to turn their lives around.
"Saving his life is basically what I was doing," said Diane Roberts, who sent her 15-year-old son Kyle to the same program as Mario. "I will do whatever it takes… I just hope he will."
Breaking Down the Pain
After a meeting with all the teens and their families together, the teens' trek begins with a strip search to make sure none of them have any drugs or weapons. They are then loaded into a van for a four-hour drive to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of southwestern Oregon.
After a 45-minute hike in darkness, they finally make their first camp. Flashlights and shoes are collected, just in case anyone has thoughts of running away.
For the next 21 days, the kids wake at 7 a.m., make their own breakfast and pack their own gear.
In blistering temperatures, the six teens and four counselors hike in single-file through the wilderness, often without any talking. Carrying 65-pound packs on their backs, they are expected to keep pace. Water breaks are taken only at scheduled intervals — no exceptions.
But as they climb steep trails through rugged terrain, the goal of the program is for them to also navigate a landscape of self-awareness, breaking down some of their hurt and exposing their secrets.
"Part of the way our program is set up is that the physical tiredness helps to break down defenses that kids have," says Paul Smith, program director at Catherine Freer.
At night, in group therapy, the teens share what brought them to the brink.
"So much s--t has happened in my family," says Melissa Heckman, a 15-year-old from an affluent San Diego suburb. "My mom wasn't there. My family isn't touchy-feely. You be strong… and just bear through what needs to be done."
Just that day, Heckman says she had considered suicide: "I'm going to die anyways, so why drag this hell out? There's nothing good about life."
Until she deals with her pain, says Rob Cooley, the founder and executive director of the program, "she's always a risk for suicide."
After weeks of long hikes, silence, sweat and therapy, Melissa appeared to show signs of improvement. "I can't bulls--t out here," she says. "I'm able to bulls--t my therapist back at home."
Mario's anger, however, remained on full display throughout the trip. Rather than letting his guard down and confronting his feelings, he told tales of his drug dealing in an attempt to impress his peers.
Then, as the trek drew to a close, the staff dropped a bomb on him: His parents wanted him placed in a residential treatment program. Only then did he express the feelings that fuel his anger.
"I don't like being thrown into a path and being told 'This is what you have to do!'" he said. "I should be able to see what I want to be able to see out of life. If that means that I'm a heroin addict and I die, that's what I see."
For Mario, it is a control issue: "I see what happened to people that parents take control of their lives. They end up doing exactly what they want them to do the rest of their lives."
The Journey Ahead
The climax of the three-week journey for most participants is the "solo" — three days and three nights of complete isolation and intense introspection, a chance for them to understand that they are truly alone with their problems, and that only they can help themselves.
After 42 miles of traversing canyons, ridges, rivers and hills, there were changes in most of the kids — they began to address the underlying issues that brought them to this crossroads in their lives.
Melissa, for example, looked at the true costs of her drug use, as well as the reasons she started using them in the first place. It was only the beginning of a much longer journey.
After an additional eight-day trek, even Mario's demeanor had softened.
"I just want to apologize for the disrespect, pain, lies and suffering that I put on you," he told his mother. "Sorry I haven't shown you the love and care you deserve as a loving and caring mother… I hope you accept my apology so we can start a more stronger and honest relationship."
For the first time in a long time, Mario and his parents began to communicate.
But the wilderness program is not a miracle cure, says program director Paul Smith: "Most of these things develop over time and they take time to resolve. It's not going to be instant."
The $8,000 program offers follow-up treatment to capitalize on the strides the kids made in the wilderness. The program is accredited as residential treatment, meaning that insurance can cover up to 75 percent of the cost.
One Year On
A year after they came back from the wilderness, the three teens Primetime followed are all drug- and alcohol-free. Mario had a relapse six weeks after the trek and spent three months in rehab, but now he is in a transitional home and has a computer job he loves. His mother Hilary says she finally has her son back.
Kyle spent nine months in a transitional home in Montana, and is now back home with his mother in San Diego. He is drug- and alcohol-free and has grown four inches.
Melissa went to an all-girl group home near Eugene, Ore., and now enjoys singing in a choir.
This story originally aired on Primetime on May 23, 2002.