Troubled Teens Endure Wilderness Therapy

ByABC News
May 21, 2002, 5:48 PM

Aug. 15 -- 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.