When a young student delicately placed a stone at the edge of the shallow creek, Matthew Merrill and Walter Orion knew they were on to something. Merrill and Orion, community-based mental health counselors working for Watsonville nonprofit Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, were in Nisene Marks State Park leading summertime wilderness therapy trips for students with behavioral problems. For these middle-school-aged boys, many of whom had never spent time in nature, the great outdoors presented a litany of challenges – bugs, spiders and any number of other unknowns.

Face to Face 01.24.19

During the school year, Walter Orion, left, and Matthew Merrill are school mental health counselors.

For one of the older boys, the greatest challenge arose when the hikers encountered a small creek. It was no deeper than 8 inches, but it was a barrier that proved overwhelming – that is, until Merrill laid a single stone down in the creek bed. Wordlessly, the other boys followed suit, and before they knew it had built a makeshift bridge.

For a group of pre-teens with behavioral issues, none of whom knew each other before starting the program, it was a milestone achievement – and exactly the kind of lesson Merrill and Orion were hoping to teach.

While Merrill and Orion spend the school year working with students in a structured, school-based environment, these summer excursions offer the chance to build meaningful relationships with their students and teach them valuable life lessons.

Weekly: What’s on the agenda for a summer of wilderness therapy?

Merrill: All sorts of activities: hiking in the redwoods, bird-watching in Elkhorn Slough, fishing from the beach. Next year, we want to take them to Big Sur. We try to give the kids the same sort of experiences that inspired us to get outdoors when we were younger.

What motivated you to do this?

Merrill: A lot of these kids haven’t gotten the chance to explore the area. I grew up in the forest around Santa Cruz, and I was always outside playing in the woods. Those experiences gave me a sense of freedom within a safely established boundary. I felt they should have the same – I’ve always thought that there’s no life lesson that doesn’t occur in nature.

What kind of life lessons?

Merrill: Trips into nature have taught me how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

Orion: Different dynamics play out in team-building scenarios – for example, when we had the kids build a shelter out of driftwood, we saw some of the kids who are usually more passive assert themselves as leaders. It gives them a chance to try on different roles that they might not have the chance to at home.

What are some challenges you face?

Merrill: Kids these days are growing up in a digitized world, and the boys are all into games likeFortnightGrand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. They’ll play with each other for hours every day – through headsets, in their own homes. Getting them away from virtual reality and into nature helps them bond in more traditional social structures.

How so?

Orion: We’re trying to teach these boys to be respectful men. Simple lessons like how to shake a hand, how to make eye contact, how to be respectful of women and how to work together in a team environment to overcome an obstacle – these are all lessons that we’re trying to impart on these kids. The forest might seem like a scary place because it’s unknown, but we’re trying to teach them the skills to deal with the unknown like adults.

Merrill: It’s difficult to quantify the benefits of wilderness therapy, but we see progress every time we’re out.

What’s one mark you want to leave on these kids?

Merrill: Nature is right here. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I want these kids to know that they can visit these places when they need a break from life.

Orion: I think everyone can benefit from a little more mindfulness.

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