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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Troubled kids find confidence and connections in Forward Learning wilderness program
'I actually felt happy'

When Jessie Kushner and Troy Gosz are not trekking the Wisconsin wilderness or leading at-risk youth through the wilds of northern Minnesota, they take leisurely morning walks through Elmside Circle Park neighborhood with their beloved border collie Fly. The scene among neighbors here is like one ongoing family reunion. In the mix, Kushner and Gosz are the cool childless couple with the irresistible dog.

Kushner, a Madison native, and Gosz, who was born in Manitowoc, are the founders and directors of Forward Learning Youth & Young Adults, Madison's only wilderness program for at-risk teens and young adults. The program helps kids learn how to manage anger, improve their coping skills and build their self-esteem. The goal is to prevent them from becoming substance abusers, chronic offenders, truants and dropouts.

With 35 collective years of working with high-risk populations, Kushner and Gosz have settled in Madison after what Kushner calls years of being a "professional nomad."

Kushner, 41, was a Madison teenager when she went on a "life-changing" expedition with Outward Bound, an outdoors learning program that dates in the United States to the 1950s. It was a gift from her parents for her graduation from West High School.

"Jessie was born with a backpack on her back," says her mother, Dale Kushner, a Madison writer. "We had her wilderness camping at nine months. We might have guessed that the natural world would turn out to be both her classroom and her teacher."

Her daughter agrees, but says her program is "values-based" - much less about backpacking and more about boosting confidence and self-esteem. This is what she came away with at 17 after her first Outward Bound experience and why she returned to the program as a staff member at 20. It has been her passion and profession ever since.

"We prioritize building relationships with the students through an infusion of belief and hope," she says. "Once a relationship is there, we try to help people see who they really are. We do not fix people but rather empower them to learn how to manage who they are."

Students are often referred from local agencies, including the state Department of Corrections, Community Partnerships, Connections Counseling and Horizon High School. Forward Learning conducts 25-day expeditions that include 18 days of backpacking, a two-day solo experience, a one-day ropes course, two days of community service, a two-day family seminar and two follow-up visits. At their loft-style office on Madison's southeast side, Kushner and Gosz provide a place for ongoing care. Families can gather there to talk, and students can hang out, help with projects around the office or consult with staff about their struggles.

Throughout the expeditions, Forward Learning uses culturally relevant teaching methods; small-group learning environments; focused reflection and discussion; and restorative justice principles, which attempt to identify and repair old wounds.

Shyloh Nelson, 24, of Mineral Point works as a cook and waitress while studying nursing at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore. Three and half years ago she was a heroin addict, her recovery the subject of Waking Up Happy, a book by her grandmother, Jill Muehrcke, a Madison-based writer.

During Nelson's treatment at Madison's Connections Counseling, where she now works as a mentor, she was introduced to Kushner and Gosz through the center's founder, Shelly Dutch, who was considering a referral partnership with Forward Learning. Nelson signed up for the group's first expedition - seven days in the Boundary Waters - and emerged feeling that she could live without drugs. This summer Nelson returned to Forward Learning as an intern on its July expedition.

"For me, it was the entire thing, being out in the wilderness with people you don't know," says Nelson. "We had this group circle. Everyone went around and told their stories. I had never told mine to anyone before. I felt connected 100%...being out there changed everything."

The wilderness isolation is no small part of the experience.

"When you have 12 miles to hike in a day you get cranky, hungry, irritated with other people, but you still have to push forward, dig deep to make the destination," says Gosz, who joined Kushner at Outward Bound in 2008 after working in group homes for at-risk teens and helping build hiking trails for the California Conservation Corps. "You don't have any option, so you can't give up. At the end of the day, you've made it. And you learn to speak up when you have to and let other shit go because it doesn't matter."

Karley Carpenter attends Horizon, Wisconsin's only sober school. By 14, she had added heroin and crystal meth to a long list of experimental drugs. She eventually dropped out of West High School and landed in jail for grand theft auto. The court gave her a choice: continue inpatient rehab at Winnebago Mental Health Institute or attend Horizon, where Forward Learning conducted a five-day expedition this spring. She chose the latter, carving a new life path for herself.

"It was nice to get away and not sit in my stuff and have everyone tell me what I did wrong," says Carpenter. "I'd go out in the woods and be myself. I didn't have to pretend a lot of things and could just be out there. Jessie and Troy motivated me to stay sober. I actually felt happy.

"When things got hard we helped each other. There was less drama than I expected and more cooperation, even though we were sick of each other by the end of the week."

"Programs like FLYY empower students to be successful in an environment different than school," says Tracy Goll, director of Horizon. "It challenges them outside their comfort zone. It's really scary for kids to go out and do these expeditions. Afterward they have confidence to do things they never thought they could do. So back in the classroom, when they say they can't read that book or can't write that paper, we can remind them that they said they couldn't live in a tent for a week or pack a backpack or cook in the wild. When our students came back their performance improved."

The program costs $5,000, or $185 per day. Kushner says about half of the students are privately supported, while the rest are subsidized by nonprofit agencies and county funds.

Mitch Barron, an Oregon High School senior, joined Forward Learning grudgingly through Connections Counseling, where he continues to receive treatment for drug dependence.

Barron was looking to improve communication within his family and says the wilderness program helped him do just that. "I felt like a completely different person," he says. Barron says his relationship with his parents changed as well.

"FLYY gave me new techniques to deal with stress and anger at home," he says. "I feel bad that other kids won't have this opportunity."

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