WHY Pacia Life? Randy Oakley shares some history that led to the creation of Aspiro Wilderness Adventure, Vantage Point, Kairos, Momentum and Pure Life Adventures. This has been shortened for the sake of reader enjoyment. Longer versions with more details are available.
Founding Aspiro 2004 - 2013
My passion for founding Aspiro Wilderness Adventure started at age 14. I had earned my Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America and had chosen to participate in a leadership program of the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. The program was ten days long each summer in Osceola, Missouri. One of the rite of passages included a multi-day solo, being with my blood brother Danny Garcia, spending 24 hours in complete silence, giving service, and making agreements to serve Mother, God, Country and those younger and weaker. I had some simple but powerful experiences throughout the whole experience that stuck with me for years to come.
Many other teenage experiences that included running rivers, winter camp outs, back packing, etc. with my father, the boy scouts and completely on my own eventually led me to my first experiences bagging peaks in Estes/Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
In another experience as a 14-year-old, one of my spiritual leaders had shared with me that I would always want to serve others and help them solve their problems. It turns out that his prediction has always been true.
In 1984 through 1986, I also lived in France and Switzerland. The exposure to another culture, language and the Swiss Alps!
1987 - 1988
As the last trip in the Fall of 1988 was finished, I knew that one day I would one day create my own wilderness program.
In 1987, I took a job as a starving college student being a home parent in Sandy, Utah with twelve adjudicated youth. Eleven of my boys were from Las Vegas and one from Utah.
One expectation of my job was working with Ray Mendenhall in multiple 21-day wilderness survival expeditions. Each trip was in different locations from the High Uinta Mountains to the deserts in Escalante Utah. Ray was an old timer with a calm demeanor and the wisdom of someone who had spent a lot of time in the outdoors.
Each of the youth was given a choice to participate or not. However, they all opted in every time!
The 21 day experiences were highly effective and impactful. Even though I was an employee, the trips were also highly impactful on me as well.
I learned the power of making shelter, fire, collecting food all while taking care of each of our students in the process. And, more importantly, I learned how carefully crafted outdoor experiences could teach young adults things that can't be learned in a classroom or at home. Ray had a powerful way of teaching. But, he also had a powerful way of linking specific parts of the trip back to back in such a way that each experience built upon the other leading to powerful growth. While Ray taught us all the hard skills of shelters, fire and finding food, I also learned the wisdom of having a thumb drill as a backup!
"I also learned the wisdom of having a thumb drill as a backup!"
Maui , Hawaii 1989 - 1991
From 1989 to 1991, I was recruited by Dr. Lee Burham and Ross Olsen to work in Maui, Hawaii in a large work-study program called Youth Developmental Enterprises (YDE). YDE served thousands of young men and even though it is out of business due to the pineapple industry moving from Hawaii to the Philippines, there is still a huge Facebook following of men who constantly tell their stories and share their gratitude for the experience.
YDE had been around since 1964 but for whatever reasons, I was promoted into management four months after beginning my employment, and three months after that was promoted to Head Coordinator (COO position).
Upon occasion, some of our teenagers would struggle so I would take them on weekend outings where we would do everything from rappelling to busting a fire on the beach with no matches, spearfishing, to hiking through the rain forest in places that it felt no one had been before. Mostly, these outings were designed to build relationships, talk, and build self-efficacy with the hope that negative behavior would disappear.
I used the same principals that I had learned in college in various theories of recreation along with the self-efficacy, self-determination theory, and other principals I had learned from Ray Mendenhall in my limited wilderness survival experiences.
There is a lengthy story about why I switched from a nomadic wilderness model to an adventure therapy model, but the short version is the transformation began in Maui, Hawaii. (Just for the record, while an adventure model has more real-life transference of skills in today’s world, a true nomadic model produces deeper personal growth. But, that is an opinion for another day).
The three years in Hawaii were powerful in my personal growth development. Two of my life mentors, Ross Olsen and Doug McCluer were impactful in my life. And, my two oldest children, Sarah and Matt were born on Maui. But, it was time to return to Utah to finish school. It was also time, after a total of 4 ½ years of living with teenage boys, to have some sort of normal life.
From 1992 to 2005, I worked as the Program Director and educator in the non-profit world of the Utah Boys Ranch (today named West Ridge Academy).
During those 13 years, I spent an average of 90 nights a year in a sleeping bag. Eric Alred and I also got the school officially accredited and I was appointed principal for a few years. We fundraised like crazy, did landscaping as the campus kept growing, built a ropes course, sports fields, greenhouses, etc. The campus slowly grew from a 48 bed facility when I first arrived in January of 1992 to a 144 bed campus.
Over the years, I kept feeling like I needed to create my own outdoor program to help young adults. Something about my 14-year-old self, the experiences of 1988, etc. that kept telling me over and over that, I was to take on this project.
My first attempt was in 1995. It was called Camp Redrock. Brochures were printed and I was out trying to get it off the ground. Students were enrolled and payments were collected. But, I made a mistake. I thought my boss, Chris Buttars, was on board with having both girls groups and boys groups. At the time, he was opposed to girls being in the wilderness and shut it down.
In 1996, I had all the permissions to do Camp Redrock again with both girls and boys! A couple of months later, I was hit by lightning while hiking in the High Uinta Mountains. I lost interest and just focused on my own recovery.
In 2004, I created a full business plan. And, I had an investor by the name of Lenard Driggs. Lenard had been on the board of directors for West Ridge Academy for years and was largely responsible for helping John Stohlton, Brent Hardcastle, Dave Ward and myself build the cabins, bridge, fishing ponds and more in Hanna, Utah.
However, after I presented a work shop at an IECA conference in 2004. I was also pulled into a brain storming session that focused on "what a wilderness program might look like if you were designing it for your own kids." At the conclusion of the conversation, Ken Allen, the head of West Ridge asked me what resources I needed and to see my business plan.
Ken gave me some good reasons to not use Leonard Driggs as my investor.
In the early months of 2005, Ken Allen and Paul Watson formed a company called Proficio. Proficio is the same company that originally funded Ken Huey to start CALO in the Lake of the Ozark, Missouri. Proficio acted as a centralized service company and handled business stuff, accounting, taxes, etc. which let me focus on just building the program.
In hindsight, I would have stuck with Lenard as my investor.
On September 14th, 2005 our first female student arrived. A week later, a second female student joined her.
Dave Ward, who had worked with me for many years at West Ridge Academy, was instrumental in the foundational creation of Aspiro. If there is anyone person that co-founded Aspiro with me, it is Dave Ward. And, as a close 2nd, Justin Robinson.
"If there is anyone person that co-founded Aspiro with me, it is Dave Ward."
Our first guides were Cassandra and Ken Murdock. Cassandra is a CTRS and her husband Ken, was an avid outdoor enthusiast.
Very quickly, I was able to hire and train four guides that had all worked at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). One of the four guides, Mick Wolf, had also been an outdoor student of mine about ten years previous so we already had a strong bond and relationship that had come from outdoor expeditions in the High Uinta's and the deserts of Southern Utah. Mick’s adventure skill sets from NOLS were perfect for our model and needs. Mick and Jackie were essential guides in the early days.
A few months later, Bridger and Farrah Jensen joined our team. Bridger and Farrah both came with experience from their time of working together at Outback with Tim Thayne, Rick Meeves, and Shayne Gallagher! Bridger is an entrepreneur at heart, quality field guide who later became a therapist after leaving Aspiro. Farrah's degree in recreational therapy combined with her quiet healing power with young adults created a powerful team. Farrah took on a large role in student case management, parent updates, etc. while Bridger added to his field guide role by also doing additional staff training.
As we moved into January of 2006, Justin Robinson had joined the team as clinical director. Matt Eschler was teaching parent seminars. Ken Betts had been hired to run logistic's and base camp.
Because of our years of taking students from West Ridge Academy into the wilderness, we already had expeditions set up and well established. We used the same 33 acres in Hanna, Utah that I had been using for years. Some of our guides were very medically trained which also allowed us to work with students who had medical concerns, like diabetes.
By April 1st, 2006, we had a full set of guides in training. At this point, Dan LeMaire, another key person in developing Aspiro joined the team. Over the years in Aspiro and in Pacia Life, Dan was instrumental in developing systems, programs, giving leadership, and working with some of the toughest young adults. When Dan joined the Pacia Life team, he also helped take Pacia Life to a whole new level.
Later in 2006, Mike and Jodi Escalante also joined the Aspiro team as guides. They came with significant experience that included the Anasazi Foundation and Walk About. Mike also brought with him the trainings from The Arbinger Institute. Mike is one of the most inspirational, gifted, master teachers that I have ever rubbed shoulders with. When Mike became the Aspiro Program Director, the quality of our guides and soft skills training went up significantly.
While Dave, Bridger, Farrah, and Dan were foundational, I would have to say that it was the combination of Dan and Mike’s leadership in the field combined with Justin and Janet Robinson’s added vision that took Aspiro to a whole new level at that time.
Both Justin and Janet Robinson were extremely impactful every step of the way. Justin worked for me in Hawaii back in 1991. After Hawaii, he spent a couple of years living in Puerto Rico, earned his undergraduate degree in recreational therapy and went onto become an LCSW therapist. Justin and I worked together again at West Ridge Academy starting in 1994. Our long work together in the outdoors, residential boarding school, Hawaii, etc. made adding Justin and his wife Janet to our team seamless!
"I'll share more about Justin and Janet Robinson and their impactful leadership later when I share the history of Vantage Point, Daniels Academy, Momentum and Pure Life!
In July of 2006, about a year and half after the planning and work began for Aspiro,
Brian Church joined the Aspiro team to do outreach marketing. Josh Watson joined in November of 2006 as an admissions director which took a huge workload off of me as up to that point, I was wearing a lot of hats.
Obviously, over the months and years to follow, Aspiro, Vantage Point, Kairos, Momentum, Pure Life, Daniels Academy all developed and grew.
Around the same time that I started Aspiro, a good industry friend of mine, Dr. Tim Thayne started a company called Homeward Bound. At one point, Tim and his team were also doing the parent workshops for Aspiro as well. When Tim and I would talk about his work in Homeward Bound, I knew he saw a need and vision for something that was missing. The biggest missing link was simple - how do we get all of the work from wilderness therapy, rehabilitation, recovery centers, boarding schools, therapy, residential treatment centers and more to transfer back into real life?
Tim Thayne was working on a solution to the same questions I was already asking. Other programs like Vive were doing the same. I had been living the question from my own daughter, foster children, adult "strays" and my professional life. Pacia Life didn't start somewhere else. It started in our own home.
Below is a copy of the first site visit published in Struggling Teeens about Aspiro from an educational consultant, Judi Bessette and Linda Cain
Randy met Judi Bessette, Dana Doering, Dore Frances and others at a regional NATSAP conference in Bend Organ. Judi set up a site visit shortly thereafter.
Judith E. Bessette, EdD, Visit October 25, 2006
When I first read about Aspiro, a wilderness program that opened last spring in Utah near Park City, and read their description of the program as cutting-edge, I was skeptical. I thought, "Aren't they all cutting edge, new and different?" And, I thought, do we really need another wilderness program? But the more I read and the more I learned about the talent Aspiro had gathered together, the more I knew I needed to visit and see what it was all about, first-hand. Meeting Randy Oakley and his wife, Christina, at a regional NATSAP meeting just fueled my interest in visiting. Randy is the founder of the program and Christine wears two hats there. She's in charge of Business Operations but loves getting out with the kids in her role as a Lead Guide. In October, Linda Cain and I met Brian Church at Utah Olympic Park, built in Park City for the Winter Olympics in 2002. Brian is the Director of Business Development. It was a gorgeous, crisp, sunshine-filled day and the ride to Hanna, where Aspiro's base camp is located, was beautiful. As we came up to the top of a hill, the base camp came into view, set in front of an unusual formation of red rock. And, a river runs through it - a lovely stretch of the Duchesne. We sat down with Randy and watched an amazing video. It was amazing on several levels - not the least of which was the footage of various adventure activities including whitewater river rafting and canoeing, skiing, snowboarding, top-rope rock climbing, caving (in slot canyons, mind you) , mountain-biking, horseback riding and the like - but also because the video captured the sense of accomplishment of the students in the program. One of the hallmarks of Aspiro's program is taking kids to the highest of highs in their outdoor experiences and you could see the results of that approach. When we learned that this video was a creation of one of the students, it made it even more remarkable. We had the opportunity to meet Ken Betts, Program Director, Justin Robinson, the Director of Clinical Services as well as Farrah and Bridger Jensen, both Field Directors for Aspiro. Their combined years in the wilderness, working with troubled teens are impressive. I was struck by the fact that each of these individuals articulated the same mission and vision of the organization. Each talked about the importance of genuine relationships, of developing self-efficacy and about the true meaning of wilderness therapy versus offering therapy in the wilderness. Randy has dreamed of running a program like Aspiro - which means to achieve, aspire or infuse with spirit - since 1988. At an IECA Conference in 2004, Randy (who was then at West Ridge Academy) participated in a brainstorming session with other West Ridge staff focused on "what a wilderness program might look like if you were designing it for your own kids." At the conclusion of the conversation, Ken Allen, the head of West Ridge (and a strong financial backer of both programs) asked Randy to figure out what he needed to get the program off the ground…and Aspiro took its first students in April of 2006. While a number of their first students were kids having trouble at West Ridge, those students are no longer the majority of the students at Aspiro. In addition to taking referrals from educational consultants, Aspiro is also working with students from other residential facilities who have fallen off their track and need to refocus. Aspiro invites that school or facility to play an active role on the treatment team so when the student returns to the facility that sent him or her to Aspiro, every one is on the same page. Using a rolling admissions approach, appropriate candidates are males and females, ages 13-17, and young adults, ages 18 to 30 years of age, with a history of moderate emotional and behavioral problems, low self-esteem, academic underachievement, substance abuse and family conflict. On a consulting basis, Aspiro is served by Leroy Anderson, MD, a child/adolescent psychiatrist who has a quite a reputation in the canyoneering world. Matt Eschler, LMFT, provides parenting workshops and aftercare services as needed and Chris McRoberts, PhD supervises a team of psychologists who test kids out on the trail. We were impressed with the kids who visited with us just before leaving base camp for a several day trek in Moab. We talked with kids who'd been there for several weeks as well as one who had arrived only a few days earlier. They were complimentary about the staff - especially in regard to feeling respected and heard when they talked. They were excited about the trip and looking forward to the challenges ahead. One or two said the food could be better - but after all, they are teenagers! Aspiro really is new and different - and here are several reasons why. This relationship-based program treats kids with an uncommon degree of respect for who they are and the strengths they bring with them to base camp and out on the trail. A recent visitor who sat in on an intake interview likened the experience to watching a high school student transfer from one school to another. Aspiro uses a solution-focused therapy model combined with adventure therapy to build self-efficacy and discover new coping strategies for dealing with old issues. There are several credentialed recreation therapists on staff who are always looking for the accommodations that will allow every student to get the most out of the program. Aspiro looks for the best and the brightest in its staff - and is open to each and every staff member owning a piece of the program. This philosophy should create stability in the staff at all levels - not just at the top. And, Aspiro takes some other chances that set them apart. We learned about a seriously overweight kid who prospered there - and began loosing weight. We learned about their ability to handle kids with diabetes - a real challenge in the wild. We also learned that the admissions team has the ability to work with families who are stretched financially - an unusual circumstance for so new a program but yet another example of what makes Aspiro genuinely new, different and cutting-edge.