Wilderness Expeditions 2011 – 2016

FLYY Cofounders Jessie Kushner & Troy Gosz

FLYY’s co-founders, Jessie Kushner and Troy Gosz, developed the vision for the program from decades of work with high-risk teens in wilderness settings around the U.S. From this work, three problems became apparent: the teens and young adults that most needed the programs aimed at helping them were unable to afford it; many of these programs failed to focus on the entire family system; and, once the program ended, there was no aftercare to support the teen or young adult transitioning back to their home environment. Specifically designed to counter each of these programmatic shortcomings, FLYY’s model combined a wilderness expedition, parent skills development and support groups, and community-based aftercare. And although FLYY’s approach to working with teens, young adults, and families was unique, it did not assume to be a “cure”. Jessie and Troy were able turn FLYY into a leading catalyst and resource for teens, young adults, and families to transform their outlook, develop coping skills, and build resilience.

What did the program involve?

Running year-round for six years, FLYY ran a nationally-distinctive experiential program. The elements included a lengthy wilderness expedition, parent skill development and support groups, and critical post-expedition aftercare. FLYY’s experiential approach to education used hands-on and culturally relevant teaching methods, small group learning environments, and time for focused reflection and discussion.

A FLYY wilderness expedition was often a rite of passage for both young women and young men…a challenging opportunity to push one’s mental, physical, and emotional limits. And, like much of FLYY’s current programming, the wilderness expedition curriculum centered on restorative justice principles and practices, and specialized in working with at-risk and susceptible teens (14-18 years old) and young adults (18-30 years old.)

FLYY conducted 25-day backpacking expeditions in the spring, summer, and fall seasons, and 14-day snowshoeing expeditions in the winter. The 25-day backpacking expeditions included: an 18-day backpacking expedition, a two-day solo experience, a ropes course day, two days of community service, two parent skill development and support groups, and a two-day family seminar. 14-day winter expeditions included: a snowshoeing expedition, one parent skill development and support group, and a one-day family seminar. Winter expeditions provided a more intimate learning environment with smaller staff-to-student ratios.

Who did it serve?

FLYY specialized in dynamic wilderness expeditions, parent skill development and support groups, and community-based aftercare for teens, young adults and families. People that benefited the most were typically experiencing one or more of the following issues:

  • Academic (including truancy, suspension, or expulsion)
  • Resistance to authority
  • Anxiety
  • Identity
  • Lack of motivation/apathy
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Self-harm
  • Susceptibility to negative peer pressure
  • Poor decision making skills
  • Repeated failures
  • Argumentative/anger management
  • Substance experimentation and/or abuse
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Trouble maintaining healthy relationships
  • Unstable family environments
  • Loss of hope and meaning in their lives
  • Survivors of trauma/abuse
  • Adoption/attachment
  • Legal problems and/or a variety of other high-risk behaviors
  • Various other mental health diagnosis

What were the goals?

FLYY’s baseline goals were to prevent young people from becoming chronic offenders, substance abusers, truants, and/or dropouts. Other key goals involved FLYY students developing values and skills that enabled them to: reflect on their lives, understand how their actions positively and negatively impacted others, resolve conflicts, communicate more effectively, cope with stress and failure, and make decisions that minimize harmful effects on both themselves and others. This was all possible with the significant mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical shifts that occurred while on expedition. Of critical importance was transference–taking the lessons learned on expedition and applying them back home. Post-expedition, FLYY graduates were reminded that the learnings, challenges, and successes were theirs to draw upon for the rest of their lives.

FLYY aimed to impact youth and families in three ways:

  • The development of young people with regard to pro-social behaviors and
  • Capacity building of parents/guardians related to healthy communication, expectations, and role modeling.
  • Strengthening family systems that are under duress and improve their ability to navigate difficulties.

What outcomes did it have?

For hundreds of youth and families, FLYY offered a way to discover resiliency and worth. While immersed in a safe, supportive, inclusive, yet unfamiliar learning environment, FLYY students gained a more accurate sense of themselves, what they were capable of in life, and a deepened curiosity for the world around them.

The long-term outcomes of FLYY’s work were for its students to be more positively engaged in self, family, school, work, and community. FLYY programming contributed towards the manifestation of long-term outcomes by focusing on achievement of shorter and medium-term outcomes such as improved: self-efficacy, critical thinking, mature behavior, and communication skills.

Specific short-term outcomes included: increased self-confidence and sense of worth, ability to articulate personal values, increased motivation and caring, decreased apathy, decreased impulsive behavior, realistic understanding of self and potential, able to set and achieve realistic goals, and able to work effectively on a team.

Specific medium-term outcomes included: awareness of how behavior impacts others, respect for the needs of others, improved anger management, valuing others’ perspectives, open to feedback, increased empathy; and, able to: follow instructions, meet expectations, be autonomous, solve problems effectively, act without reacting, handle conflict more collaboratively, and vocalize personal needs.

Overall the impact FLYY created is evidenced by young people who have: improved relationships with self, family and others, increased school attendance, decreased conflict and police intervention, decreased substance abuse, and the drive to embody the FLYY values of community, patience and coping skills, personal responsibility, new perspectives, and perseverance. It is through these changes that young people move towards becoming actively engaged citizens, leaders, and forces for good in the places they inhabit.

Was it cost effective?

Yes. Prevention and intervention programming like FLYY’s not only yielded more robust and sustainable outcomes, it was more cost-effective when compared with related programming for high-risk youth.

For example:

  • The per youth cost in a Wisconsin Juvenile Residential Treatment Center is $10,000 to $30,000/month or $333-$1,000/day.
  • Similar wilderness programs per youth are $10,270 to $18,070/month or up to $695/day.
  • Wisconsin Juvenile incarceration can cost the State $9,000/month or $300/day per youth.
  • Wisconsin Juvenile Detention Centers are $8,525/month or $275/day per youth.

In comparison, the cost of a FLYY expedition was $300/day per youth for 25 days of programming, or $7,500/25-day expedition.

(Figures are from 2015 Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and Wisconsin Department of Corrections.)

What did the stakeholders have to say?

In December of 2014, a group of undergraduates at the School of Human Ecology at University of Wisconsin at Madison concluded a two-month project to produce data and analysis of what stakeholders are seeing and saying about FLYY’s multi-faceted wilderness expedition program.

The following are qualitative highlights of data collected from referring agencies, and FLYY parent and student alumni.

Referring Agencies: Thirty agencies, including schools, county judicial and social service programs, nonprofit social service organizations, and private counseling centers.

  • 100% of referring agencies surveyed said that they would recommend FLYY and that their expectations for their referrals were met by the program.

FLYY Families:

  • Parents described FLYY staff as “excellent, committed and insightful” and “available any time, should they need assistance or support.”
  • 100% of parents reported that they trusted FLYY staff to help them in the future, and they would recommend FLYY to other families.
  • 100% of parents reported trends of decreased destructive behavior from their teen, and an increased use of FLYY’s core skills back home.

FLYY Students:

  • 100% of students reported a boost in self-confidence after completing the expedition.
  • 86% of students stated that they felt “much more confident” after FLYY.
  • 71% stated that they use the skills “often” that they learned on expedition.
  • The majority of students responded that “FLYY was more than worth it,” and that although they resisted at first, “they were grateful at the end of it all.”

Testimonials from the Wilderness Program:

“I love working with the FLYY staff, they are down to earth people that are extremely passionate about helping the people they work with.  The kids that I have helped send on the expeditions have come back changed in a way I did not think possible.  FLYY is an amazing program that I believe all kids can benefit from.” 
~Sarah Thomaschefsky, Assistant Division Director of Education & Culture for the Forest County Potawatomi

“I have had the honor to work with the staff at FLYY and they are amazing. Their vision is pure and one that is both inclusive and inviting. Their staff is not only professional, but have the training, experience and understanding to change the lives of those they serve.” 
~Retired, U.S. Marine and direct descendent of the Stockbridge Munsee, Band of Mohicans

“I appreciate the favorable continuous partnership FLYY brings to our meaningfully Native American population.  Far past the expeditions our school is able to positively collaborate to not only benefit the FLYY attendees but the larger community through our FLYY club.  Lessons learned while at FLYY enhance the 21st century skills to prepare young people for career, college, or community in an appropriate fashion.” 
~Theodore D. Kryder Ed.D. District Administrator, School District of Crandon

“FLYY has helped my family and I in so many ways. My family and I communicate way better, I gained trust back in my parents, and now everybody in my family including me are happier. If I didn’t go to FLYY, then I don’t think anything would have gotten better.” 
~ 15 year-old Ho-Chunk Nation female

“FLYY had a positive impact on me because everything I learned I was able to take and use in the real world and make better decisions for myself. I learned how to control my anger better and solve problems without using violence. I also learned to have confidence in myself.” 
~ 17 year old Potawatomi/Pawnee male

 “We appreciated that staff took time and got to know and understand our teen. Since he’s been home, he is more effective at managing his anger. He communicates more assertively and is still much more pleasant to be around.” 
~Parent of a 16 year-old male

“Your facilitation was terrific. It allowed us both to feel like we could get our point across and be heard. I was thrilled that we were able to get at some of the root issues for our family – and to hear those things that we were taking on that we could let go of. “ 
~Parent of a 17 year-old male

 “I learned to be more open to everything I encounter and that I am always part of something larger than myself. I learned about the importance of compassion for others.”
~28 year-old male

“This program works; it changed my life forever and I will always be thankful for my experience and this opportunity.”
FLYY participant

“Their commitment, organizational and communication skills, as well as the calmness they portray, are all so helpful to the teens and parents. In addition, they are patient and accepting and open with all parties involved. They have an incredible ability to reach into an issue and pull out the important points that are often buried way inside, and to keep people on track and focused on the real issues while avoiding defensiveness.”
Parent of FLYY student

“I was very impressed by the dedication of the FLYY staff. Our plan to take part in a FLYY expedition came together rather quickly and FLYY staff was patient and helpful as we rushed to meet the deadlines. The expedition itself was a very empowering experience.  I would definitely recommend a FLYY expedition for any youth who are struggling.”
~Ho-Chunk Nation Child and Family Services

“FLYY is a wonderful program designed to help out youth that need direction and guidance. The staff of FLYY are extremely passionate on helping different youth get into their program. They have gone above and beyond any other program that I have worked with in the past. I look forward to working with FLYY again in the future.” 
~Sokaogon Chippewa Community Services

Wilderness Program Videos: