By: Christina J. Johns
I have long been a believer in animal therapy and the importance of the human/animal bond. Animal therapy, the use of animals to develop emotional skills in humans, can promote empathy, discipline, self awareness, and heightened perception.
At the Liberty Wilderness Crossroads Camp in Liberty County (a camp designed to hold delinquent boys between the ages of 14 and 18) animal therapy is an active part of the program..
I sat with nine campers at the Camp earlier this fall underneath a large oak tree on log benches they had made themselves. I asked about the animal therapy.
"You can tell the dogs you love them," one camper said "but they aren't going to believe you. You have to prove it to them. You have to take care of them. You have to hug them, talk to them, get them toys and teach them how to play games with you."
"You have to have patience," another camper added "a lot of patience. You can't lose your temper and frighten the dog."
"You have to treat him like you would a little baby," another said.
One camper, who considers himself the snake killer of the group said: "Learning how to raise a dog teaches you responsibility. If you were to have a kid, it teaches you how to take care of a kid. It teaches you how to be patient, teaching the dog one step at a time. You teach him the small things and move on up to the biggest things. That's when you have an understanding."
"I'm planning on having 1,000 kids," chimes in a small blond camper who is already closely attached to one of the dogs, Gypsy. "And I'm planning on training those jokers."
"The man," notes another camper wisely "has to be the dog's best friend."
These are basically good kids. Some of them are spending as much as four years under some kind of supervision because of less than an hour's reckless teenage behavior. And they could be in a facility that drives them deeper into criminality rather than one that tries to pull them out of that downward spiral like the Camp.
The animal therapy is obviously an important part of the program, but changes in individual campers come from the integrated and holistic approach of the camp.
"What we've noticed," says Edwin Birch, the Clinical Services Director, "is that after a while here the boys calm down. They're more considerate of each other. The longer they're here, the fewer and fewer episodes of bickering and picking on each other we see. And, some of them have become observers of their own behavior for the first time. Having us give them feedback on their behavior makes them start to notice that they have certain habits they might want to change. They don't always avoid temptations, but they are at least aware now of their own behavior."
Birch also notes that for the first time in their academic careers, some of the campers start to experience success. "They would still rather be outside doing hands-on things," says Birch "but for the first time they're starting to make A's at least in some subjects."
"And each one of them has started to care about himself more - his appearance and his future. They've never given much thought to the future, but now they've began to talk about careers and what they're going to do in life."
Birch has witnessed first-hand the success Wilderness Camps can bring about. He knew a boy who went through a Wilderness Camp in Ponce de Leon, Florida. "I know what he was like before he went there," says Birch. "He just went through a fundamental change."
"I know these camps work because I've seen them work," he adds.
"I used to teach physics," says Donnie Read, director of the camp, sitting in my office recently, "and it's like the butterfly effect. The butterfly flaps his wings in China and the rippling effect causes storms in the Atlantic. You never know the one thing you might say that would turn a child around, or what effect he might have on the people he's around or that he influences. If you really break it down, that's how we all affect each other."
The Liberty Wilderness Crossroads Camp is not about warehousing juveniles. It is about giving them a second chance and hopefully, changing their lives.