Pacific Quest Takes an Innovative Approach to Wilderness Therapy

By Susan Morgan

Photos courtesy of Travis Slagle, Pacific Quest

Immersed in nature...Pacific Quest's Travis Slagle talks with a student along the waters' edge.

Immersed in nature…Pacific Quest’s Travis Slagle talks with a student along the waters’ edge.

Located on 13+ acres on the big island of Hawaii with 180-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, Pacific Quest is an outdoor behavioral healthcare program offering an alternative to wilderness and residential treatment for adolescents, ages 13 to 17, and young adults, ages 18 to 24. Its innovative treatment model combines best practices in humanistic and behavioral theory using horticultural experiential learning.

Pacific Quest stands apart

In contrast with traditional adventure based programs, Pacific Quest has embraced a neurodevelopmental treatment approach with its students. Horticultural therapy director Travis Slagle, M.A., believes the Hawaiian environment has the power to be more calming and restorative than those in areas with drastic temperature changes. “If you think about it…our ancestors thousands of years ago grew up being immersed in the experience of nature,” he says. “Today we’ve all but cut ourselves off from nature, and we’re seeing more mental illness…Through this model, we increase curiosity and help students create a healthier relationship with themselves and their environment.” (Watch Travis Slagle as he shares his perspective on the impact of the garden on those who come to PQ.)

Connecting with students through nature

In general, students arrive at Pacific Quest (PQ) with internalizing behaviors, experiencing depression, anxiety, computer addiction, bullying, and/or interpersonal conflict with family members and their peers. During the PQ experience, the students and their families are involved in the therapeutic process together. Parents attend an initial three day workshop and then communicate through writing letters and talking over phone and teleconferencing calls. Students stay for 60 to 80 days and are removed from their devices and technology. “We use nature and wellness as the foundation, and then build off that,” says Slagle. “The garden helps to lower students’ guard and works as a tool to give them safety, emotionally and physically.” Once they feel a sense of security, students become more receptive to change.

A student journals in the Nalu garden.

A student sits on the reflection rock and journals in the Nalu garden.

The objective is to help students learn to self-regulate and address the symptoms in the nervous system, then build a foundation for them to be more emotionally vulnerable and open to talking and relating to others. During their stay, students primarily eat local organic food and spend 12+ hours a day immersed in nature. As students move through the program, they transition through four phases of care: Nalu, Kuleana, Ohana, and Malama, names derived from the native Hawaiian language.

The Four Phases of the Pacific Quest experience – Nalu, Kuleana, Ohana, & Malama

Students begin in the Nalu phase and garden, which represents “reflection.” The focus is on developing basic self care and a sense of safety. As students begin to explore their environment, they’ll discover what plants need to survive – food, water, sunshine, protection (inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). They start to relate the self to the garden through metaphor and build awareness of their own needs.

Student Watering the Garden

A student tends to one of the gardens at Pacific Quest.

Kuleana – which means “responsibility” – is focused on productivity. PQ employs the use of permaculture and sustainable methods of farming in working with students. “Many of our students come from urban environments. They know what a pineapple is, but now they get to see how it grows. It wakes them up and shows them a different part of the world that they haven’t seen before.” Students begin to take on responsibility and challenge unhealthy ways of thinking through organized garden activities and journaling. Slagle recalled working with a student on a biofeedback exercise. The student was asked to take his vitals – blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate – and notes on a mood chart – recording activities he was doing before/after and thoughts and feelings at the time – six times a day. At the same time, he took the compost pile’s temperature and recorded what things had been added to or removed from the pile. Then they processed the results, noting the causes and effects that different things had on raising/lowering the compost pile’s temperature in correlation to things that affected his emotions. “This was a parallel process, so that he can make better, more informed decisions for himself by developing the habit of paying attention to internal and external experience.”

Students pose with Slagle and a crop of lettuce seedlings.

Cultivating a sense of community… students pose with Slagle and a crop of lettuce seedlings.

In Ohana – which means “family” – students are fully immersed in the community and take on key roles as part of the collective whole. Some are in charge of cooking, taking care of the compost, or serving as land managers, among other roles. Here, they have the opportunity to reflect upon their role within their community, both the natural environment and built environment/community.

In Malama – “to care” – “students move around to different gardens acting as mentors, focusing on contribution, working at the farmer’s market, and designing legacy projects to leave behind for others. Malama signifies a readiness to actively take on new responsibilities and commit to something greater than one’s self.”

Towards the end of their stay, the adolescent students visit the Nalu garden – their garden of origin – at sunrise. They see where they started as well as plant seeds and leave gifts of leis, plumeria flowers, and other objects for new incoming students. They don’t know who will see these gifts, which Slagle thinks is an important lesson. “That our personal problems are also the earth’s problems, and we must work together to find a solution. Pacific Quest challenges students to shift their perspective from the need for instant gratification to a sense of belonging to a larger community. We teach them to grow plants for the greater community and that it’s not all about them.”

See the Pacific Quest gardens in use by students and staff. To watch more videos about Pacific Quest, its programs, and people, visit their video gallery here.