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Nonprofit intervention program in Arizona seeks to lift troubled youths

Editor’s Note: Morgan Jones was introduced to Anasazi when a family member participated in the program at the beginning of this year.

Since 1988, about 3,200 people have participated in a nonprofit intervention program run by the Anasazi Foundation.

The program consists of small groups of young people and a 24-hour staff hiking in the high desert of Arizona for a minimum of 49 days. They sleep on the ground, carry 45-pound packs and eat a diet consisting primarily of rice and lentils.

“I had the Anasazi experience five years ago,” said Madison Havorka Steadman. “Not one day goes by that I don’t think about those marvelous six weeks and how it changed me. Anasazi helped me because it took me to a positive surrounding where there were no temptations or lies that the world gives. I was able to find my potential, who I really was and what I was capable of, without distractions.”

The Anasazi Foundation is based in Mesa, Arizona. The program works with individuals ages 12-25 who struggle with substance abuse and emotional and behavioral problems. On Aug. 17, the Zermatt Utah Learning Center in Midway, Utah, parterned with Anasazi and began one of three weeklong training retreats for parents focused on Anasazi's principles of "positive intervention."

The camp itself is based on Native American principles and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Participants awake when the sun comes up, retire when the sun goes down, eat a balanced diet and walk for exercise. Both participants and their parents meet with a therapist as part of their treatment.

Parents also participate in a two-day seminar at the beginning of the program and return for a three-day family camp, where they reunite with their children and join them on the trail for two nights.

“When they start thinking about gratitude toward parents and all that they had at home and the care that people have for them ... they realize, ‘The quality of my life, whether I’m happy or miserable, depends on the way in which I walk in behalf of the people around me,'" said Anasazi CEO Michael Merchant. "'I can walk toward my people or away from them.’”

This form of therapy can be expensive, with an admission fee of $895 and a daily rate of $395 for youth ages 12-17. Because Anasazi is a licensed and accredited level II behavioral healthcare provider, insurance may apply. Additionally, the program offers financial aid.

Over the years, the tactics of some wilderness therapy programs have come under scrutiny. In 1995, journalist Paige Bierma wrote an article for Vibe magazine about deaths that had occurred due to harsh treatment and neglect during wilderness therapy camps, including the death of 16-year-old Aaron Bacon, who died in 1994 in a program run by the now-closed North Star Expeditions.

Recently writing for HealthDay, Bierma mentioned the Anasazi Foundation as being opposed to force and "outspoken against the 'military mentality' of many boot camps."

According to Merchant, "Anasazi has never had that approach” and instead focuses on positive psychology. There is no marching in the middle of the night, and food in not withheld.

“It’s always been very loving and very nurturing," Merchant said. "... The wilderness isn’t a place to break kids down, but it’s a safe place for kids to grow and find their greatness."

The Anasazi Foundation was co-founded by Larry Olsen and Ezekial Sanchez. While in school at Brigham Young University in the late 1960s, Olsen asked if he could teach an outdoor survival class in an effort to pay for his college expenses and support his young family. The school’s administration, according to Merchant, gave him permission to teach the course if he could fill the class. Olsen filled two classes and eventually began taking students on weekend trips to practice the skills they learned in the classroom.

According to Merchant, Olsen formed a relationship with the BYU administration and began taking students who had been dismissed from BYU on the wilderness trips. One such student was Sanchez, who was from Mexico and of Totonac heritage.

Sanchez attended BYU on an art scholarship. While he did well in his art classes, he struggled in other courses, leading to his dismissal. He returned to his home in Nevada, where he received a letter from Olsen inviting him on a wilderness trip, according to Merchant.

Sanchez hitchhiked back to BYU and was one of 26 students to participate in the 30-day survival course. Olsen found an assistant in Sanchez.

Years later, Olsen felt drawn to begin a new program in the Arizona high desert. He requested the help of Sanchez, who was then serving as director of teaching at the Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo, Utah.

Anasazi became the first organization of its kind to be licensed by the state of Arizona as a behavioral health care provider and the first to receive national accreditation, Merchant said.

Since participating in Anasazi in 2010, Steadman has served an LDS Church mission in Kennewick, Washington, and now lives with her husband, Derek, in Springville, Utah.

Although the founders of the camp are members of the LDS Church, the camp is not affiliated with any particular religion. It does, however, encourage youths, regardless of their chosen faith, to build a relationship with their creator.

“I never felt closer to my creator,” Steadman said. “I felt him with me the entire time. No matter what addictions or trials you might have, you can overcome them with the Savior’s help. I will forever be grateful.”