Teens experience foreign service work as part of treatment

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By Alecia Ormsby/for Montana Living

One way to find out what is within us is to go abroad.

For teenagers who have mental health and substance abuse disorders, Montana's Turning Winds Residential Treatment Center incorporates international service experiences into the teens' treatment process.   

Last fall, clients of Turning Winds traveled with Carl Baisden of Turning Winds, and three other staff to a remote village in Guatemala, where they shared culture with local residents. The teens from the Montana treatment center participated in clean-up activities, built a new water station at a village, created pottery, and were immersed in a totally new culture.

“The primary purpose of the international trips is to put together meaningful opportunities for the kids to get outside of themselves and give to other people,” Baisden said.

The trip was designed to encourage the Turning Winds students to feel like they were Guatemalan for a few days. “Our kids were eating the food our hosts ate and experienced the lives they lived. We believe the actual cultural immersion is super important for our teenage clients," Baisden said.

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The trip to Guatemala was Turning Winds’ 10th international service trip. The initial trip six years ago was deemed an immediate success, so approximately two per year have taken place except for during the Covid-19 pandemic. Turning Winds has taken clients to Peru, Panama, Thailand, Greece and Ghana. The next trip is planned for May 2023, to Morocco, during Mental Health Awareness Month. 

The service trip to Guatemala helped students to see the advantages of living in the United States, and their comparatively luxurious lifestyle while also coming full circle in their treatment process by now being able to give back in a meaningful way. 

“For me personally, the most impactful moment was just seeing the way locals lived. We always complain about how we struggle,” one student said. “Then when we landed in Guatemala, it was a slap in the face. They had military police in the airport and all the fences were topped with razor wire.”

Upon arrival in Guatemala, the group took a bus to a Mayan village that had never hosted anyone from outside their immediate community. 

“While driving through the city we saw how crowded and dirty the city was. The air had a funk to it, and you couldn’t fully breathe,” the student said. 

When they reached the town, the group was greeted by 30 mostly elementary school-aged children, as well as over 100 adults. 

“The teachers and children didn’t know how to feel about us as there was certainly much hesitation from the villagers to engage with our group,”  Baisden said, adding that there was a tangible cultural barrier. “The local kids were fascinated by us, and some were a little intimidated. We were, after all, completely foreign to them. They had never seen anything like us in their lives.

“Thankfully the amazing kids were up to the task. Over the next couple of hours, I watched the fear and anxiety melt away as they engaged with each other and played silly but fun games like red light, green light, and duck, duck, goose.”

Baisden said that the local school teachers indicated that they had never seen the children so light and playful.

Another student addressed the impact of the trip. “Getting the chance to work with kids for an entire week was a really amazing experience but the really great part was seeing how happy they were. It was really cool to see how much they really wanted to help us. A really good example of that is when the kids would come over while we were picking up trash from the ground and they’d ask to play. We’d tell them we couldn’t until we were done and so they’d help us. With so little they had they were so happy, and that really impacted me.”

Turning Winds partners with Global Brigades to organize the trips. “We told them we are looking for remote villages, we don’t want to be in cities, we want to be in places with authentic culture, with a real community,” Baisden said. Global Brigades provides a driver, translator, security, and medical professionals. 

The most powerful aspect of service work is the ability to expose Turning Winds clients to the life experience of people in foreign cultures.

“A goal of the trip is to get outside of ourselves and experience native parts of the world in an authentic way, to provide meaningful service and connect with people to accomplish a common goal," Baisden said. "We want to see and feel how other people live and experience life. We want to learn how others from different parts of the world deal with their challenges.”

Both groups learned from each other on the Guatemalan trip. Baisden heard through translators that the visit had an impact on the adults in the Mayan village. In that local culture, adults typically don’t play with their children. After watching the teen and adult visitors play with their children, some of them began to look at their traditions in a different light.

“In our experience, we have discovered a common thread with humanity and that is that human connection is the most important thing we have and by far the most impactful experience that we walk away from,” Baisden said. “It was the most powerful service trip I have ever done. In the end, we had a hard time leaving. We had kids crying. That bus ride back on the last day was very silent.”

Turning Winds always scouts out the area in advance and in person for safety reasons. The planning of the trips is completed well in advance to ensure that all potential issues are addressed.

Founded in 2002, Turning Winds provides mental health treatment for teenagers along with a supportive academic experience.

Turning Winds is accredited by The Joint Commission, Cognia, The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and is a TRICARE provider. For more information, visit Turningwinds.com.

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