Eva Carlston Academy
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A Therapist’s Favorite Memories of Working at Eva Carlston

By Jessi Wacker

I came to Eva Carlston Academy after working for several  years in wilderness therapy. I was ready for a new challenge, a change, and some protection from the elements.  I was eager for the experience of working with families and adolescents longer-term. I wanted to delve into the deeper work that was only afforded a surface-scratch during their relatively short stay in the woods.

I knew I would be pushed.  I knew I’d experience self-doubt.  I knew I had a lot to learn. And, like most challenges we predict in anticipation of a change, there was nothing quite like jumping into the deep end to illuminate just how much I had to learn.  This learning and sharp nudge out of my comfort space denotes my first favorite reflection of my time at Eva Carlston. A “favorite” because I developed professional and interpersonal skills I’d have likely missed by closing the door to challenge.  The girls have been my teachers. I have learned something new from each and every one of them. I have found courage to ask for help and, in so doing, learned that a request for guidance is revered while hiding embarrassment behind a mask of faux capability is lonely and, frankly, silly. 

I have loved the team at Eva Carlston.  Our dynamic team is comprised of staff from the Milieu (fancy French-speak for the social environment), teachers from the Academic department, therapists from the Clinical department and the Directors.  We are a powerful, effective, thoughtful, talented, authentic group of individuals.  The majority of those on the team are women, which provides incredible modeling for girls who have ready access to a large population of people who are genuinely invested in their growth and well-being.  This team is filled with strong men and women who model healthy boundaries, assertiveness and strength each and every day. Thus, another “favorite”.

Being surrounded by teenage girls is a delightful, hilarious, mind-boggling and, at times, maddening experience – one I would not change for the world.  The chirping sounds of the girls as they arrive from their morning workout is a near-constant throughout the day. It is priceless and endearing. I often find myself spontaneously smiling alone in my office as I hear them laughing, talking, debating and preparing group presentations in the classroom just outside my door.  I love wandering into an art class to find music playing as the girls sing along while implementing some new artistic skill. Just last week, I came into a class to find them creating perspective drawings. I inquired about a couple of the girls’ pieces, as others started flagging me over to share their work. They are not permitted to ‘bash’ their work and are instead asked to press up against their comfort zone to confront their perceived limitations.  Removing the option to criticize their work or offer disclaimers (i.e. “I’m not really good at this….this isn’t my best work…”) invites them to sit in with and tolerate the vulnerability inherent to sharing their creation. It also invites others to offer responses unencumbered by the artist’s perspective being involuntarily thrust upon the viewer.   

Back to the chirping chatter of the girls,  I love this sound because it is reflective of them being kids.  Too many of our girls have lived lives far beyond their years and have missed the silliness and carefree nature that is so critical to childhood and adolescence.  Their laughter tells me they are letting go in a healthy, free way. Their letting go tells me they are building more of a relationship with themselves, which allows them to build relationships with each other.  Our girls come to treatment with an often oppressive sadness due to life experiences out of their control. Many of them have had to be responsible for others because a parent, for example, was incapable of being responsible for them.  The opportunity for these girls to be kids is priceless.   

I am very fond of the family-style atmosphere of the homes at Eva Carlston.  In this setting, they learn to be responsible for themselves and their personal possessions.  They learn that one person’s literal or metaphorical mess or tidiness impacts the entire house.  They learn to meal plan, shop and prep; and they take such pride in the meals they plan and prepare!  I love the cozy scene of a roast in the Crock-pot while the sun goes down at the end of the school day and the girls bustle about with their chores, showers or setting the table for dinner.  Dinner is the time of day when the busy-ness slows down in favor of a family meal of hearty, healthy, whole foods and lively conversation. I don’t know that the girls stop to reflect on the sweetness of these moments as I do, but I think the reflection matters less than the experience they are having of tradition, safety, comfort, stability and predictability.  

Every year, all students take three trips around the state.  These are true family road-trip vacations and they are awesome.  They are replete with movies in the car, gas station pit stops, snacks and car tunes.  Our first trip occurs in the Spring, when we travel to Moab. While there, we check out Arches National Park where we hike, create art and check out the incredible landscapes in that area.  Our next trip happens in July when we hit the road to attend the Shakespeare Festival in southern Utah. The girls spend the weeks prior to the festival reading and dissecting whatever plays they’ll be seeing while there.  The festival always presents a non-Shakespearean play, which tends to be a favorite each year. We also make sure to get some hiking in because, why not? It’s amazing and beautiful and necessary after long days of play-viewing.  We head to Zion National Park in the Fall and do some hiking and sightseeing in this magical place. Hands down, my trips with the girls have been a major highlight. It’s an absolute joy to interact with them in a totally different role and setting.  We have so much fun sharing new experiences together and the girls’ excitement about the surrounding beauty is totally heartwarming.  

What a fun opportunity to reflect on a place and experience that has meant more to me than I may ever fully realize.