Media coverage of the Challenger Foundation's legal problems has hurt the whole wilderness youth therapy industry, according to some program operators. But others say that the drops in enrollment are seasonal and Challenger's woes have not affected them.
"We've been hurt badly," said Larry Olsen, director and founder of Anasazi, based in Arizona. "It's really been nip and tuck. We're down about half - and we have a good reputation."In June, a 16-year-old Challenger enrollee died of exertional heat stroke. In addition to the charges filed against the program, the foundation has declared bankruptcy and is no longer operating in Utah.
Kristen Chase, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was the second child to die in one of the wilderness therapy programs this year. Michelle Sutton, 15, Pleasanton, Calif., died in Arizona while participating in Utah-based Summit Quest. Sheriffs still are investigating her death.
Olsen is unhappy with the attention that spilled over onto his program, which he says is very different from others. "In our 25 years in this business, we've had over 10,000 people go through with no deaths or even serious accidents."Olsen describes Anasazi as a "rich, warm, loving experience in the wilderness under Stone Age conditions" and said that enrollment in his program didn't start to drop until the Challenger Foundation and two of its officials were charged with negligent homicide and multiple counts of child abuse.
"I think the news media have so poisoned the public that even if parents wanted to send their children, friends and people in their churches and at work accuse them of being abusive. They don't dare," Olsen said.
Karen Wells said enrollment in Wilderness Conquest has "most definitely" dropped. She believes the change (down about 50 percent) is a combination of the time of year and the negative publicity the programs have received.
"When the media lump all the programs together, we suffer," Wells, family coordinator for the program, said. The program, which doesn't do a lot of marketing in Utah, although it is located here, has operated for more than two years without any serious injuries and with "great results for the youths."
Wilderness Conquest groups typically have six youths in each, and there are now about four participants in each segment, she said.
Aspen Achievement Academy is one of the programs that haven't seen a reduction, according to staff in the admissions office, although national exposure on shows like "Geraldo" have sparked some "interesting" responses, including a "hate phone call."
"I really believe we're much different (from Challenger's program)," said Cheryl, a staff member who didn't give her last name.
Several youths who successfully completed programs have complained that media reports have focused only on problems.
"I was in Anasazi for 73 days," said Courtney Bundy, 16. "It was wonderful, the greatest experience of my life. It gave me time to think and put my life together."
Bundy said she'd experimented with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. She went into the program when she was kicked out of school. "Now my life's wonderful. I'm living at home again. It's a new day."