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Mother of late Philomath teen aims to help Linn County program assist other kids

JORDAN — It’s just seven miles east of Scio plus another six off Highway 226, but the therapeutic boarding school at Santiam Crossing might as well be in a world of its own.

Cell phones don’t work on the 157-acre campus. Cabins have no electricity. Forget to haul firewood and you’ll spend a chilly night. 

It’s a world apart, but for Janet Selby, it was the only world that made sense for her son, Mark. 

She credits the Catherine Freer wilderness therapy organization, which runs Santiam Crossing, for bringing back the Philomath teen, who closed himself off from the rest of the family after his father died.

Mark and his mother and sister had just three years together before Mark’s death last November. He was a passenger in a car that lost control on the steel grating of the Morrison Bridge in Portland and collided with another vehicle. He was 22.

But those three years were good years, Janet said, years when Mark had put the drugs behind him and had learned how to reach out when the depression hit hard. 

Santiam Crossing gave him those coping tools, she said. Now, she wants to give another family that opportunity.

The Mark Selby Memorial Scholarship, open to Philomath teens who are eligible for the Santiam Crossing program, is available through applications to the nonprofit Philomath Community Foundation. 

At present scholarship funds total just over $15,000.

Catherine Freer is the umbrella name for a series of private, not-for-profit adolescent treatment programs based in Scio. Organized for boys and girls ages 14 to 18, the programs combine wilderness experiences with therapy conducted by certified counselors. 

Clients who participate in a wilderness trek are eligible for Santiam Crossing. Founded in 2004, Santiam Crossing is an outdoor therapeutic boarding school that adds academics and family counseling to the mix.

Marijuana and isolation

In 2006, Janet Selby had never heard of the organization. All she knew was traditional counseling wasn’t reaching her son, who withdrew from family, school and even his beloved sport of basketball after seeing his father, Terry, fall to his death during a logging show in Alaska in 2002. 

Mark was 14 when his father died. He turned to marijuana and isolation a year later. Janet fought for two more years to try to bring him back.

“I just couldn’t reach him,” she said. “He was unwilling to share with anybody. He needed treatment.”

A neighbor suggested wilderness therapy and gave Janet a brochure about Catherine Freer. 

Janet researched its programs, looked into similar organizations in other states, and became convinced the local program would be best for Mark. She liked the program’s emphasis on personal responsibility and natural consequences: build a sloppy shelter, for instance, and deal with wet gear.

Mark had been on the path to becoming a mature, responsible adult when his father’s fatal accident threw him off, Janet said. The wilderness trek, followed by school at Santiam Crossing, she felt, would get him back on course. 

Mark didn’t want to go. And when he completed his first wilderness trek without responding to the therapy, he didn’t want to go back out. 

But counselors told him he hadn’t yet done the necessary work on himself and his relationships, and he’d stay with them until he did. That’s when he finally had a breakthrough, Janet said, and began to let others into his world.

It took multiple wilderness treks before counselors decided Mark was ready to be released. But Janet knew he wasn’t ready to come home. The experience of Santiam Crossing was invaluable, she said, because it gave Mark time to practice the new behaviors he was learning in a setting that wouldn’t set him back again.

At Santiam Crossing, students live in “platforms” — essentially large tents with tarp roofs and wooden floors. They cook for themselves, taking turns hauling groceries from the school’s pantry to a propane cookstove in a three-walled shelter. They haul their own water to fill a 35-gallon container, and wood for the stoves. 

If they don’t haul it, they don’t have it. If they don’t cook, they don’t eat. 

And if someone doesn’t like what’s on the menu that night? That, too, becomes a lesson, Janet said — sometimes for the cook, sometimes for the picky person. 

Counselors well-versed in all forms of adolescent angst were always on hand to guide the situation, but not to do the heavy lifting. 

“He came away totally able to take care of himself, and he was proud of that,” Janet recalled.

Individual education plans

School at Santiam Crossing takes place in a yurt, the only student-accessible place with electricity and electric heat. Students have individual education plans and work with an academic adviser. 

For Mark, the goal was to obtain his General Educational Development certificate, a goal Santiam Crossing helped him accomplish. But Santiam Crossing insisted that parents learn, too, with weekly counseling sessions over the phone and several hours of classes for every family weekend. 

Family dynamics change when a youngster falls away, Janet said. They change just as much when he comes back. The weekend parenting classes were so valuable to that transition that she’s made participating in them a mandatory part of the memorial scholarship.

Mark did his first wilderness trek in December 2005 and joined Santiam Crossing the following February, graduating in June 2006. He could have chosen to leave after his 18th birthday in April, but decided to finish the program, which, to Janet, was “huge.” 

The therapy he received didn’t make the pain go away, Janet stressed, but it gave him new coping skills and the knowledge that he was strong enough to use them without slipping into unconrolled anger, stress or substance abuse.

The experience at Santiam Crossing gave him time to practice those skills in a setting where help was close at hand, she said. 

“They,” she said, referring to the students, “don’t come across anyone who doesn’t get what they’ve been through.”

However, she said, it isn’t for everyone. Some families may not be prepared for their kids to take part in the prerequisite wilderness trek. Some might balk at the idea of no electricity. Others, the school itself might deem not a good fit.

Cost is a huge factor, Janet said. That’s why she’s created the scholarship: so that a family for whom the school is an option doesn’t have to be turned away.

The scholarship might cover one teen for several months, or a handful for a shorter period of time. It doesn’t matter to Janet as long as it helps someone.

‘The reality is, it’ll go as far as it goes,” she said. “I’m OK with that.” 

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