Closure of outdoor program for at-risk teens hits Wrangell

SEARHC's announcement last week that it was shuttering the 21-year-old Alaska Crossings program in Wrangell, a wilderness therapy program for at-risk children that the health care provider took over in 2017, disappointed much of the community.

The news release cited rising costs. Spokesperson Maegan Bosak, senior director of lands and property management at SEARHC offices in Sitka, said Friday she didn't have an operating cost for Crossings but would ask the finance department for the information.

"Health care systems throughout the United States have been dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium has not been immune," the statement said. SEARHC's adolescent residential treatment programs have seen "a significant decrease in patient volume, serious staffing pressures, drastically rising costs, and infrastructure challenges requiring substantial future capital investment."

The Jan. 12 announcement took former and incoming field guides by surprise, including 26-year-old Sebastian Pomeroy, who moved to Wrangell from Ogden, Utah, in September to work at Crossings. He had heard rumblings about the program being in flux, but the closure announcement caught he and his wife, Lindsay, off guard.

"We had planned to stay in Wrangell for at least a year, but obviously without work we've had to drastically change our timeline," Lindsay Pomeroy said the day after SEARHC's announcement. The couple is heading back to Utah in a month. "It's not what we had planned on or wanted," she said.

Sebastian Pomeroy worked as the program's equipment coordinator. During the winter, he conducted inventory and gear prep for what was supposed to be the upcoming season. While the season was running, his job was to prepare the equipment to send out, and clean and sanitize things from the field - canoes, paddles, life jackets, water bottles, bowls, kettles, pots, cast iron griddles, sleeping bags and clothing.

He said SEARHC offered to relocate him to Raven's Way in Sitka the same day it made the closure announcement.

In shutting down Crossings, SEARHC announced it was unifying its residential services for teens into the recently expanded Raven's Way program, which operates a resident treatment center and uses wilderness-based therapy for young people.

"They did offer myself and everybody who is a full-time employee, they offered everyone some position. It sounded like, depending on what position you were in, they offered the closest thing. My (offered) position was a guiding position in Raven's Way up in Sitka," Sebastian Pomeroy said.

He declined. "I don't have any desire to move to a different island in Southeast," Pomeroy said. "It's a big bummer for the program, and all the Crossings communities and the guides. It will be hard for the town."

As of the closure announcement, Crossings had 16 employees in Wrangell. Bosak said 12 were offered commensurate positions with other SEARHC operations in Wrangell, and four were offered jobs in Sitka.

Caitlin Cardinell, executive director of the Stikine River Jet Boat Association, moved to Wrangell in March 2013 for a position as a field guide at Crossings, her first job out of college.

Through that work opportunity, it allowed her to experience a different part of the world, which she fell in love with. She worked at Crossings for two years and decided to stay in Wrangell.

Cardinell said she is not alone. Several people with active roles in the community started out at Crossings, including Chris Buness, port commission board member; Kate Thomas, director of the parks and recreation department; and Tom Wetor, borough public works director. Mayor Steve Prysunka helped found the organization.

Mad Hesler started at Crossings in 2017 and worked as a field guide for five years. She creates handcrafted jewelry under the name Tongass Resin, inspired by the landscape of Wrangell and Southeast.

Her partner, Alex Riordan, was planning on working at Crossings this year. "It's a huge loss of income for our household and so many," Hesler said the day of SEARHC's announcement.

"'I think behind the stars are our dreams, but only our good ones,'" Hesler wrote in a post on Facebook the following Saturday. A 12-year-old kid said that to her on her first Crossings shift in 2017. "I don't really know what to say about the program shutting down except it is a huge loss to adults and kids alike," she wrote.

"Each and every person has made an impact in some way, economically, culturally or personally," Cardinell said, "(Either) volunteering, starting organizations or taking positions around town."

Pre-pandemic, the program served about 125 teens each year.

SEARHC took over Crossings in 2017 from Alaska Island Community Services, the same time the health care provider took over operations at the Wrangell hospital with its acquisition of AICS.

"Everyone was relieved because AICS wasn't necessarily doing well. We were all relieved that Crossings was going to be under SEARHC. They painted it out that they were going to make it saved," Cardinell said.

Aaltséen, Esther Reese, tribal administrator at Wrangell Cooperative Association, said Friday the closure of Crossings will be a loss for tribal youth across Alaska. Tribal youth had the opportunity to come to the land of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan, she said. "Through the wilderness therapy, they were able to connect to the land, to their ancestors."

Reese said the tribe is in the process of contacting the SEARHC executive leadership staff to see if there is anything that can be done to reverse the decision. "It is such an important program. There was no warning from SEARHC that they were shutting down."

The economic impact to Wrangell will be significant, she said. Crossings did its best to purchase all its groceries for the program locally at City Market and IGA. "At its peak, $10,000 a month at one grocery store," Reese said.

She doesn't believe the program can be replicated in Sitka.

"I don't believe that Raven's Way can provide the same type of experience," Reese said. "It (Raven's Way) is a substance abuse program, not a behavior health program." Even if they could expand it, she said, it could not provide the same experience as running outdoor therapy expeditions in the Inside Passage.

The tribe had a positive relationship with Crossings, and the program's graduations were held at the tribe's cultural center, Reese said. Every year, the tribe organized a welcome ceremony with clan leaders at Chief Shakes house. Crossings guides would request permission to be on Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan land.

During the welcome ceremonies, the leaders would gift a phrase to the guides, and the staff: "yee gu.aa yáx x'wán – Have strength and courage, all of you."


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