West Ridge Academy has been helping troubled teens for 45 years.
Michaela from Wyoming is beautiful, poised, and so smart she is graduating a year early from high school. She is so impressive you’d be certain she was the valedictorian or the student body officer of her school.
She is, in fact, the captain of the basketball team. Yet here’s the surprise. She is a student at West Ridge Academy, a live-in program and full-time school in Salt Lake City for difficult teens that offers hope and healing to them and their families through a holistic program that treats kids for not only mental and physical problems, but spiritual ones as well.
Unlike any other program of its kind, West Ridge believes that healing troubled kids must include as its foundation gospel principles centered on the atonement of Jesus Christ as well as learning new coping skills and values.
“It is not just a higher power that we are seeking for the kids to understand,” said John Stolton, a director at the school. “We name that higher power and we call him our Savior.”
Teens who come to West Ridge are transformed from the inside out. Leave out gospel principles and the acknowledgment of the role of God to help, and the change may be only cosmetic. West Ridge’s approach is to help difficult teens shed the approach to life that made them difficult in the first place.
Many of you who are reading this right now have a child in your family, whom you love with a parents’ passion, who seems to be spiraling out of control. And if he or she is not spiraling, you may be seeing bad choices, defiance, withdrawal from the family and especially you as parents. You feel devastated, heartsick and sometimes sleepless with worry. The child whose hand you’ve held for many years is suddenly a stranger.
Michaela’s parents felt that way.
If it is not happening to you, you may know someone close who is watching helplessly as his or her child-exposed to the enemy territory of this world-is in some kind of trouble.
What in the world can you do? Most people don’t know, but when Lynn Smith, found her ninth of ten children in this place eight years ago, she picked up the phone and made a call to West Ridge. “The phone weighed about 120 pounds,” she said because it seemed like such a big step to put her teenager in a live-in school for therapeutic help, “but it’s the best thing I ever did.”
Not only did she watch her own child transform at West Ridge, but she became so committed to the West Ridge philosophy of help that she became an Admissions Specialist there, manning the phone when the parents of other troubled teens call in aching for help.
Lynn says she hears a lot of the “d” words on the phone as parents talk to her. Their teenage child is defiant, depressed, despairing, and about half of them are on drugs. Their parents may have tried many avenues, but they simply don’t know what to do to help them. They may be failing in school, falling behind, hanging out with destructive friends.
She said, “Parents will place their children here for one of two reasons. They are fearful for their kids and they don’t trust them. The have shown a level of unmanageability that is beyond the parents’ experience and capacity to help.
“Parents might have first turned to school resources or to outpatient help or counselors. They might have turned to ecclesiastical help, but a bishop may be left in the same quandary about how to help in this complex situation. Parents just hope that what they are seeing will just go away, but it doesn’t, and the problem is it won’t with out in-depth help.”
Lynn described a mother from California she had talked to on the phone that very day. In this case her daughter had been a great student and happy in school until 8th grade when she left her small, private Catholic school for a public high school and her whole life had changed. Hormones were setting in. She was defiant, failing and so depressed she had stopped singing. “This mother is scared for her daughter, and, not only did she like the program with a fully accredited school, the spiritual part of this healing process that we offer here is just the jewel in the crown.”
People ask West Ridge every day if this is only for Latter-day Saints, and they answer that while LDS students here attend LDS meetings and have seminary, what is stressed at West Ridge is spirituality. If an adolescent believes that they are the center of the universe, it is hard to embrace concepts like choice and consequence, the idea of developing character and being loyal to principles.
“Until we can get them to the point where they can start believing in a power high than yourself, there will be a gap in their healing. If a parent is not looking for that component in the therapy for their child, we are not a good fit,” said John Stolton.
“We’ve had professionals talk about putting their patients here, who have said, We’ll refer to you, but take those pictures of Christ off the wall,” he said, “but that is central to the healing.”
The school has its own branch right on campus, a Young Men and Young Women’s program and in the last few years has turned out 58 Eagle Scouts-mostly from boys who had come to West Ridge and changed their entire frame of mind about what was important. On campus are also 18 full-time senior missionaries who meet with the students once a week to give love, hope and spiritual counsel, which the West Ridge students report as being as important to them as their therapy sessions.
Guy Hardcastle, Director of Admissions, said, “When parents call, our initial task is to put them at ease.
We want them to help us understand how we can be of service to them. Parents will say, I don’t know what to do. I have tried everything,’ and they need to know that this neither represents a failure on their part nor an expression of inadequacy.
“Parents need to know that we are a trusted resource and that we can recommend many treatment possibilities in addition to our own program. For every call that is made here that is in our bandwidth, we refer out 7 to 1 for some other kind of intervention. The most important thing is that they call. There is an enormous power in having parents make an informed decision.”
In fact, he said, “It isn’t a show of weakness, but a great show of strength, and it takes an enormous amount of courage, to raise your hand and ask for some help for your child.”
The West Ridge staff say that they hear of some stakes doing training about how to pick out and help troubled kids. “That sounds fine in a vacuum,” said Guy, “but we could take our kids to any young men’s or women’s program and you couldn’t pick them out.”
“In every ward, people are struggling with troubled teens, but too often, instead of seeking help, people are left to whisper in the halls about their problems trying to find anybody who has dealt with this and what they did. Our Herculean task is to let people know that there is help to be had for families who are struggling.
“What is most frustrating for us is to know that the need is overwhelming and it is everywhere and that we can help if a parent will pick up the phone,” he said. “We are intense about the mission, passionate about it, committed to it, because we care about these kids.”
Most people find West Ridge because a friend tells them, “I know someone who can help you,” but it is surprising how often people who live close by are not aware of the academy and its work.
Michaela, clad in her basketball uniform, is grateful her parents learned about West Ridge and sent her here. She said, “At first, I was very sad about being brought here, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it is because my parents cared so much about me that they did it.
“I had always been active in the Church, but I began to forget to do things like pray and have a good relationship with my family. When hard times came, I wasn’t prepared to stand on my own and I kind of fell hard.
“When you do the right things that are so important, you have an armor, but I lost that armor and got caught up in the worldly side of things. I was a pretty good kid, but I went up to the mountains with my friends and got alcohol poisoning. Then I couldn’t play on the team and sports have always meant so much to me. I got pretty depressed.
“Being at West Ridge has been a huge eye opener for me and a humbling experience. I’ve grown a lot and it has made me teachable.”
“My family is really religious and after my incident, I felt down on myself. I was so depressed that I gravitated to hanging around people who didn’t expect anything of me. They were people that I felt comfortable around and that I didn’t have to prove myself to. I avoided being around my family. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, so being around them made me feel guilty. They felt like they were losing me because I isolated myself.”
“When I first got to West Ridge, it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to be here and I should figure out what it would take to get better. Every student has a therapist and that person works with you, based on your ability to be trustworthy, to give you more privileges.
“The biggest thing for me was that they helped me step back and look at my life. It was my opportunity to look at my life and determine where I went wrong. I was surprised at what can happen in your life and how quickly things can change. I wasn’t living in the way I wanted to and the way I knew was right. I really learned that bad choices don’t make you happy.
“The things that had always been important to me started becoming important again. I told myself, I can choose to work on things, or I can choose not to.”
Like other students at West Ridge, Michaela also had frequent sessions with family members where they talked about problems and issues and tried to clear things up. Every student gets impact letter from their parents where they talk about the kinds of things their teen was doing that worried them.
The students also have weekly sessions with the missionary couple assigned to them. “They are so good about loving us. They just give us a safe haven. The students can’t wait to meet with them each week. That’s a treat that all of us love. Some times they give us a lesson or share a spiritual video or something from the EnsignI”.
Michaela said that every day you see girls who are making huge steps, giving them step by step a self-awareness that is going to help them so much throughout their lives. Not very many teenagers have this kind of opportunity, she said. “Being here has boosted my self-esteem so much. Everybody has someone they can talk to a lot and that’s one-on-one time which a lot of girls need.
For Michaela, one of the changes she’s seen in herself is that she didn’t need to please everybody-particularly those friends who have toxic ideas. “I have learned to stand up for myself,” she said. “Before, I didn’t have a backbone.”
She also says that once you get everything off your chest, then your relationship starts with your family again. You start working on trust and communication.
She also said, “The main thing I’ve learned is that God cares and that he’s looking out for you always.
Earlier in my life I only prayed when it was necessary or when I needed something. He guided my parents in sending me here. My parents had really prayed about it. He cared about seeing me change and do better. I am grateful for the reminder that I needed him in my life.”
“We are really lucky here,” she said. “What other girls my age are working on this stuff?”
A bonus for Michaela, the avid sports fan, is that her basketball team is doing great in the region.
The stay for teenagers at West Ridge Academy is usually 10 months which includes full-time school. More than 25,000 teens have been helped.
Learn more about West Ridge at their website or by calling 801-282-1000