Finding your identity in wilderness

A Conversation With Kristi Riecker, MA, CMHC

How it started 

Kristi Kiecker is a licensed clinician who works alongside Clinical Director, Greg Burnham, LMFT, as a Clinical Support Therapist. The role of a clinical support therapist holds a variety of responsibilities, some of which include being a liaison between the field team and clinical team as well as utilizing her clinical acumen to mentor field guides as they navigate students and group dynamics. This role also gives space for her to work in tandem with the clinical director to provide parents with the information and guidance throughout the treatment process. Prior to coming to outBACK several years ago, Kristi was living in NY and attending graduate school. Thereafter, she became a substance abuse counselor working with the 40–60-year-old demographic that had experienced addictions since their teens or an early age. She realized the people with whom she worked had little to no family members present or were without support systems. 

When she heard about the job opportunity with outBACK she was a bit skeptical because of the weather. “What changed my mind about staying was the people I worked with. We all became friends and that’s when I told myself I would try it out there for 6 months.” Fast forward three years later and she’s currently enjoying her current role at outBACK.  

Kristi ended up taking another job but she realized how different it was to work in a residential environment. Eventually she reached out to outBACK. After sending her resume to a field recruiter, outBACK offered her a position as an Associate Field Therapist. As time went on, Greg encouraged her to move into a new position as a Clinical Support Therapist. 

Helping students find their way 

Kristi works with our student population who are neurodivergent. She is a consummate learner and therefore immerse herself in learning about how best to support this population of students. “This group has trauma of being constantly corrected–they also process things differently. I want to learn how to process for them and not us. “As a Clinical Support Therapist, Kristi works alongside Clinical Director and Primary Therapist, Greg Burnham, LMFT. This allowed Kristi to home in on her current clinical skillset while still being able to learn additional clinical approaches with the neurodivergent population. “The number one thing Greg and I do is slow everything down. These students are high-verbal so it sounds like they understand but they’re processing much slower.” While her ability to understand her students through everyday occurrences may resonate for her and others, she holds a solid grasp on how her students are measured against a set of societal norms that were not created for them. Therefore, she actively works to meet them where they are by identifying solutions specific to their individual needs. Kristi goes into describing her experience in a wilderness setting and the natural parallel process it gives. “Wilderness provides the most beautiful metaphors. When we can draw the parallels to their struggles to the activities we do in the field, it is powerful. We had a student who did not take easily to [being given] instructions and internalized telling themselves they were not able to do it.”  

Working with Neurodivergent students 

A lot of times students come to outBACK with years of trauma and being chronically misunderstood. It does not look like trauma on the outside, especially neurodivergent kids (constantly corrected, told to pay attention, school is hard, cannot fit in, cannot fit into family systems), and what happens, is years of frustration stack up which leads to “acting out” behaviors. Kristi explains that parents may not understand why right away. “It [may look like] executive functioning struggles, ADHD, other students their age not wanting to hang out with them. As they get older and older, they fall behind which makes them feel like they do not belong.”  Kristi explains that when students first come on board with outBACK, she helps guide them to connect with their peer group. outBACK really provides a culture of acceptance. We are going to give them love and accept them for who they are. She says the stillness of nature fosters healing—they utilize this stillness a lot. The pace, zone, and tone along with the comfort of being outside 

Students can find their identity in wilderness 

One of the most important lessons Kristi has walked away with in her role at outBACK is any student can uncover and discover some pivotal parts of who they are. 

“There is so much stacking and growth [in] taking ownership of [one’s own] values and value systems. outBACK does an excellent job at exploring [one’s] different identities. If you love cooking, carving, we want to encourage that creative side of you. Knowing that this will change after outBACK is normal and acceptable. A lot of times students are stuck, so it is lovely when they are all figuring it out together.” 

Kristi was recently featured in our staff spotlight on Instagram this past week. You can follow along there as well as read up on past spotlight features. 

Photo Credit: Kristi Riecker | Clinical Support Therapist @ outBACK


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