Open Sky Wilderness Therapy (2006-present) Durango, CO/ Southeast UT

Wilderness Program

History and Background Information

Open Sky Wilderness Therapy is a behavior-modification program that opened in 2006. It is marketed as a Wilderness Therapy Program for troubled teenagers aged 14-17. Open Sky claims to help treat teenagers with a history of one or more of the follwing: Self-Esteem Issues, Mild Eating Disorders, Oppositional Defiance, Entitlement, Drug Abuse, Alcohol Abuse, Anxiety, Depression, Bi-Polar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Anger Management, ADD & ADHD, Learning Differences, Social Skills Deficits, Identity Issues, Self-Harm, Chemical Dependency, Relationship Issues, School Problems, Grief & Loss, Family Problems, Promiscuity, Attachment Issues, School & Work Problems, Negative Life Patterns, Gaming Addiction, and Adjustment Issues. The average length of the program is reported to be between 9 and 12 weeks, but may be much longer if the teenager is deemed resistant. In 2017, it was reported that the cost of the program was roughly $558 per day, meaning a 10-week stay at Open Sky costs the parents nearly $40,000. There is also a one-time enrollment fee of $3194. Open Sky has been a NATSAP member since 2006.

The address associated with the program’s headquarters is 1970 E 3rd Ave #205, Durango, CO 81301. However, the program actually operates out of two basecamps depending on the time of years. From May through September, the program operates out of a base camp in Durango, CO. From September through April, the students are taken across the border to another base camp located in the Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah, near the city of Blanding, UT.

Open Sky Wilderness also operates a program for young adults aged 18-28, but this program is voluntary and the participants can leave at any time.

Founders and Notable Staff

Aaron Fernandes is the Co-Founder, Co-Owner, and CEO of Open Sky Wilderness. Before starting Open Sky, Aaron worked at the confirmedly abusive Aspen Achievement Academy, which was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program. He is married to Emily Demong/Fernandes.

Emily Demong Fernandes is also the Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Open Sky Wilderness. She has also worked as the Clinical Director of Open Sky. She previously worked at the confirmedly abusive Aspen Achievement Academy, which was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program. She is married to Aaron Fernandes.

Danny Frazer is the Co-Founder and Program Director at Open Sky Wilderness. He previously worked as a Field Director at the confirmedly abusive Aspen Achievement Academy, which was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program. He also worked for many years as a Chairman on the Board of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC).

Lauren Lollini is the Co-Owner of Open Sky Wilderness. She also previously worked as a Therapist and the Admissions Director of Open Sky. She too had previously worked at the confirmedly abusive Aspen Achievement Academy. She no longer works at Open Sky.

Tere Snodgrass is the current Professional Relations/Admissions Director of Open Sky Wilderness. She previously worked in Admissions at Second Nature Blue Ridge.

Sebastiaan Zuidweg is the current Clinical Director of Open Sky Wilderness. He previously worked at the Catherine Freer Wilderness Program as a Lead Therapist.

Kirsten Bolt currently works as a Clinical Therapist at Oopen Sky Wilderness. Prior to this, she worked as a Clinical Therapist at the confirmedly abusive Aspen Achievement Academy, which was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program.

Jonathan Mitchell currently works as a Clinical Therapist at Open Sky Wilderness, and has since 2009. He previously worked as a Therapist at the confirmedly abusive SUWS in Idaho. He then went on to work as a Senior Guide at Passages to Recovery, another reportedly abusive Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program.

Tim Mullins worked Therapist at Open Sky Wilderness. He had previously worked as a Field Instructor at Second Nature Entrada. He then went on to work as an Assisstant Therapist at In Balance Ranch in Arizona. He then went on to work at San Cristobal Treatment Center as a Therapist, before working at Open Sky. He is reported by survivors to be abusive and unprofessional. He left Open Sky in October of 2015, and went on to work as a Therapist at Pacific Quest and for the Evoke Entrada wilderness program. He currently works as the Clinical Director of Red Mountain Sedona.

Program Structure

Like other behavior-modification programs, Open Sky uses a level-system consisting of five levels. The levels are reported to be:

  • Gateway: When a resident arrives at Open Sky, they are placed on Gateway. On this level, the teenager is given minimal privileges.
  • South: no additional information
  • West: no additional information
  • North: no additional information
  • East: This is the final level at Open Sky.

Abuse Allegations

Open Sky Wilderness is reported by many survivors to be an abusive program. Many survivors report experiencing PTSD and other trauma-related issues resulting from their time at Open Sky. Allegations of abuse and neglect include insufficient gear/protection from the elements, emotional abuse, and cruel punishments. Many survivors of Open Sky (particularly those who were there during the Winter months) report that they developed hypothermia and/or frostbite during their time there.

In October 2007, a girl ran away from Open Sky and ended up on a woman’s porch with no shoes, saying she had been kidnapped and her wrist was hurt when she refused to submit to a strip search, according to a report from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. Her father, who lives in San Francisco, retrieved her and said it was the fourth such camp she had run away from. That same month, another girl fell about 20 feet and was taken to a hospital with neck and back pain.

In December of 2015, six teenagers at Open Sky were sent to the hospital for frostbite. Two of them required an emergency flight to Denver for further care. It was reported that they were not wearing proper protection from the extremely frigid temperatures of December in Utah. Open Sky’s licensing and accreditation was ultimately called into question in connection with this incident, but as of January 2021, the program is still in operation.

Survivor/Parent Testimonials

December 2020: (SURVIVOR) “Hello! I was a student or i guess was in this program about a year ago. I ended up in a residential center called three points. I believe that i have grown a lot i now have my own job am setting myself up to graduate early and ready to move when i turn 18. The main issue with this program was that the people there mislead me and my parents. They were told that this would be a on campus Treatment they had basically said that yes there would be some outdoor times and then most of the rest would be inside. My first day there i was introduced to my counselor. (via a satellite phone he said to me “your not going to see your parents until you do this program. (he ended up being very wrong about that.) He convinced my parents to then wright me a letter that said you better do this program or you wont see us again. After i had left this program my parents and i made a lot of progress on us. the next program i went to was great because i got a community that accepted my parents and i problems instead of trying to strike fear and pain. They took an aproach towards me and them as a whole instead of them as the (gods) over my world. I would recomend sending kids to a program that they can feel safe in. safe to have there issues not one that is dead set on giving them the fears of their entire life. maybe that was just the therapist maybe not. My therapist there was Badger i beleive he does not want to help you as much as he wants to help the parents.” – Brand (Google Reviews)

11/1/2020: (SURVIVOR) “I felt like my entire identity and autonomy was stripped there. I was restrained, threatened to be force fed and hooked up to IVs, along with the obvious stuff like being told when I could sit, stand, rest, sleep, eat, use the bathroom, etc. it makes me sick that isolating a child alone on the side of a mountain for days at a time with nothing but 1 small meal a day was branded as a “solo spiritual quest” 🤢 Another thing that comes to mind is that the first thing an abuser does in an abusive situation is cut the victim off from their family, friends, and community. That’s exactly what these places do even though all of the studies show this is the worse possible tactic for recovery. People in prison have more rights than teens in the TTI. These places are behavior modification facilities first and foremost, promising to correct our “outward behavior” while neglecting our internal feelings and processes.” – u/slow_barnicle_4227 (Reddit)

10/10/2020: (SURVIVOR) “i was here for a period of time in 2015 including my 16th birthday. on my birthday i was woken up by staff and given a piece of paper to tape to my chest. it said “i do not matter” or something in that vein. i was made to wear it all day and on top of that was not allowed to speak or be spoken to. this was explained to me as being a therapeutic intervention. it’s actually hard for me to remember most of my experience here but the flashbacks tell me it wasn’t good. don’t send your child into the troubled teen industry, look into breaking code silence, these abusive and poorly run programs are very real.” – Amal (Yelp)

10/9/2020: (PARENT) “This is a warning to parents considering wilderness treatment. Eight years ago I sent my 16 year old son to Open Sky. He was completely out of control and I was desperate to save him. I initially thought that Open Sky had performed a miracle because his behavior and attitude appeared to have changed. He was calm, open, kind and we could talk. From Open Sky it was recommended that I send him to Telos, a therapeutic boarding school in Utah. Telos supposedly picked up where Open Sky left off. He was in these programs for a year and then returned home. I thought we had discovered a lasting miracle, but he struggled terribly after returning home and his life devolved again and again. Nearly 7 years after leaving these programs, he started his own path to recovery and only then did I learn about how traumatized these programs left him. If you are considering sending your child to a treatment program, please read about the troubled teen industry first and about trauma. I sincerely love my son and only sent him into these programs because I thought they would help him. Pay attention — these are for profit organizations with very vague track records. They cater to affluent and desperate parents. They look good and they say all the right things and some of their staff may really believe that their methods and missions are good, but for my son and thousands of others they did more damage than good. Please be careful.” – Mary (Yelp)

3/4/2020: (SURVIVOR) Link to ‘Surviving Frostbite, Hypothermia, and Christmas at Open Sky (the full story) (long ass post)’

2019: (SURVIVOR) “Hands down the WORST experience I’ve ever had. Not helpful for mental issues what so ever. Actually worsened everything and added ptsd on top of it. I actually have ptsd from this barbaric “therapy”. I would not wish this experience on any human being ever.” – 34o (Google Reviews)

5/20/2019: (SURVIVOR) “I would advise parents considering this program to search for testimonies from people who have actually gone though Open Sky. I attended Open Sky four years ago. I still have nightmares that I’m back there- terrified, helpless, humiliated. Luckily, I’m in a better place now, having distanced myself from the people who sent me to this program. I’m grateful to have finally moved past this experience, and to be able to recognize that I hadn’t wasted a year of my life due to my own deficits. Rather, Open Sky’s operation as a feeder program to a number of residential treatment facilities and schools condemned me to loss of freedom, as my family had the lack of knowledge to relinquish me to the treatment business and the funds to facilitate it.” – Devon (Yelp)

2019: (SURVIVOR) “One of the worst programs around, Emily was an awful therapist who treated me terrible. I left more depressed and defeated then when I came. I cannot say enough bad things about this program. BEWARE” – Rebekah (Google Reviews)

4/16/2018: (SURVIVOR) “I was sent here and it was the worst experience of my life. This place is an Insane cult, that tricks desperate parents into PAYING for their kids to hike around the desert out with drifters, people who live out of their cars, wannabe “therapists”, and its run by an old buddhist hippie dressed like a cowboy. I was made so much worse by this poorly run sham of a mental health facility. If you love your child keep them as far away from these sociopaths as you POSSIBLY can. Keep you $90,000 for ACTUAL help from REAL QUALIFIED PEOPLE who have things like; a degree in therapy, a track record a really helping people, and a home thats not an old twin mattress in the back of a 90’s suburban.” – Ace (Yelp)

Related Media

Open Sky Wildnerness Website Homepage

HEAL Program Information – Open Sky Wilderness

Secret Prisons for Teens – Open Sky Wilderness

Open Sky chief says agency ‘deeply concerned’ about frostbite cases (Durango Herald, 1/20/2016)