PRF Newsletter April 2019


Conquering the Cold at OLE

Looking through the windows at our Shelburne campus today, the green grass is blowing in the wind, the sun is shining down and buds on surrounding trees are beginning to open, making everything look lush and green.  It’s hard to believe that only weeks ago, this same view was nothing but snow and ice as storm after winter storm bore down bringing record low temperatures, high winds and loads of snow.

The first phase of the Pine River program is the outdoor Leadership Experience (OLE), where youth spend 6-8 weeks in the wilderness, skill building and living in a small community where they come to recognize the need for change.  OLE runs year-round, and with the extreme weather experienced this past winter, roughing it in the wilderness took some extra grit!

During the height of the winter storms, a full team of eight students, along with staff, roughed it in the Haliburton Forest.  The OLE team uses Stocking Lake Hunt camps as its base- a private 130-acre lake set in 2500 acres of forest.

When it’s above minus 20 degrees, students and staff camp out under tarps. When it’s colder than that (which happened several times this winter), the team sleeps in a three-room

cabin with a wood stove- and works extra hard on daily routines.  On the coldest night this season, temperatures with the wind chill dropped to near negative 60 degrees!

When temperatures dropped that low, it was imperative that students and staff kept moving in order to maintain body temperature.  Constant runs to the forest for wood provided both heat generated by movement and warmth created by fires the wood was used for.

Meals at OLE are generally done outside—both the cooking and the eating.  In extreme cold, this task became extremely challenging. Pine River wilderness coordinator Jeff De Visser explains, “…when cooking on the side of essentially an open lake where there are 30km winds, and it’s negative 60 with the wind chill, it gets hard to cook over an open fire…it becomes harder to cook and keep the food warm.  It’s more challenging to get a fire going and keep it hot enough to cook over with that much wind.”

To keep everyone’s spirits up, the OLE team worked hard to make things fun for the students and engage them in conversations.  “We go out for a lot of day hikes,” says Jeff, “for our staff as well, we’re new to Haliburton Forest, so it’s a lot of us exploring ourselves and we’re exploring with the kids- places we’ve not necessarily been yet, but we navigate through them so they can see new scenery, new sites, new sounds.”

The OLE phase of Pine River is the starting place for change.  Especially in the wintertime, the wilderness exposes and calls upon the strengths of the mind, body, spirit and emotions, creating multiple opportunities to begin rebuilding.


How Horses Can Help

After a very successful initial year- made possible by pilot funding from the Bank of Nova Scotia’s J.P. Bickell Foundation, we are pleased that our popular Equine Therapy program will kick up again thanks to a commitment to fund another 160 hours from The Gordon & Ruth Gooder Foundation.  31 PRI students participated in the four initial sessions over 2017-2018.


The classes are offered at nearby Jewel View Farm.  Ellen Downey, the founder of the Youthdale riding program, is a registered social worker.  Her team of horses is trained to be attuned to the needs of vulnerable youth.

As PRI incorporates equestrian therapy into its programming, it will also track outcomes.  Anticipated benefits include improved self esteem, better emotional regulation, and increased empathy.

“PRI researchers will begin to collect data to test the hypothesis that this activity can accelerate the growth of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and potentially increase the speed at which youth advance through our residential treatment program,” says Jennifer Blunt, CEO of Pine River Foundation.

There are many success stories that speak to the importance of the Equine Therapy program; but the best way to understand the true impact is by hearing it from the participants themselves.   Here are a couple of unsolicited messages some of the students wrote about their time in the program:


“Thank you so much for providing this special and amazing opportunity! I feel really grateful to be given the opportunity to learn how to ride horses and hangout with some awesome people. I will never forget this. Thanks to everyone.”


“I want you all to know how much you have helped me and how grateful I am. I went into the horse program feeling extremely anxious and almost unwilling to work with Kracker [my horse]. I struggled a lot at first, trusting Kracker, which I think reflects how I am with most people. Both Kracker and the volunteers were so patient with me as I slowly began to overcome this anxiety. I learned so much from Kracker . I feel so connected to him now and I’m really going to miss him, but I’m grateful that I got this opportunity. He helped me so much with my anxiety and he really is a kind-hearted soul.”

In their own words, the students feel pride, empowerment and joy as a result of their experiences at the Equine Therapy program; successes that we can’t wait to see continue.

Sharing Our Successes


Pine River was well represented at the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NatSap) annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, January 30-February 1, 2019.

PRI Clinician Liz van Ryn and Clinical Director Victoria Creighton presented their research paper, The Call for an Integrated Family Systems ModelThe research has also been published in the latest peer-reviewed Journal of Therapeutic Schools & Programs (2019).

The article describes PRI’s approach and outlines the value and the challenges of providing transformative family therapy as an integral part of a therapeutic treatment program.  PRI knows successful residential youth treatment means working not only with the adolescent but with the systems within which they operate – especially their families.

Family Program Director, Elizabeth Van Ryn

Laura Mills presented some of Pine River’s data as part of the research workshops.  She was also invited to be guest editor of the Journal of Therapeutic Schools & Programs (JTSP) for 2021, which will focus on collaborations.


Our participation in the NATSAP 2019 conference made it clear to us that Pine River Institute has the most comprehensive family programs of any of the residential treatment centres in North America. We are proud to present our excellent program and share the positive outcomes with our peers across North America.  We believe that sharing our model will lead to bigger impact and reach in reducing the incidence of youth Mental Health & Addiction in Canada, and beyond.


Clinical Director of Pine River Institute, Victoria Creighton