Ferdinand woman called ‘to make a life here’


Kacie Klem grew up camping almost every weekend in the summer with her parents, Doug and Beth Klem of Huntingburg.

After graduating high school, she took that love for the outdoors and her experience watching her sister struggle with addiction and geared her education toward a career in wilderness therapy. After receiving her master’s degree from Ball State University, she moved to Utah to work with Elements Wilderness Program.

Klem, 27, moved back to Dubois County in 2016 and now lives in Ferdinand and works as the youth and catechetical director at Christ the King Parish, covering St. Henry and St. Ferdinand Catholic churches. She applies what she learned working in wilderness therapy to her work at the churches and recently offered a Project ACORN talk on how to beat the winter blues.

The Herald talked to Klem about wilderness therapy and her move back to Dubois County. The following interview has been edited for length and brevity.

So, what is wilderness therapy?

Normally when I tell people that I’ve done wilderness therapy, they think that I’m out there and I’m, like, talking to trees or things like that. Not the case. Wilderness therapy is a component of the mental health industry. The main premise is that you’re taking individuals with some sort of mental health issue, and you’re getting them immersed in the wilderness. There’s different models for that. There’s a base camp model where you would have a main treatment center and do excursions into the wilderness. Then there’s the expedition model. The company I worked for out in Utah where I did wilderness therapy was an expedition model.

You worked with Elements Wilderness Program in Utah. What was the program like?

Our program was males only, so adolescent boys ages 13 to 17. We took them out and we were backpacking and camping and doing therapy. They were totally removed for their entire stay, which was eight to 12 weeks on average. So the boys are out there every day picking up camp, backpacking, learning basic skills like cooking over a fire. We also did adventure programming, so we would do rapelling and rock climbing. It was a very unique way to do therapy. It’s basically you’re immersed out there and you’re doing what you need to do to live. Now, ours wasn’t a deprivation style or a boot camp style. It was very therapeutic. We’re making sure all of their needs are met. Food is there. Water is there. They just have to learn how to use the tools that they’re given. And then we’re using the natural elements as well as the group dynamic to do therapy within every opportunity that we have.

What was your favorite part of the program?

One of the coolest things that I think our program did was really that assertive communication piece. They have what is called an I feel statement. So the boys had to identify: I feel what — give me an actual feeling word. I feel this way when — a tangible snapshot picture. And then, I feel this way because I believe (blank). It’s really cognitive therapy. What I think about this affects how I’m feeling. They had to be able to articulate that to the entire group, and then they had to learn how to give feedback. Can they give feedback in a way that doesn’t demean or criticize (the other person) but also in a way that says this behavior isn’t acceptable? Those two things, even if they took nothing else away from our program, are two seeds that are impeccably applicable.

How did you get into wilderness therapy?

My sister, when she was in high school, struggled with addiction. When she was in one of her treatment centers, we were visiting her and she was telling us about this housemate of hers that had just come from wilderness therapy. I had this little pinprick in the back of my mind that said, “That. That’s something you could do for your life.” I was in the middle of college and trying to figure out, what’s my calling? What do I want to be when I grow up? When I heard that, I thought that was something I could do. So I got my undergrad (degree) in psychology from Indiana State University (in Terre Haute) and a master’s (degree) in clinical psychology and mental health from Ball State and really looking into wilderness therapy and what programs I thought were most therapeutic.

What made you decide to move back to Dubois County?

I didn’t think I could make it sustainable in the position that I was in. The way the job was structured, I would have needed to move up in the rank or just kind of take a different approach. It was really hard to live eight days totally removed. There were pieces of it that I absolutely loved, (but) just building relationships and maintaining a semblance of normalcy was hard. So at the end of that, I decided, well, I know that I want to travel, so I’m going to do that before I try and settle into a different job. I traveled in New Zealand for about four months. I came home after New Zealand with the expectation that I wanted to leave. I started applying for jobs anywhere but Dubois County, I’m going to be completely honest. That was literally one of my search criteria: elsewhere. As I was doing all of my applications, I really was praying about where God was calling me. There was one day in prayer that was like, ‘Make a life here,’ that’s just what it felt like. I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ But from that, I said, ‘OK. I’ll give this a go.’ This job just kind of fell in my lap.

Is your current job like what you did in wilderness therapy at all?

In some ways. It’s counseling definitely in a spiritual realm. Definitely still using some of the general skills and looking at the deeper stuff. We’re always having conversations about what’s underneath. What is it that you’re carrying? What is it that gives you meaning and purpose? Some of those questions can mirror what you would do in counseling. They’re very different jobs. Obviously I wouldn’t have taken the position if faith wasn’t something that is really pertinent for me. Growing up, we did the every Sunday kind of thing. I grew up going to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg. But when I got to graduate school is when I started kind of making it my own. I had kind of a strong experience of what it means to have a strong relationship with God (and) what (it) means to orient your life around him. Everything that I’d been told started to click. For me, taking this job is looking at the things I didn’t think I got or maybe I was just closed off to when I was in high school, and now saying, how can I help instill that for these kids? How can I help them find a depth to their spirituality? Can I give them a space to be able to ask the hard things that a lot of times our culture doesn’t want to look at? That’s one of the things I love about this job is being able to do that, meet people in those spaces and in those places.

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