The Culture of Ceremony at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy

By Allie Twidwell

Experiential Education Director (former)

I was a Field Instructor and Experiential Education Director at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. I often reflect upon my time in the field and think about the moments I will always carry with me and what it feels like to be fully present with someone else in their pain.

I learned from each and every student I worked with; they taught me about joy, strength, and resilience. I learned to appreciate the small moments in nature, like cloud formations, frost on the grass, and the dance of pine needles in the wind. I practiced making wet fires, crafting sage crowns, and identifying constellations.

I leaned into being with someone else’s pain without trying to make it fade away or fix it. I discovered how special it is to honor others’ life experiences through ceremony and intentional spaces, and I’m here to write about that.

At Deschutes, we have always put a considerable emphasis on ceremony. We utilize ceremonies to celebrate therapeutic milestones like maintaining sobriety or completing a full day of family therapy. Ceremonies can honor the passing of a loved one or hold space for emotions like grief. Deschutes Wilderness Therapy moves field areas a few times a year when the seasons are changing, and this has always been a wonderful time to facilitate a ceremony around letting go and saying goodbye to the natural spaces we inhabit and welcoming new beginnings in different environments. Additionally, we hold transition (graduation) ceremonies for every student who completes the program. The group usually sets up a special spot before the ceremony, decorating it with primitive structures, creating a throne, and other fun decorations with natural materials. The ceremony is centered around the graduate sharing about their Deschutes journey and fostering an environment to share a healthy goodbye with their peers and field instructors. We always end this ceremony by awarding the student a special bead and howling to the sky.

A huge part of our culture around ceremony is about awarding beads to our students. Our field instructors create custom handmade beads to capture all these therapeutic milestones in a tangible form that our students can take with them as their journey continues, reminding them of their growth while in wilderness. These beads are always individualized and serve as a reminder and memento for these special moments. During a ceremony, our instructors will create a “sacred” space with the whole group where the bead is passed to each student for them to bestow energy and appreciation for that students’ accomplishments. Field instructors will bestow meaning and significance to the beads students receive during each ceremony. 

Another example of ceremony in the Deschutes Wilderness culture is how a particular student processed the loss of a loved one to suicide the year before. A large part of this student’s process was working through this grief. When they were ready, the field team helped her create a plan to co-facilitate a grief ceremony with staff at about the halfway point in her stay. In an open clearing on the top of a butte, an intentional space was created around a fire for a moment of silence and serenity. The student spoke about what grief meant to them and asked everyone to reflect on something or someone they were grieving and write a letter to honor this grief. After about twenty minutes of writing, everyone shared vulnerably what they were moving through and processing. And then they all put their letters in the fire together and held another moment of silence and serenity.

Do you have a student with us at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy? The culture of ceremony is a great way to get curious with them and ask them about their beads. To learn more about their experiences, ask them to share the significance of each.

If you want to learn more about Deschutes Wilderness Therapy and our therapeutic model, please reach out to