During the 1960’s, hospitalization was the treatment of choice for troubled children when it appeared they could not be helped at school or through outpatient counseling. Recognizing that children needed a better alternative, drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his wife Ruth founded a small wilderness camp for troubled children in 1968. Eckerd Youth Alternatives (EYA) mobilizes 1,200 employees and volunteers to help troubled children become responsible, productive members of their communities.
The camp is situated in the woodlands near Brooksville, Fla., and it pioneered the wilderness adventure therapy approach in the Southeastern United States. The approach is innovative and unique, and it takes children out of society in order for them to learn how to live within society’s boundaries. The Eckerds believed that there was no better way for a child to learn how to trust themselves and others, to learn self-respect, responsibility and to challenge old thoughts and behaviors than in the awe-inspiring and supportive embrace of Mother Nature.
EYA has grown from a single wilderness camp into a multi-faceted, non-profit organization offering more than 30 diverse youth programs in seven states. With more than 1,200 employees and volunteers serving more than 5,000 young people every year, EYA is considered one of the nation’s leading providers of services to delinquent and at-risk youth. During 1999, EYA served 5,500 youth through 17 wilderness camps in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont as well as in nine juvenile justice and seven early intervention programs in Florida.
The long-term economic benefit of preventing one youth from leaving high school for a life of crime is profound. A 1998 study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology documents that preventing one high school dropout from turning to crime saves from one and a half to two million dollars in victim costs, treatment, lost job productivity, and incarceration.
Initially, the children sent to an EYAWilderness Camp were enrolled there as a last hope. The general perception at the time was that the caring, nurturing Eckerd approach to overcoming anger, hostility and bitterness in children was hopelessly naive. However, the skeptics were wrong. Today, more than 35,000 troubled youth that EYA has helped over the past three decades will attest to its effectiveness and success.
Since its founding, EYA has maintained the highest achievement standards. In 1999, nearly 90% of all youths who exited programs successfully achieved treatment goals and graduated. Youth, on average, improved reading and math skills by one to two grade levels during treatment, and about 74% of youth remained out of trouble with the law a year after graduation.