Reflections: On Turning Winds; Saving lives, Changing lives


A column by

Tony Smith


Since the participation of two of our students from Turning Winds in the recent Libby High School talent show, I am compelled to write about the school and share my personal experiences while employed there. I was tremendously gratified by the invitation from Mr. May to include us, and I wish to thank, on behalf of my students, Libby High School and the Libby audience for the invitation and courtesy afforded us. A special thanks to Ms. Braun for embracing our pianist, her page turner, and to Mr. May for making our students in attendance so very welcome.

I have had the privilege of teaching at Turning Winds Academic Institute (TWAI) for the past three and one-half years, working with our students in varied social sciences classes, including American History, Political Science, Geography, Humanities, World History, Economics, Personal Finance, and after-school Music Therapy. Throughout the duration of my employment, I have been asked a number of questions by inquisitive local citizens and by many who had been unaware that such a place even existed.

Turning Winds is a specialized Residential Treatment Center and Therapeutic Boarding School for troubled teens, ages 13 to 18, located in “the best last place,” the Yaak Valley, a beautiful setting overlooking the South Fork of the Yaak River.  TWAI provides therapeutic intervention for issues such as low self-worth, critical behavior problems, and poor academic performance. More specially, Turning Winds provides treatment for ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, addictions, substance abuse, spectrum disorders, adjustment disorders, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and attachment disorders.

Our Mission Statement reads as follows: “The simple, singular, focus of our treatment program is to help each student change the behaviors that are hindering their growth by teaching them to create a stable pattern of living through education, process groups, and individualized treatment planning.”

Turning Winds, founded by John Baisden Sr. and John Jr. of Bonners Ferry, Idaho,  was born in 2002 out of a family tragedy (the loss of a 17-year old daughter), and has served over 1500 students since its inception. Owen Baisden is our current CEO with twenty-three years of experience, Carl Baisden and Enoch Stump are Operations Directors, and Marcine Holmes is our Executive Assistant. Other Operation Managers include Fawn Goddard (our School Director), Jared Waxbom, and Libby’s own David Armstrong. Our boarding school, with approximately 35 employees and 35-40 students from every state and every major continent, is committed to five pillars of change: (1) Character Education and Life Skills, (2) Health, Wellness and Fitness, (3) Outdoor Education, (4) Therapeutic Success, and (5) Academic Achievement. TWAI has highly trained therapists from across the Northwest, and nurses on duty 24 hours a day.

Most of our students are transported to Turning Winds with permission from parents who are virtually out of options, unable to cope watching their child’s self-destruction. Surely it is the most gut-wrenching decision a parent could possibly make, and testimony from parents at Commencement (occurring at the 6-month point) confirms the emotional trauma they’ve endured. Some of our students are coming from other “Programs,” and after leaving Turning Winds will often go to “step-down” Programs. The process can be traumatizing for the student as well, but kids are resilient and soon make the necessary adjustments, becoming less resistant to the process and often making remarkable progress toward wellness. Many of our kids are coming from affluent homes and are highly socially and academically skilled, as well as very talented and creative.

Our students generally stay for one year, and many will earn their diplomas at TWAI, and have the opportunity to gain college credit as well. (Turning Winds is accredited by the most respected Secondary Academic Accrediting body in the United States: Advanced Northwest Accreditation Commission).  Privileges are earned (or lost) based on behavioral and therapeutic factors, and the privileges for “acceptable” behaviors include Friday ski outings to Schweitzer, hikes into Fish Lakes, up Northwest Peak, snowshoe adventures up Flatiron, golf outings to Mirror Lake Country Club in Bonners Ferry, and week-long venture trips into the Cabinet Wilderness, to Priest Lake, and hikes into the Snake River Canyon. Most importantly, many of our students travel to Guatemala, Costa Rica, or Ghana in order to provide service in orphanages, etc. As of this writing, we currently have eleven students at Ritsona, a Greek refugee camp consisting primarily of Syrians, Sudanese, and people fleeing Iraq. Our hope is to provide an experience for our students greater than themselves: humility and service.

Of great significance is parental participation in the wellness of his or her child. Parental workshops, required writing assignments, and family counseling sessions, facilitated by our clinical staff, are of vital importance.

One of the greatest strengths of Turning Winds is the diverse and varied workforce from all walks of life that are entrusted to us by families across America. Many are not officially “degreed” in working with troubled teens, but are often as highly skilled and as effective as those with college diplomas, if not more so in many cases. I am especially proud of the many former students of mine from Troy High School employed at Turning Winds, and who are amazingly effective and highly respected by the students at TWAI. All staff and students are on a first-name basis, and staff members are emotionally connected to the well-being and safety of each and every student. It is not always an easy task, but it is worthy and incredibly gratifying work.

Returning once again to the Libby Talent Show, not only were staff members on duty present with a number of TWAI students, but at least six to eight staff living in the area not only attended the performance but sat with our students in support of them. That level of commitment and connectedness is not always present in the public school setting these days.

After spending nearly forty years in a public school setting at THS (one in which I loved), and a brief stint in an Inuit Eskimo village at the mouth of the Yukon River, this phase of my professional career has been deeply gratifying. I will forever be grateful to TWAI, the ownership, fellow workers, and students for the opportunity to work in such a setting. I have had the good fortune to attend the graduation of one of our former students at Wasatch, an international high school located in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, and will attend another next spring in New Canaan, Connecticut. Many of us remain connected with our former students as they move on to the next phase of their lives.

At a time when many boarding schools are under public scrutiny, Turning Winds has an exceptional reputation throughout the country. Perhaps the real question that needs be asked:  What kind of culture have we created for our kids in this country that has led to the proliferation of such therapeutic schools to begin with?