Adventuring through life: Matt’s story as Wilderness Therapy Team Leader

Matt Franks approaches life with a sense of curiosity – and he encourages his clients to do the same.

As the Team Leader of EACH’s Wilderness Therapy Adventure Program, Matt provides space for people to be immersed in nature. His clients face challenges, build confidence, and learn how to draw on their inner strength in everyday life.

 

Connection, confidence, and caving

EACH’s WILD program provides an opportunity to experience a range of activities, from a gentle walk in the bush, to abseiling sheer cliff faces or rafting turbulent rapids. As Wilderness Therapy Team Leader, Matt facilitates these activities – but he insists the most important work is done by his participants.

“My favourite part of this role is seeing the journey our young people go on. In the beginning, they’re nervous about the group work and cautious about participating in activities. We get to see them step out of their shell and gain self-confidence. We focus on growing their independence, so they can feel empowered to control the direction of their lives.”

Wilderness adventure therapy is an alternative way to engage young people who face difficulties in other aspects of life. Teachers or youth workers often accompany the children, which helps strengthen the bond of trust between the adult and child.

There are three WILD experiences available, from day sessions to weeks-long programs. The most intensive is the WILD Journey, which is funded by ReConnect to reduce youth homelessness and curated specifically for teenagers.

The WILD Journey starts with gentle challenges, then slowly builds in intensity to improve the confidence of the participants. The program culminates in a five to ten day expedition, chosen by the young people.

“They might choose rafting down the Snowy River, canoeing the Murray, or hiking over Mt Feathertop. They have ownership over the whole expedition – they plan the itinerary, prepare the food, and pack the bags. It’s an empowering experience for them.”

Matt has watched as young people conquer their fears countless times, but one stand-out is the story of a claustrophobic cave explorer.

“Caving is such a dividing activity – people either love it or hate it. During one session, I was guiding a young person who was part-way through the caves when they started to panic. The cave presents a physical challenge, but the mental challenge is just as hard to overcome. I told them they could turn back, but they said no. They were determined to get through it. When they came out the other side, we all had tears in our eyes. I’ve never seen someone so committed to achieving their goal.”

 

The path to adventure therapy

Matt has worked with us for just over a decade, and brings a unique set of skills to our team. Originally trained in geography, it wasn’t until he experienced an outdoor rec program in the late 90s that he decided to change his career path.

“I saw the kids participating in sailing, rafting, fencing, archery… and I thought, ‘That looks like heaps of fun!’ So I went and gained qualifications in those activities.”

He started as a rock climbing and mountaineering guide. He also did some industrial rope access work which saw him cleaning skyscraper windows – and at one point, hanging off the side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He later worked in the community services sector in Edinburgh, and realised his passion for combining physical adventure with mental support.

“I was really lucky to find this role at EACH. Jobs that combine a therapeutic side with being outdoors are few and far between. The WILD program is truly invaluable to our community. We’ve seen this during COVID, as people’s mental health and connection to nature have simultaneously declined. Our programs are more important than ever.”

With a team of four full time staff and an expanding group of casual workers, the WILD program is in a place of growth. When looking to the future, Matt sees plenty of potential to broaden the scope of wilderness adventure therapy.

“I’d like to see our program expand so we can offer our services to a broader range of people. We could coordinate with other practitioners within EACH who are working in those other spaces. For example, we could empower older adults to connect with nature and their peers while keeping active and healthy.”

Matt offers this advice for anyone interested in joining the EACH WILD team:

“You need a sense of empathy – a non-judgemental view of life and of individuals. We need to be able to read the room and either bring the enthusiastic energy to match, or bring a sense of calm to create a safe space. Hard skills can be learned – intuitive emotional intelligence is what we really need.”

 

Are you passionate about supporting people in your community? Head to our careers page to express your interest today.

Careers at EACH

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