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On a rainy Saturday in June 2002, I arrived with my father at Carolina Springs Academy in Due West South Carolina. I had agreed to come voluntarily, though I was unsure what to expect. I didn’t know then that this decision would be one that would change my life forever.
My father and I were immediately separated as we entered the facility. As he was whisked away on a brief tour of the school, I was sat down by a staff member, Mr. K, and two upper level students to learn the rundown of the program. As my father left, my belongings were taken from me and replaced with program-issued uniforms and necessities. It all happened so fast that I hardly had time to comprehend that anything was wrong.
My new bedroom was filled with ten bunk beds, two kids assigned to a bunk. Off to the side, there was a special needs child lying on what was called “sick bed.” I had a horrible feeling of being alone and unguarded as I watched the other kids taking food off of his plate and putting it onto their own. I could see the cruelty in their eyes as they did it. This was one of the first signs that I was in a place where I would truly be on my own, without anyone to protect me. I had never felt so afraid in my life.
I was assigned a buddy, Jason, who would be my mentor in the program and help to integrate me into the rules and responsibilities expected of us. The first thing he said was, “If you try to run, I will chase you.” Our first task was to go to the dining hall for dinner. Jason explained that we were having hamburgers, which was a special treat. As we walked through the line to pick up our plates, Jason explained that as a “Level One” I was not allowed to have ketchup, Kool-Aid, or condiments of any kind. As though offering me an immense favor, he granted me permission to have them this time, since it was my first day in the program. I didn’t know if I should feel thankful or sad.
Immediately following dinner, we were sent upstairs to go to bed. I was in complete shock as I was assigned a bed and told to lay down and be quiet. There was still daylight streaming in through the windows. I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions. Even though I couldn’t comprehend why we were going to sleep so early, I had no choice but to accept it.
Two night staff members entered the room. One was Mr. T, the husband of the school director. He spoke openly of being a former military member and almost seemed proud of his lack of formal education. The other staff was Mr. A, a very large and religious man. As I tried to sleep, I watched Mr. A walking back and forth in the room, surveying us all as we slept. He seemed to have a pattern to his movements, always taking the same path and ending up in the bathroom. I couldn’t sleep and just kept still, watching him for hours. Suddenly, I sneezed and he spun around to look at me. His eyes met mine with a cold, hard stare. That was the last thing I remembered as I drifted off in uneasy sleep.
At 6:00 am, we received our wake-up call from staff. We all made our beds and cleaned out our baskets. Everyone had a room job. Jason assigned me to clean the shower. I tried my hardest to get it clean, but all I had was a face towel. Despite the limited materials, Jason came and complimented me, telling me I had done a “damn good job” on the shower. As we waited for the other kids to finish their tasks, we formed a circle in the center of the room, forbidden to talk. My mind was consumed with trying to comprehend the many rules the program required. It seemed crazy to me and I didn’t know how I could possibly follow them all.
As we entered the dining room for breakfast, I was told to stand at the table with my hand behind my back. We were not allowed to speak. The room was completely silent. As we moved through the line, I listened the man in charge of the kitchen as he determined what we were allowed to take. Breakfast consisted of cereal and a desert, something like a Pop-Tart or a brownie. Depending on the mood of the kitchen staff the latter was often taken away to punish students who were not performing to the program’s satisfaction. As a Level One, I was not allowed any seconds and was only given one cup of juice instead of the standard two glasses that everyone else received.
Following breakfast we were immediately ushered to school. The method of teaching was called a self-paced plan. We had text books from which we were expected to teach ourselves on a variety of subjects. As it was my first day, I was assigned “Study Skills” as my first course. The purpose of Study Skills was to teach us how to integrate into the self-paced environment. School was very serious and was run by Mr. B. Tests in each subject were repeated until the student received a minimum score of 80%. At this point, I was too shocked to focus so instead of completing the questions, I just sat there and read what I had been given. Because of this, I received my first consequence from an upper level student for non-participation in school.
I hardly remember my first group therapy session, only the disappointment that I was not going to be in Ms. S’ group. She had seemed kind and someone that I wanted to be around. Unfortunately, I was assigned to a different group, headed by Mr. K. I had only met him briefly, but I immediately disliked him and knew he felt the same way about me.
The rest of my week was a repetitive blur. I remember going to the library where we were allowed to read or write a letter home to our parents. Phone calls weren’t allowed for Level One students. During meals, we listened to motivational audio tapes by Zig Zigler or Les Brown and were required to take notes on what we heard. We watched “Emotional Growth” videos daily. There were very limited tapes so we often watched the same ones over and over again. Everything was the same, every day. I could feel myself becoming more and more angry and beginning to realize that nothing the program was offering me could possibly help me to be a better person.
Something snapped inside of me as I walked up to a staff member after lunch and shouted “What the fuck kind of place is this?” He just looked at me coldly and replied, “With language like that, you probably belong here.” I mumbled for him to fuck off and walked away. For the first time, I was given a consequence called “Worksheets.” We were sent to a separate room and required to write for hours. I sat down and told the staff that I wasn’t going to write shit. A large man was brought in to discipline me. He grabbed me by the arm and took me out of the room, whispering into my ear that he was going to show me what happens to people who don’t conform. I was escorted to a room called OP, or “Observation Placement.” He told me to lie down on the floor. Naively I did as I was told, thinking that there wasn’t much he could do. As I did, he sat on top of me with his knee pressing deep into my back until I couldn’t breath. He started asking questions as he ground his knee harder and harder into my back. I struggled to answer, but I couldn’t speak as the pain was so intense. Another student entered the room to monitor as staff and students were never allowed to be alone together without a witness. It was so humiliating. The other student did nothing to help me, just stood there watching. The staff kept repeating that if I tried to hit him or defend myself, he would put me in the hospital and then in jail. He kept screaming that he worked in the legal system in South Carolina and would deny anything that he had done. I was outraged.
I begged to speak to the director and he seemed puzzled as to why I would need to talk to her at all. I explained that I wanted to tell her what had been done to me. Instead of allowing me to go see her, he just told me to sit back down. I felt powerless.
The next day I was back in worksheets. Mr. K came to meet me and took me to the administration office. He asked me several questions that seemed meaningless to me. My answers didn’t satisfy him, either. He told me that I was just telling him what he wanted to hear and sent me back to worksheets.
I never knew I would spend so much time in the worksheets building. Anyone who received a Category 2 correction was required to write 3000 words in three hours. Due to my continued bad behavior, I had amassed 80,000 words. I wrote word after word on no subject in particular until my writing was so feverish that it made absolutely no sense. One of my corrections had been given for telling a staff member that my parents paid $3500 a month for me to be here and I wasn’t even allowed a packet of ketchup.
Every day before being sent to worksheets, I went to group. We sat in a circle and Mr. K would start each meeting with a song. We then each took a turn to tell the rest of the group what we had learned from the audio tapes that were played during meal times and from the emotional growth videos. We were supposed to end our statements with, “This demonstrates that I am making major progress.” Each time it came to me, I would state “pass” as I didn’t feel that I was learning anything from the tapes or the videos. The rest of the group was spent explaining what we were learning from the program or how we were changing. If we weren’t participating enough, we were often told to stand in the center of the circle and have the rest of the group describe us in one word. When I was instructed to do this, the other students described me with words such as “failure” or “resistant.” I tried my hardest not to let it bother me.
Mr. K kept asking me when I was going to start “working the program.” I told him that I would never participate in this shit. He then explained that there was a place for people like me in Costa Rica. I told him to send me there, but he said nothing. Instead, I found out that he was trying to convince my parents to send me to Jamaica instead. Tranquility Bay was considered one of the harshest programs and was often where kids were sent who refused to conform.
I was finally allowed to see the psychiatrist due to my continued resistance. I was excited because I thought that I would finally meet with someone who would understand my feelings and want to help me get out of the program. I couldn’t imagine a psychiatrist advocating the abuse I was experiencing. Instead, the doctor was someone who was exclusively hired by WWASP schools. She did nothing. I felt so disappointed as I left the meeting, immediately being sent back to worksheets for more writing.
I had been in worksheets every day for over a month when I was told I would be attending my first seminar, “Discovery.” The seminars were a requirement of the program in order to graduate. Both the students and the parents had to attend them, though in different locations. As I entered the hall, I was met by a very large, tall woman named Jan. She was the facilitator of the seminar and I immediately sensed that she enjoyed the power too much for my liking.
During Discovery, we participated in a variety of different activities designed to help us get more in touch with our inner selves. We were taught that we all had an “image” that kept us from being our true selves. I had to stand in front of the entire group – nearly fifty kids – and explain why I had been brought to the program. I tried to make up stories in order to succeed. We were all forced to form small groups and share our darkest secrets with one another. I wasn’t prepared to share these things with complete strangers, so I lied to get ahead.
During one activity, we had to go from group to group and tell people a story that started with, “What I don’t want you to know about me is…” We then had to explain what our experience was of the person who told us the story. I remember one upper level girl telling me that her experience of me was that she wanted to kill me because I didn’t care what other people thought of me and I thought I would be able to weasel my way out of the program by the end of the summer. I pretended like I was listening to her, but really I was just blocking out the words.
The seminar ended with an activity designed to let us release our anger about our parents and our own choices. We were given rolled up towels to bang on the floor. All of the lights were off and we had to kneel on the floor. It lasted for over three hours, kids screaming and yelling all around me. When it was over, we were told how to reconnect with our magical child. I left the seminar with bruised knees and a vague feeling of being a better person, however the high wore off in less than a week and everything returned to the normal routine.
By October, after four months, I had made no progress and was still in worksheets every day at Level One. It hadn’t really hit me until someone brought it up in group. The realization that four months of my life had been taken from me already and that I had gained nothing from it made me incredibly angry. I began to think about the plans I had made for school and what I was missing out on. I had planned on playing football that season and instead I was sitting in bed at 8:30 pm every night, locked away in a facility without education or sports.
I wrote my father a letter begging him to let me come home so that I could play sports. They were so important to me and had always been a major part of my life and happiness. He wrote me back saying that if I had graduated the program by next year, I could play. This statement has always stood out in my mind, even years later. With one line, my father was able to change the entire way I looked at him forever. I suddenly realized that he had never supported me in the things that were important to me. Because of the decision to keep me here, I would miss out on all of the things a normal teenager was able to experience – dances, sports, a real education. I couldn’t bring these feelings up in group because I knew Mr. K would show no compassion or remorse. Instead, I thought about them every night as I sat in my bunk, dreaming of everything that was happening out in the real world.
By December, I had reached the highest level and points that I would ever reach in Carolina Springs Academy. I was a Level Two, with 800 points. I was secluded to a group of other students who were on academic probation. School had always been hard for me and it was even more difficult in a self-paced program as we didn’t have any teachers to help us with the assignments. I knew I would remain on probation indefinitely as school certainly wasn’t going to change or get any easier.
As Christmas approached, it felt nothing like any Christmas I had ever had at home. The staff brought in a small Christmas tree to try to make us feel some normalcy but I felt nothing. The only excitement I had was that I would be allowed my first phone call home. Mr. K was allowing us each a 15-minute call if we earned enough points, otherwise our phone call would be limited to a brief greeting. I was well on my way and felt that nothing could stop me. I hadn’t spoken to my family in over six months and wanted it desperately. Looking forward to it was the only thing that got me through the cold, emotionless days leading up to the holiday. For the first time during my stay, I was actually motivated to try to succeed.
That’s when it happened.
I was in line for lunch when I asked for a glass of milk. Immediately, an upper level student issued me a Category 3 correction for talking in the meal room. He was trying to look good and gain points as issuing corrections was one of the easiest ways to move up in the program. As he called out my correction, something died inside of me. I would lose all of my points and the chance for my phone call. I would never forgive him. I hadn’t wanted anything more in the last six months and in one brief moment it was taken away from me. Though I would still get to hear my parent’s voices, the chance for a real conversation was gone. Inside, I felt the anger turn to coldness.
When I finally got the chance to speak to my parents, it was over before I knew it. I sat in the Family Rep Office, the walls covered in religious statues and scriptures. I spoke to my mother and father as they gave me hints that they would be coming to see me for Parent-Child Seminar. I cannot remember a single thing that we spoke about except for me begging them to send me to Costa Rica. I thought it would be different there, better maybe. As I hung up the phone, I thought about all the things I should have said but didn’t. It had all happened so fast.
On Christmas day, I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Inside, all I could think about was how I should be at home, opening presents with my family. I wanted to scream for someone to come and help me, to get me out of here. I knew that no one would so I tried to make the best of the holiday instead. I received a large box from my mother filled with candy and a radio. We weren’t allowed to listen to music so the radio was a special treat. I was allowed to eat my candy and use the radio for two days before I had to surrender it to staff.
I kept the radio longer than I should have. It reminded me of home and I didn’t want to give it up. It helped me to feel like somehow I was back home with my friends and family, enjoying life with them. I was sitting on my bed listening to the radio when a staff came in to seize my now illegal item. I never saw it again. I can remember the last song I listened to, “Bother” by Stone Sour. For some reason, this song will always have a special meaning for me, reminding me of both the pain of the program and that brief moment of feeling connected with home.
As January rolled in, I was even more defeated than before. I had stopped participating in school, could no longer focus on the audio tapes, and had made no more progress in points or levels. I was so angry and I didn’t want to see my parents, despite the fact that Parent-Child Seminar was set to happen any day. I didn’t want to participate in any of this with them. When they announced that the seminar was that afternoon and began to call the names of those invited to attend, I desperately wished for my name to be skipped over. I wasn’t so lucky, cringing as I heard them shout my name. As I was put in my best uniform and marched towards the seminar hall, I begged staff to stop. They just ignored me. As usual, I had no choice. I would see my family whether I wanted to or not.
As we entered the hall, slow music was playing loudly and I saw my parents standing together with their eyes closed. We were all brought over to our families. The seminar director announced that all the parents could now open their eyes and mine lunged towards me to hug me. I pushed my father away. I didn’t want to see him, remembering everything he had said in his letters.
We were then told to be seated and the director explained to the parents that they shouldn’t let us use their cell phones or manipulate them into removing us from the program. Most parents had brought sodas and snacks for their children but the director explained that caffeine was not allowed. My parents had only brought caffeinated sodas, so they quickly put those away. The family next to ours offered me one of theirs and I was grateful for the kindness.
Mr. K walked over from across the room and asked my father to tell me why they had come to the seminar today. He looked at me and said, “We are here to work on some of the issues we have.” I told him that I didn’t care and asked if he was going to be taking me home. When he told me no, I was brought outside with the seminar director, Mr. K, and the psychiatrist. My parents joined us.
I told my father that I did not want any kind of relationship with him and that this was a waste of time. After hugging my mother briefly, I was dragged away by Mr. K. I kept screaming how much I hated him all the way to OP. As I laid on my face, I thought about how my family had driven 6 hours to come to see me for 15 minutes and wasted money on a hotel room that they never even got to use. It seemed maddening, the waste of time and money that the program was slowly sucking from my family.
The next day I was pulled from OP to see the psychiatrist. She explained how angry my father was over what I had said to him. I hated going to see her. Every time I left one of her sessions, I came back feeling worse than when I initially entered her office. She rarely spoke of anything positive, instead constantly focusing on my lack of willingness to work with the program and how I was going to end up in either Jamaica or prison before I knew it. As she spoke, I usually just sat there silently staring at the quotes on her walls and eating the stale candy that sat on her desk. I learned more from the quotes than I did from her words.
Something seemed off as I left that afternoon’s session. One of the staff members pulled me aside to ask me how my relationship was with the psychiatrist. I told him that I didn’t feel like it helped me at all and that meeting with her felt like someone was repeatedly kicking me while I was already down. He just looked at me. I didn’t understand at first why he had asked me those questions, but a few days later it became clear. The psychiatrist had decided that she was unable to help me.
The months kept dragging on, each day exactly the same as the last. As new faces started replacing the ones that had been there when I arrived, I started sinking deeper and deeper into depression. With each new arrival, I would try to determine why they had been sent here. It was obvious that many of them needed real help. One boy was so disconnected from reality that he never seemed to know was happening around him. It was so saddening to watch. He was constantly in trouble, constantly being restrained. You could sense a feeling of happiness from the staff as they inflicted the same pain upon him as they had upon me when I first arrived. I wondered if he was coherent enough to even realize that what they were doing to him was abuse.
The more they hurt the new students, the more determined I became to leave. I started begging to be sent to Costa Rica. Mr. K kept refusing, offering me the option of staying or going to Jamaica. I finally gave in, recognizing that Mr. K held every chance of my success in his two large hands. As I told him that I was ready to go to Jamaica, he stated flatly that he, “hoped I realized what I was saying.” I wasn’t sure if I did or not, but I tried to reassure him anyway. I started preparing myself mentally for me eventual departure, blocking out the stories the other kids told of how hard it would be there. I just wanted to get out, even if it wasn’t home.
I had been in the program for eight months when they called me to the office. I was sure it was the day I would be leaving for Jamaica, but instead the staff asked me if I still wanted to go to Costa Rica. I was both relieved and excited.
My morale was boosted even higher as one of the kinder staff members, Mr. B, took me offsite to get my passport ready. It was my first time stepping outside of the complex since I had arrived and I marveled at the beauty of the surrounding area. I remember seeing a girl and it seemed so strange. I hadn’t seen a girl in almost a year and I suddenly realized how much I had missed out on. I spoke to Mr. B about all of the emotions I was feeling and I’ll never forget his response, that I could have been home already. He was right. I had wasted so much time fighting the program that I had spent nearly the same amount of time there that it took most kids to graduate. I was still a Level One and prayed that Costa Rica would be different and that I would somehow get a second chance at succeeding. I was 17 years old and ready to start living a real life again, outside of the program.
The day before I left for Costa Rica, I spent my last day in OP. My. K issued me a Level 4 consequence for group removal and non-participation. We had been given a personal evaluation to be filled out that asked a series of questions about the progress we had made towards working on our issues. For each question, I had written the same answer, “Not very good, because this program is not about issues, it is about making money.”
The whole group was angry with Mr. K for his decision. It was obvious that he was punishing me so severely because I was leaving and for the first time since my arrival, I actually felt comraderie with my fellow students. One boy wrote him a letter expressing how much he didn’t agree with Mr. K’s decision.
I took my punishment calmly and without protest, content in the knowledge that I had finally gotten something I wanted. It felt so freeing to be able to choose something – even if it was only the choice to go to another program – that I didn’t care what any of the staff did or said to me. I was leaving and that was all that mattered.
It seemed surreal as I strode through the Atlanta airport on my way to Costa Rica. For a short amount of time, I felt like I was a normal person in the real world again. The feeling quickly faded as I sat on the plane and was asked by the passenger next to me why I was going to Costa Rica. I could tell that everyone else was excited for family vacations and luxury honeymoons and they expected the same from me. Instead, I told her bluntly that I was going to a high-impact behavior modification program. She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the flight.
We were given the choice of steak or chicken for our in-flight meal. I hadn’t had steak or soda in so long and even though it was airplane food, it tasted amazing. I marveled in the feeling of being “normal.” I watched the in-flight movie – the first real film I had watched in months – and felt so free. For those few hours, I was able to be myself. I listened to the radio, hearing new music for the first time. Though I knew Costa Rica was probably going to be no different than Carolina Springs, I was so happy for the brief respite of happiness that nothing else in the world mattered to me.
As we landed, I realized that this would be the first time in my life I had ever been to another country. My happiness faded as I realized it was a country I was never going to get to really see or enjoy. I was met by Mrs. F, the wife of the owner of the program, and she quickly escorted me to the van that would take me to my new home. We arrived at Dundee Ranch in Orotina an hour later. It reminded my of my first day at Carolina Springs. I was given a drug test, stripped of my belongings, and assigned a new buddy. Once again, I was taken to my new bedroom and assigned a bunk. This time, though, the bunks were stacked three high and had thin, small mattresses. Despite knowing that this was going to be a difficult program, I slept soundly that night knowing that I was at least where I wanted to be.
We were awoken early the next morning by a staff member shouting for everyone to get up. My new bed was on the top bunk and I was waiting for people to get out of my way so that I could jump down when I received my first consequence. It was a “Slow to Act.” The morning started with headcount outside, then we returned to our room to do our room chores. It all felt a bit familiar to me, though I was a bit in shock to see female students alongside the male students. My first bit of happiness, though, came from the fact that I was finally allowed to have laces in my shoes again.
My buddy explained to me that we had beans and rice as a side with each meal, unless we were in worksheets and that was all we were allowed. I realized that the staff barely spoke English and started to question whether I had made the right decision. Group here was called “progress” and I felt a bit of deadness inside me as I recognized that I would likely make no more progress at Dundee Ranch than I had at Carolina Springs. Each day was exactly the same in Costa Rica, just as it had been in South Carolina. I took some comfort in the knowledge that I was at least used to being on Level One, so even if I never made a bit of progress, I would at least know what to expect. My new family rep, Mr. A, was a kind American man and made me feel more comfortable than Mr. K had and I was happy for that.
School was much different at Dundee Ranch, which made it even harder for me to make academic progress. Instead of the text books we had had at Carolina Springs, we had black and white photocopied versions of the same books. There were no copyright laws in Costa Rica, so the program didn’t bother to purchase the real books. It was so hard for me to focus on the tiny print. We sat in class for five hours a day, six days a week. If we didn’t keep out eyes focused on our “book” for the entire time, we received a consequence. We were given a five minute break every hour to rest our eyes. It was incredibly difficult for me and I continually received consequences, once just for glancing to my right.
Though there were similarities, Dundee Ranch was a lot different than Carolina Springs. Here, the staff didn’t seem to have control of anything. The Upper Level students ran the facility, constantly making new rules. Instead of sending mail home, we were allowed to write our parents an e-mail once a day due to the delay in mail service. I still spent most of my time in worksheets, but here it seemed I was always able to complete my punishment the same day and return back to my group.
Two weeks after I arrived, the rainy season began. It would rain every at exactly 2:00pm. I remember sitting in school and just watching the rain. It had seemed so long since I had seen real rain like this and it was one of the only beautiful things I had witnessed in nearly a year. The sound was calming and made me feel somehow closer to the outside world.
One vivid afternoon will always stand out in my mind. Ken Kay, the president of WWASP, came to Dundee Ranch to visit. We were all instructed to put on our very best uniforms and were marched into the cafeteria. All of the tables had been removed and a large couch had been brought in for him to sit on. We were each instructed to introduce ourselves, announce our levels, and pose for pictures. It seemed like a circus, everyone trying their hardest to look happy and successful in front of Mr. Kay. As I introduced himself to him, he just looked at me calmly and stated, “My name is Ken Kay and I am not on any level.”
The staff were all brought to the front of the room to pose with Ken Kay. Narvin Lichfield, the owner of Dundee Ranch, came out to pose with them. I remember Narvin shouting, “Say Money!” as the camera flashed. It seemed so fitting and confirmed my belief that the program cared nothing about helping children, only about convincing parents that it was their only option and making huge profits at all of our expense.
Each of the families was then assembled for our “family portraits.” I was in the Rennaisance family, which is where all of the so-called refusers and kids who didn’t care were placed. As we stood there together, I realized it was exactly where I belonged. One of the boys in my family held up his next tie like it was a noose, whispering that it reflected how he felt at the time. I felt exactly the same way. It seemed like I had been in a program forever. The days just kept winding on and time had lost its meaning for me. I knew that I would never graduate, not because I wasn’t capable, but because I wasn’t willing to give in to what they wanted from me. Things had never come easy for me in my life and that certainly hadn’t changed since I had been sent away.
Before I knew it, it was seminar week again. I was eligible to return to Parent-Child again and this time, I really did want to go. I told Mr. A that I was ready, but as the date approached, I retracted my statement and decided that I didn’t want to go through it again. I knew that I wasn’t ready to see my family and that I hadn’t yet forgiven them for taking away so much of my life. As I wasn’t on Level 3, I wasn’t eligible to take any of the other seminars and was instead sent to a one-day seminar called “Breakpoint.” I thought it was ironic that it was led again by Ms. Jan, the same woman who had led the seminars back at Carolina Springs.
As we sat in the seminar, I kept thinking about how much I didn’t care anymore. I would be turning 18 soon and had no intention of staying. Ms. Jan seemed to sense this, quickly calling me out for my “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. I was asked to leave the seminar and forced to sit in silence with the other “choose outs” in the back of the room and do nothing. I actually longed for OP, feeling it would at least be a break compared to this.
Two days later, everything would change for me.
The day started off like any other, sweeping leaves off of the front driveway while on work detail. I remember whispering to another student that I hoped they would shut this place down. I was so tired of the endless repetitiveness of the program, constantly working in the blistering heat.
As I left work detail and started heading towards the classroom, I saw two police officers and a man carrying a video camera walking towards the facility. It seemed strange as I had never seen outside inspectors on the property, but I quickly forgot and went on with my day. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that anything would ever change inside the program. As I entered the classroom, however, we were met by two upper level students who instructed us to immediately head down to the cafeteria.
As we walked inside, the man with the camera and the two police officers were standing inside. No staff were allowed to enter with us, so only the students were sitting inside. The man stood and started speaking. He told us that we had the right to make phone calls whenever we wanted, that we had the right to use the bathroom without asking permission, and finally that we had the right to leave the facility whenever we wanted.
As soon as he said this, students started leaping up and heading towards the door. Mrs. F, the owner’s wife, tried to deny his claims but finally admitted that we were allowed to leave the program, but that she would not give anyone their passports.
Chaos started to break loose all around me. Some of the kids had broken into the supply room and everyone was quickly scrambling to find their belongings and change back into their street clothes. Other students started running around wildly, breaking objects and throwing things. Boys were talking to girls, which had been strictly forbidden up until this point. I started wandering around desperately asking staff for a cigarette but came up empty handed. Another girl joined me in my search and for the first time in so long I actually felt like someone understood what I was feeling.
As I headed towards the fence, prepared to leave, I was met by a group of Upper Level students who warned me that everyone who ran away would end up in jail. As I was unable to get my passport anyway, I decided to stay at the facility and see what would happen next.
The following day, the staff brought out agreements for us all to sign that stated that we were there voluntarily and wanted to be there. If we refused to sign, we were sent to the high impact structure. At first, no one did, including myself. Instead of being sent immediately to high impact, we were brought to the office for a phone call from our parents, apparently designed to help motivate us to stay.
I was shocked as I head my mother’s voice. It was only the second time I had spoken to her in an entire year. Then, she said the words I had been waiting to hear for so long. “You can come home.”
After my phone call, I refused again to sign the document, knowing that I would be going home. They locked me outside in the high impact structure. As I knew I was leaving, I didn’t even let it bother me. I remember swimming in the fountain, imagining what it would be like to finally see my family again.
It didn’t take long before we were brought back into the general population. I returned to my room while everyone was asleep. It would be the last night I would spend at Dundee Ranch. I remember telling the Upper Level who was on night watch that I was going to be leaving this shit hole the next day. He politely asked me not to give him any trouble. I could understand where he was coming from and since I was leaving anyway, I let all of my built up anger go and left him alone.
In the morning, no one would tell me what time I was being picked up. They were desperately afraid that it would create an issue for the other students. When the moment finally came, I only had a few minutes to quickly change and pack up my belongings. I could hardly comprehend that it was really happening. I knew the day that stepped through the doors into Carolina Springs I would one day be leaving to go home. I had never imagined it would be a year later, or that I would be coming home to my family from somewhere so far away in Costa Rica. As I left to get into my cab, I kicked my basket over and spilled uniforms all over the floor, yelling “FREE SHIT!” to the other students in my family. My only regret was not making my good-byes longer. I would never see any of the other kids from the program ever again.
My driver hardly spoke any English but I was able to convince him to give me a cigarette after asking several times. I hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at it felt like such a relief. I was high off the sense of freedom and the excitement of finally going home. We reached the airport and he dropped me off to catch my flight. I didn’t have any cash but I didn’t mind. I was going home. I called my mother collect from a payphone at the Houston airport during my layover. I couldn’t contain my excitement over the simple pleasure of using a phone.
Late in the evening on May 23rd, 2003, I saw my mother for the first time since the seminar at Carolina Springs Academy. She had one of my favorite shirts with her for me to wear and as I put it on, I felt like a normal person again for the first time in a year. We went to Wendy’s and I will never forget how delicious the cheeseburger and soda tasted. All I could focus on was the fact that I was finally free.
As we drove through my home town, I realized how much had changed since I left. Places I had visited just weeks before I left had closed. When I awoke the next morning, I looked outside and saw the woods behind my house had been bulldozed to make way for a new development of homes.
As I struggled to adjust to my new life, I realized that I had changed as well. I could barely make eye contact with women as it had been forbidden to me for so long. I couldn’t sleep with the light on. I could still feel the pain in my back from being restrained. I struggled to tell anyone my story, unable to find the right words to describe it. Later, I would be diagnosed with PTSD, something I would struggle with for years.
Today, I know that I am a strong person for what I have experienced and am dedicated to bringing awareness to the public about WWASP and other abusive programs for teens. I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to save a few teenagers from being sent away to programs like the one I attended and am now able to openly share my stories and experiences with others. It is my hope that one day WWASP will be recognized for what it truly is: an abusive, corrupt organization that robs teenagers of their freedom, dignity and opportunities while convincing vulnerable parents to fork over thousands of dollars in exchange.