At the age of 17, Lori Wickelhaus found herself pregnant, and a reality TV star -all while attending a Catholic school for girls in Northern Kentucky. As a featured person on MTV's "16 and Pregnant," Wichelhaus said her life was chaotic. "I'd go to the mall and people would be trying to take pictures of me on their cell phone," she said.
At the end of the show, Wickelhaus opted for an open adoption.
"When MTV originally asked me to do the show, I declined," she said. "But when I realized that my choice for open-ended adoption might sway someone else from getting an abortion - I decided it was worth it."
West Virginia Uncovered photo by Cassia King
Lori Wickelhaus, a recent graduate of Q&A Associates, dealt with a teen pregnancy and depression before coming to Q&A. ‘I’ve had a complete 180 since coming here,’ she says
West Virginia Uncovered photo by Cassia King
Colleen Macdonald, a client at Q&A, washes dishes in The Breakfast Nook, a restaurant near Davis run by girls in the program. The women live in Applewood Inn, run the restaurant, manage money, cook their own food, and take turns keeping common areas clean.
After her adoption and her graduation from high school, Wickelhaus fell into a depression -making bad life choices and hanging with the "wrong crowd."
"I was basically a good kid until my teens," she said. "The adoption was really hard on me. My life went on a downward spiral. I dropped out of college, and I wasn't working."
She remembered spending her days sleeping, and fighting with her mom.
"It used to be I couldn't be in the same room with my mom for an hour without fighting," she recalled.
Wickelhaus' story is not uncommon. According to the CDC, in 2010 Kentucky and West Virginia ranked seventh and eighth respectively for highest teen birth rates. Teen pregnancy, depression, substance abuse, and behavior disorders are all big problems in the Appalachian region.
At the national levels, the statistics shows a large number in the at-risk population. According to the United Nations Demographic yearbook from 2008, the United States has nine times the number of teen birth rates of most other industrialized countries. For some young adults, like Wickelhaus, finding a full-time therapeutic program is a powerful option for overcoming behavioral dysfunction and finding future success.
By the time Wickelhaus reached the age of 19, she knew she needed to make a change. With the help of an educational consultant, Wickelhaus' family found a program right where they least expected -in Davis.
Q&A Associates, founded and owned by Angie Shockley, is a wilderness-based transitional program for young adults ages 18-24. Shockley, a Randolph County native, said she realized the state's need for a program focusing on an older at-risk population, not just high school teens.
Q&A is unique in its use of transitional life coaching, wilderness therapy, and equine based learning. However some teen programs, such as Teen Challenge a faith-based program based in Princeton, offer an adult training program for people aged 18- 30, who are willing to make a complete life turn-around.
Shockley first became involved with wilderness-style therapy when she began working for Alldredge Academy in Davis.
"When I started teaching I realized I was drawn to the 'bad kids' - who I realized weren't really so bad after all," she said. "I became drawn to the at-risk population." Alldredge was a full time high school for boys that implemented wilderness therapy.
While working for Alldredge, Shockley realized she was working in a profession she loved.
"When a kid is frustrated, depressed and just wants to let off steam - what better way to do it than going for a hike in the woods," she said. "That's why wilderness therapy works."
Shockley explained that wilderness therapy uses the beauty and vastness of nature to show the at risk population just how small their problems can be in the scheme of the world.
"Growing up on a farm, I knew how to be very self sufficient," she said. "Many of these kids don't have that - they don't know how to do anything for themselves."
It wasn't until after Shockley spent some time working out of state that she realized she wanted to come home and raise a family. When she moved back to West Virginia, she opened Timberline Stables with her husband, Matt. Shockley grew up with horses, and always loved riding. She wanted her children to have the same experiences she had growing up in West Virginia.
As Shockley's children reached college age, and her stable grew, she came to a realization - she could use the stables to create a wilderness program utilizing equine-based learning for young adults.
"There are a few programs in the west that have some of the elements I use," she said. "But we are really the only program that really helps young adults fully transition into independence while allowing them the flexibility of choosing a career for themselves."
Q&A Associates has two transitional programs, Applewood transitions for young women and The Journey for young men. Both programs are full time, meaning the clients live in the facility.
Applewood allows the young women to run a small restaurant in the mornings called The Breakfast Nook. The girls living in Applewood must learn to manage money, do their own chores, work, cook their own meals, and pursue an education.
The journey hosts young men in some renovated houses near Davis. They also are required to work and manage their own money. The young men work outdoors usually around Timberline making snow, working with farm animals, and teaching children to ski.
Both men and women go to group therapy every Tuesday night, where life coach Sandy Schmiedeknecht goes through a life skills curriculum with clients.
"We don't do counseling here," she said. "Counseling really focuses on the past and why you've made the mistakes you have. As a life coach I take the kids where they are now and focus on what they can do in the future to be better."
After all their chores, and therapy sessions, each client is free to enjoy their afternoon enjoying the scenery around Davis, or spending time with the horses.
"The horses are a huge part of what we do here," said Shockley. She explained that many programs all over the country use horses along with traditional therapy, and most of the time clients never actually ride. At Q&A, clients are given the freedom to use the horses as little or as much as they would like.
"I think the most important part of equine therapy is riding," she said. "There is nothing like being on a horse-they are very emotional animals and they can read emotion from humans."
Shockley said the horses also need a lot of care, which allows clients to be a caregiver instead of receiver.
"These kids are so used to everything being handed to them," she said. "When they have to care for an animal the roles are reversed."
Wickelhaus said she wasn't happy with the idea of leaving home for life at Applewood, but she knew she had to make a change.
"If I didn't get away, I knew I could never make the changes I needed too," she said. Wickelhaus called and spoke with Shockley before giving Applewood a try.
"I talked to Angie, and she told me she was just sitting at the stable watching the sunset," she said. "I told her, 'ok I'm in,' and I was down here the next week."
Wickelhaus has been riding since she was a child, and the opportunity of working with horses drew her to the program.
"Its incredible," she said. "When I'm on the horse, it's like there is nothing else-just me and the horse."
Wickelhaus described her first few weeks as hiding "under the radar."
"I'm really good at masking my feelings, so I just said what I thought everyone wanted me to," she said. She remembers how strange it was to live in an environment with structure, and chores.
"I had never really done chores before," she recalled. "We never did the allowance thing at my house - it was a big shocker."
After several weeks of hiding out and resisting change, Wickelhaus said she realized she was wasting time.
"Angie came to me one day and said, 'I'm not going to be a detective anymore. You have to decide how to use your time here; I can't do it for you," she said. "I knew then that I was ready to make the change."
Shockley said her favorite part of working with young adults is their independence and personal change.
"When you're working with teenagers, you never know if they are just making changes because they have to be there," she said. "When you work with adults they can leave at any time - they have to really want to be here."
Many times clients will leave the program and decide to stay in Davis, after falling in love with the community, she explained.
"Right now, wilderness therapy is really overlooked in the government, and by healthcare," Shockley said. "I know this type of program works - I've seen it work too many times."
In the future Shockley plans to expand her program to a facility in North Carolina and to build a scholarship fund for West Virginia clients. Shockley said the program costs $9,000 per month. This covers housing, food, therapy, and spending money. She hopes the future allows for more young adult wilderness programs and insurance coverage.
Today, Wickelhaus is living independently in her own apartment in Davis. She works at a local nursing home, and takes online college classes.
"I never want to leave West Virginia," she said. "My favorite thing was to ride to the top of the mountain, its just gorgeous, and you can see the entire valley- one day I just looked over at Angie and said, 'I'm never leaving.'"
Wickelhaus said her outlook on life had changed since leaving Applewood.
"The biggest change I made was finding my self-respect," she said. "Now I have a lot of goals for myself that I never had - I plan on having a family, career and maybe a couple of animals."