What was supposed to be a joyful reunion has turned into a painful separation.
Those who say the Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program has helped hundreds of Georgia's destructive teens become productive adults had planned to gather this fall to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Instead, former participants have been driving up the gravel driveway off Ga. Highway 190 in Meriwether County to say their final farewells.
Ray Lynch, 22, is one of those alumni. He and his mother, Marie Miller, agreed to share their story about the program commonly called OTP. Lynch, a 2009 Harris County High School graduate, works as a fitness coordinator for the YMCA at the TSYS campus and a personal trainer at Columbus State University's recreation center. He expects to earn a bachelor's degree in exercise science from CSU in May, when he plans to marry Morgan Ingle, then pursue a doctorate in physical therapy. Miller is a vice president at Synovus in Columbus.
After his parents divorced when he was 6, Lynch struggled to deal with his stepfather as the new authority figure in his life. His anger grew along with him, and so did his outbursts.
"I was just out of control," he said. Taking away his privileges and grounding him didn't work. Neither did family and individual outpatient counseling.
When he was 13, Lynch's shouting match with his mother turned into a confrontation with his stepfather, and Lynch spit in his face. Then after he was told he couldn't go to his girlfriend's party, Lynch snuck out of the house anyway. He walked barefoot several miles before the blisters on his feet hurt more than his pride, and he flagged down a policeman to bring him home.
"I think that was probably the lowest point in my life," Lynch said. "My mom, I could tell I really upset her. I realized I crossed the line, and she felt she had no other options."
"I was at the end of my rope," Miller said. " It was heartbreaking. We told him, 'All you have to do is agree to change your behavior,' but he didn't know how. He didn't know how to communicate when he was frustrated or angry. All he knew was to lash out."
She sought advice from his guidance counselor at Harris County Carver Middle School, who suggested the Warm Springs program.
Lynch remembers his first day at OTP, Sept. 10, 2003, when he arrived in the rain at the 600-acre site in F.D. Roosevelt State Park.
"It was such a shock," he said. "You see all these kids walking in a line, back and forth, back and forth. Somebody had gotten in trouble. The way they punished, typically, was a group punishment. One person did something wrong, and everybody had to kind of suffer for it too."
No air-conditioning. No video games. No cellphone. No TV.
"You're cutting wood all day, for the most part, in between school," Lynch said.
And the campers construct their own shelter. While they cut down pine trees, they build understanding -- of themselves and others.
"You kind of get closer to each other, so you become more comfortable opening up," Lynch said. " You're having to function as a unit."
The campers must earn all their privileges through a reward system linked to their behavior. They can earn a return trip home each month, but they must return with a behavior report card filled out by their parents, who must attend monthly counseling sessions at OTP.
"Quite frankly, if I talked to my mom like he did, I would have been backhanded into next week," Miller said. "What we learned is that your kids are people -- immature people but still people -- and you have to give them the individual attention and affirmation they need to feel like they could be successful human beings.
"I think as parents, we think how busy we are. We don't have time to pat our kids on the back -- and we could do that to the extreme too -- but we have to say what they are doing well and communicate that in a style of sitting down and letting everyone be heard, instead of, 'Go to your room because we're not going to talk about it anymore.'"
Lynch graduated from OTP in eight months. The minimum stay is three months; the maximum is a year.
He balks at the notion he could have received similar treatment elsewhere. "In outpatient, you can endure it for an hour," he said. "You can pretend that you're good. But when you're out there at OTP with a bunch of kids that are just like you, if not worse, your true colors show."
Asked what he thinks would have happened to him without OTP, Lynch said, "I think for sure I'd be a lot more impatient now, a lot more angry with my life and not able to cope with stressful situations as well as I do.
"I think where my anger was going and the inability to control it, if somebody would have said the wrong thing on the street, maybe assault, for sure."
Miller was amazed at her son's transformation at OTP.
"It taught him the value of mastering your emotions, or at least your anger," she said. "It showed him how much more productive your life can be when you know how to interact in an appropriate way."
Miller said she doesn't remember what it cost for her son to attend OTP, but her insurance paid for it. The state, however, no longer accepts private-pay campers, only referrals from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Division of Family and Children Services.
"Our government has it all wrong," Miller said. "Programs like this save taxpayers millions of dollars in future court costs and judicial/penal expenses because they fix the issues on the front end, before it is too late."
Following the news of OTP's pending closure, Lynch visited the program last week to thank his former counselors and teachers among the 33 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
"They had a huge impact on my life," he said, "so it's hard to see the possibility of them losing their jobs."
Then he thought about OTP's current 19 campers.
"They're not going to get the same chances I did to correct their mistakes and correct their behavior," he said. "It's a sad thing."