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Our History

First Light Wilderness Therapy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia is New Vision Wilderness Therapy’s most recently established location and opened to students in 2020. Continuing with the innovative wilderness therapy and intervention programs that have been offered in Wisconsin since 2007 and Oregon since 2014, the team is committed to providing therapeutic options for struggling youths in hard-to-reach client populations on the east coast. Our founders have years of experience operating independent therapy programs and teamed up to offer a dynamic program that combines experiential therapy with intensive mental health intervention. The professional and affordable model has opened new opportunities for students and families to improve their lives in new ways led by our caring, certified staff.

The Founders

Steve Sawyer

Steve Sawyer

Steve Sawyer is a dually licensed Psychotherapist and Substance Abuse professional filled with knowledge surrounding the intervention and change process. His experience comes from over two decades of intervention with tough-to-reach client populations in therapy settings ranging from residential, community-based, outpatient, and wilderness therapy. Steve is trained in several unique therapeutic models including the cutting edge healing techniques of HeartMath and Brainspotting. Steve is recognized internationally as a leading Brainspotting trainer, consultant, and developer who trains outpatient therapists and treatment programs spanning the country. Steve also authored the Developmental Trauma-Focused Brainspotting model and offers the seminars regularly. Steve is also highly passionate about supporting the healing of intergenerational trauma in Native Indigenous communities and is trained in indigenous specialized therapeutic models like Generation Red Road and Wellbriety.

Through his experience, Steve Co-founded New Vision Wilderness in 2007 which pioneered the NVW Trauma Responsive wilderness therapy program model. This model challenged the wilderness industry to examine the utilization of trauma-sensitive principles in their approach. Steve continues his robust efforts to improve NVW by currently developing and providing a clinical training curriculum for both NVWs field staff and clinicians, regularly providing in-house consultations, facilitating our Parents Support Forum, and representing the NVW Model Nationwide in presentations.

Steve additionally works as a core therapeutic training development staff with the stress research-focused Institute of HeartMath. He was an author in the comprehensive HeartMath Interventions Establishing a New Baseline for Sustained Behavioral Change therapist training Module and the Resilient Heart: Trauma-Sensitive Resilience Building, with co-authors like Dan Siegel and the Gottman Institute. Both programs models pushed modern cutting-edge therapy interventions to integrate an emotional physiology approach. Through his dedication and efforts, Steve earned the esteemed Humanitarian Heart Award from HeartMath in November of 2018.

Steve’s training, seminars, and lectures are recognized nationwide for cutting-edge therapeutic techniques and inspiration. Throughout his career, Steve has worked in collaboration with the experts in the Trauma field like Bessel Van Der Kolk, Gabor Mate, Stephan Porges, David Grand, and Joe Spinazzola. In 2019 NVW completed the largest study of its kind on physiology in youth trauma treatment with the Trauma Center of Boston.

When is not traveling, working, or spending time with his family, Steve is an avid waterman either being a Spearo (Freediving Spear Fisherman) on his boat Poseidon’s Assassin or harvesting the rivers as an avid Fly Fisherman.

Drew Hornbeck

Drew Hornbeck

Drew Hornbeck, CEO/President/Co-founder of First Light Wilderness, was born and raised in Wisconsin. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Drew launched a 20-year career in adventure and wilderness therapy. Drew has worked in a variety of academic and therapeutic settings across the U.S. In addition to overseeing all aspects of NVW, Drew currently serves on the Oregon Outdoor Youth Program (OYP) Advisory Council.

Drew has spoken at national conferences on topics ranging from wilderness risk management to mental health. Drew champions the strong culture at First Light, with a focus on empathy, leadership, and best in class services and practices. Drew is proud to collaborate with such an amazing team of professionals at First Light and considers it a privilege to serve children and families. When not at work, Drew enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters.

Clinical Team

Kayla Davenport

Kayla Davenport, MS

Primary Therapist

Kayla comes to First Light with a passion for wilderness therapy and family programming. She received her BS in Psychology and MS in Community Counseling from University of North Georgia (then North Georgia College and State University). She completed her practicum and internship at an all-girls boarding school and stayed there for 3 years. For 15 years now, she has worked in education or adolescent development in some capacity from university, all-girls then an all-boys boarding school, and wilderness programs. She has a background in individual, group, and family therapies. As part of her training as a trauma responsive therapist, Kayla is phase I Brainspotting trained.

The therapeutic focus she brings to First Light is diverse. She holds family systems and teaching assertive communication as a cornerstone in any work that she does. This passion for bringing families together and bridging the gaps that develop as adolescents differentiate, struggle, and grow is essential in developing sustainability within an adolescent’s treatment.

Personally, Kayla has her hands full with two small children. This means a lot of gymnastics, basketball practice, and balancing chaos. She and her family love to dance, watch movies, and be as active as possible both indoors and out!

Mycala Cherry

Mycala Cherry, MS, APC, NCC

Primary Therapist

Mycala is a nationally certified counselor who comes to First Light Wilderness with a diverse mix of clinical and wilderness experience. She earned her Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Georgia State University, and has worked in residential, wilderness, outpatient, and telehealth settings. Mycala is certified in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) certified and in Phase 1 Brainspotting.
Mycala’s passion for using the natural world as a tool for growth and healing grew in her time as a field guide in wilderness treatment programs, as well as during her time leading outdoor trips for leadership development and teambuilding during college. She has experience facilitating high ropes Challenge Course activities as well as leading expeditions with teens in Alaska, where she also focused on facilitating the development of self-awareness and outdoor education.

As a wilderness therapist, Mycala draws on the lessons of the natural world in provoking insight with her teen clients. Mycala’s clients are most often experiencing issues with depression, anxiety, trauma, family dynamics and communication, attachment, and ADHD. She enjoys sharing her passion for creative interventions, as well as using an intentional focus on improving group dynamics as a tool for mirroring how her clients can better understand their role and responsibilities in both family and peer relationships. Mycala believes that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach in her clinical work, and is deeply invested in understanding each client and family’s struggles and strengths in order to identify the best opportunities for growth and healing.

In her spare time, Mycala loves to play volleyball and coaches on a nationally competitive travel team.

Kathleen Jamilla Minnifield

Kathleen Jamila Minnifield, LAPC, NCC

Primary Therapist

Jamila joined the First Light Wilderness clinical team in 2021. She is primarily focused on working with our younger students, both male and female. Jamila earned her undergraduate degree at Georgia Southern University and her master’s degree in Counseling at Argosy University.

Jamila’s clinical experience is extensive, and she is well-versed in working with a a broad range of clinical and family issues, having worked in Georgia’s foster care system with complex medical and mental health diagnoses, focusing on family reunification and adoption. Jamila’s desire to increase family engagement in therapy led her to incorporate the outdoors and physical movement in order to increase impact and improve outcomes. After 8 years of clinical and case management experience, she immersed herself in wilderness treatment for 2 years, working in direct care with students, as well as facilitating family intensives.

Jamila is passionate about working with younger boys/girls/non-binary students, with individuals with Autism Spectrum diagnoses, learning disabilities, transracial and intercultural adoption, and both episodic and systemic trauma. Her approach is playful and creative, and she is intensively trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution-Focused Therapy and Mindfulness, as well as in non-violent crisis prevention and de-escalation techniques, parent coaching, grief/loss, complex trauma, and sexual trauma.

Jamila is also passionate about increasing BIPOC representation and promoting increased diversity in the field of wilderness therapy, and hopes to have an impact on those who might not otherwise feel represented. She actively works to address the complex issues related to trans-racial adoption and is highly proficient in teaching healthy boundaries, family conflict resolution and positive communication. In her free time, you will likely find Jamila hiking with her dogs or fly-fishing.

Jordan Wright, M.Ed, ACMHC, NCC

Primary Therapist

Jordan Wright, M.Ed., ACMHC, NCC is a wilderness therapist at First Light Wilderness Therapy in Dahlonega, Georgia. His primary focus is working with identified male students that struggle with oppositionality, defiance, attention-deficit/hyperactivity order, impulsivity, poor peer relationships, substance use, anxiety, depression, and developmental trauma.

Jordan graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and earned his Master of Education degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He has over five years of experiencing working with adolescents in adventure-based and clinical settings. Jordan discovered wilderness therapy in 2020 and worked as a field-based therapist at another therapeutic wilderness program, which further fueled his passion for working with adolescents in experiential, outdoor settings. He has a passion for adventure-based counseling and believes in the power of parallel play with students to invite growth, trust, and understanding within the therapeutic alliance.

As a humanistic counselor, Jordan offers a relational approach to the client/counselor relationship that is heavily founded in authenticity. He is trained in level 1 Brainspotting, and uses cognitive behavioral therapy, adventure-based therapy, and Motivational Interviewing regularly in his clinical work. His confidence, playfulness, humor and direct but gentle approach works well with treatment resistant students who have struggled to maintain healthy relationships at home, school, and their social environment. Jordan is naturally upbeat and unflinchingly “real.” He does not hesitate to tell it like it is with the young men with whom he works; at the same time, his compassion and sensitivity create a sense of safety in which he can address issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, substance use, challenging family dynamics, loss, grief, attachment and trauma.

In his spare time, Wright likes to spend time with his four nephews and family, attend live music events, and pursue all kinds of fun in the outdoors.

Jennifer Cooper, LPC, NCC, RPT, CPCS

Clinical Director

Jennifer leads the First Light Clinical Team with a wealth of knowledge in working with adolescents, providing trauma responsive care and a passion for the healing powers of nature. She received her Master of Science degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Mercer University and has specialized in child/adolescent development and the delivery of services in highly impactful and expressive modalities. Jennifer has provided therapeutic services in a variety of settings over her career, including private practice, community mental health, in- home services, school environments, outdoor settings, and in residential adolescent group home settings. In conjunction with her clinical experience, Jennifer has also held various leadership roles including Program Manager, Deputy Clinical Director and most recently, Owner of her own thriving Private Practice. She has an obvious and contagious passion for being a part of the growth journey of others in the field. In addition to being a Licensed Professional Counselor and National Certified Counselor, Jennifer is a Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor.

Jennifer brings a prescriptive, proven and authentic therapeutic approach to her clinical style, and sees leadership as an opportunity to focus most strongly on the relationship as the primary agent for growth and change. You can find her meeting her clients and the clinicians she supervises where they are at, working empathetically and collaboratively to develop a plan of support. Her goal is to provide a space where one can come and be heard, feel empowered, experience playfulness, and find joy in some of life’s hardest seasons. She has had extensive training in a variety of different therapeutic modalities including EMDR, CBT, Sand Tray therapy, Play Therapy (Registered Play Therapist), Expressive Arts, TBRI, and Child Parent Relationship Therapy. It is a focus of hers to ensure she is operating from a trauma responsive lens and to be consistently supportive of others in doing the same. After spending years working on a beautiful 220-acre ranch providing therapy to adolescents in fields, next to lakes, and sitting in forts made by her young clients, she has been a first-hand witness to the healing properties the outdoors can have on adolescents and young adults in some of the hardest seasons of their lives. This passion and genuine desire to utilize the tremendous and expansive therapeutic gifts of the natural world led her to pursue her role in wilderness therapy.

Personally, Jennifer is a mom of three, marathon runner, and lover of the outdoors. She enjoys simply being in an outdoor setting practicing mindfulness and sitting in her hammock reading a good book.

Leadership Team

Dr. Ryan Patterson

Dr. Ryan Patterson

Medical Director

Ryan Paterson attended the University of Vermont School of Medicine and completed his Emergency Medicine Residency and Fellowship in Wilderness/Altitude/Expedition Medicine at Denver Health Medical Center/the University of Colorado, USA. He also holds advanced certifications in Tropical Medicine from the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H) and in Mountain Medicine (DiMM). He is a practicing, board-certified Emergency Physician for Kaiser Permanente at St Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, USA, and associate professor at the University of Colorado in the Department of Emergency Medicine section of Wilderness, Environmental and Expedition Medicine.

In leisure, Ryan loves to spend time outdoors with his spouse and two children. He is an avid traveler, climber, and a former distance athlete.

Dr. Paterson is the founder and director of Emergency Medical Providers (EMP) a leader in the provision of remote medical support and expedition medical direction. Ryan is co-founder and former director for the Wilderness Medical Society Diploma in Mountain Medicine (DiMM) course. Ryan also has significant experience in large-race/event medical management. He serves as medical director for GlobalLimits and has medically-directed multiple GlobalLimits events. He is the current United States delegate to the International Society of Mountain Medicine (ISMM). Ryan founded the FLuME foundation and serves as medical director for Kolkata City Mission (KCM) working through both organizations to establish sustainable development solutions in education, health, women’s empowerment, micro-enterprise, and public-health for informal communities in and around Kolkata, India. Combining all of his training and passion, Dr. Paterson has worked in Disaster Relief efforts in both post-earthquake Nepal and with the UN in Iraq. Additionally, Dr. Paterson is an altitude researcher, expedition physician, mountain emergency medicine educator, and guide.

Jeff Holloway

Jeff Holloway, MSW

Executive Director

Jeff found his love for working with adolescents while tutoring under-privileged children as an undergraduate, and this experience influenced his decision to major in social work. Jeff earned his bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of South Dakota, and then his Master’s in Social Work at the University of Iowa. For the next decade, Jeff specialized in working with issues related to childhood trauma in a variety of treatment settings, including residential treatment, in-home services, foster care, and outpatient therapy. In 2002, Jeff relocated with his family from Iowa to Georgia, where he worked in administrative roles at a therapeutic boarding school, a therapeutic wilderness program and a boarding school specializing in learning disabilities. These experiences further honed his expertise in working with adolescents and with complex family systems. His desire to help families find the right treatment options for their children led him to educational and therapeutic consulting, where he helped to facilitate hundreds of therapeutic placements.

Of joining the First Light Wilderness team, Jeff stated, “Having the opportunity to join the family of New Vision Wilderness programs and to return to working directly with children and families refuels the fire that was started over 20 years ago when I discovered how powerfully healing working in nature with a group of kids could be. I am so excited to work with this incredible team of professionals to provide healing, growth and service to families at First Light. “ Jeff has lived in North Georgia since 2002 with his wife, Debi, and their three college-aged children. When not working, Jeff enjoys golfing, practicing martial arts, and driving through the mountains on his Harley.

Drew Hornbeck, co-founder and CEO of New Vision Wilderness, stated, “I couldn’t be more excited to have Jeff’s leadership at First Light Wilderness. He brings a depth of knowledge and industry experience to the team, and represents many of the core values that we hold at New Vision, particularly those of trusting relationships and evidence-based outcomes. He has a proven ability to work effectively with others, and his leadership is a critical component to ensuring the best possible experience for children and families who trust us to deliver high quality treatment.”

Jeff can be reached at: Jeffrey.holloway@firstlightwilderness.com.

Mary Jo degrandi

Mary Jo DeGrandi

Senior Director of Professional Relations

Mary Jo brings more than 20 years of experience in therapeutic settings to her role at First Light Wilderness. She began her career as a child advocate, working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in native Alaskan communities, where she discovered how impactful it could be to provide therapeutic treatment in outdoor settings. She went on to earn her master’s degree in Ecopsychology and Child Development from Antioch New England University, and subsequent roles included facilitating growth-focused young adult expeditions abroad, working as a wilderness therapist and as a clinician in therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment.

Mary Jo’s career has remained centered around serving children and complex family systems in a variety of treatment and community-based settings. Her outgoing nature and desire to build relationships and connect with others led her to roles in clinical outreach, admissions, and business development, with the goal of increasing awareness of and access to treatment options. Mary Jo believes strongly in engaging with others from a place of compassion and integrity, whether that be with a referral partner, a colleague or a family in need of treatment.

Mary Jo is married with 2 young children and 2 young adult stepsons. She is a passionate Italian cook who loves hiking around the woods of Vermont, traveling and exploring new places, listening to live music, getting her hands dirty in the garden, and enjoying time with family.

Brandon Olson

Brandon Olson

Program Director

Brandon’s combined passion for service and for the outdoors has been a driving force throughout his career. After graduating with a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Johnson State College in Vermont, Brandon joined the Peace Corp, where he spent 2 years training young service guides in environmental education at a nature reserve in Nicaragua.

Upon his return to the U.S., Brandon spent time teaching and leading expeditions for an alternative school in New Hampshire. His passion working with young people in the outdoors led him to the mountains of Colorado, where he worked as the Program Director at San Juan Wilderness Therapy for 4 years.

In 2010, Brandon moved back to New England to be closer to family. Brandon expanded his experience serving at-risk populations by working as a Probation and Parole Officer for 5 years, followed by 2 years working at the Vermont Department of Health, where he managed State and Federal grants for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs. He subsequently became the Program Director at Central Vermont Addiction Medicine, an Opioid Treatment Program serving more than 500 people. His experience working with at-risk populations, his extensive knowledge of substance abuse and recovery, and his passion for the outdoors ultimately led to his desire to return to wilderness therapy. His capacity to lead, teach, and manage both people and systems are perfectly suited to his role managing the operations of a wilderness treatment program.

On a personal level, Brandon continues to deepen his own love of outdoor experiences through rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, and camping. In addition, he has a love for competitive obstacle course racing (OCR), and has competed twice in the OCR World Championships. Brandon lives in Dahlonega with his wife, 2 sons and 2 dogs.

TaKesha Jones James

Director of Human Resources

TaKesha brings a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience to her role as Director of Human Resources and Office Manager for First Light Wilderness. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Child & Family Studies with an emphasis in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies from Berea College. She went on to obtain a Master of Science in Studies in Human Behavior from Capella University.

TaKesha began and has spent the larger portion of her career providing services to children and adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities between the states of Kentucky and South Carolina, including Case Management, Residential Life and Career Skills Training. She has experience in Staffing and Recruitment as well as Service Excellence Coordination, with a focus on improving the client/patient experience while receiving services. TaKesha’s career shifted when she was presented with the opportunity to serve youth with specific needs. She worked for several years as the Executive Director in the non-profit realm with children of incarcerated adults, which gave her tremendous insight into family structure, the importance of community stakeholders, and strategies to help counter generational cycles or patterns that affect adolescent and young adult behavioral outcomes. All opportunities resulted in the development of strong partnerships with the school districts, various manufacturing vendors, civic organizations, and colleges, which TaKesha embraced and engaged with fully with a sense of passion, commitment and service.

TaKesha has a strong background in leadership, training, coaching, public speaking and resource development for service provision, team accountability and empowerment. Her motto is that “every person deserves to be invested in regardless of past actions. There are no lost causes. If you want to see something different, show someone something different.”

TaKesha is the mother of a beautiful young adult daughter. She enjoys living on purpose to include serving in ministry, traveling, cooking, gardening, dancing, teaching, and entertaining the company of those closest to her. TaKesha simply loves trying new things.

Aleshka Szypulski

Director of Business Development

Aleshka has a genuine and authentic passion for sharing the impact of First Light’s wilderness programming with referral partners, mental health providers, and families. She brings over twenty years of experience in outreach and public relations in New York City, Boston MA and Asheville, NC and holds dual bachelor’s degrees in US History and Studio Art from the College of Charleston. For the majority of the last decade, Aleshka has focused her career within the field of mental health; increasing the awareness of available treatment options and promoting access to treatment. Aleshka has previously worked for programs serving adolescents and young adults, in wilderness, residential, and transitional settings. Her most recent tenure was as the Director of Admissions and Marketing at a residential treatment center for adolescent boys in Colorado.

As a mother of four children, Aleshka has a personal investment and deep compassion for families as she helps them move through both the practical and the emotional aspects of placing their child in treatment. She believes in the power of wilderness therapy because she has witnessed the positive impact first hand within her circle of loved ones. In her outreach role at First Light Wilderness, she travels regionally and nationally to provide professionals and families with the information they need to understand the First Light trauma responsive treatment approach and how it lays the groundwork for transformative and lasting change.

Aleshka is an outdoor enthusiast and enjoys hiking and camping with her children. In her free time she enjoys oil painting, raising her backyard flock of chickens, gardening and playing piano.

Laura Storey, MPA, MBA

Director of Client Relations

Laura is a marketing and business development professional with a proven track record of cultivating strong and authentic relationships. As Director of Client Relations for First Light Wilderness, she brings that authentic ability to connect genuinely and compassionately to both families who are struggling with their loved ones’ mental and behavioral health, as well as with the professionals who are serving families during their most challenging life journeys.

Over the last five years, Laura served on the leadership team at a therapeutic boarding school where she developed winning brand management and retention strategies to connect families with the best mental health resources for their children. She was able to build and nurture relationships with educational professionals, families, other therapeutic programs, and clinical providers.

Prior to working in the world of behavioral health, Laura’s career started in politics as an intern at The White House, and subsequently, as a grassroots organizer for a presidential re-election campaign. After several years in political fundraising and grassroots organizing across the country, Laura took a career leap towards behavioral health and has loved every moment since. She is honored to work in such a meaningful capacity where her work directly impacts the lives of so many families. Laura is acutely attuned to the customer experience, is highly focused on the details that create a seamless enrollment and treatment journey for families and referral partners, and is naturally inclined to go the extra mile in order to respond to a family or referral partner’s need—whether it has been overtly stated or just observed through her keen sense of awareness.

Last October, Laura graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School from the Weekend Executive MBA program, where she focused on corporate strategy and entrepreneurship. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of South Carolina, as well as a Masters of Public Administration. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running her small baking business using her Mama’s heirloom recipes. When she’s not in the kitchen, she loves running, biking on the Peloton, attempting DIY projects, and spoiling her nieces. Laura lives in Asheville, NC with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Addie Lou.

Christopher Jones

Director of Operations

Christopher Jones, M.Ed brings over twenty years of experience in program design and management to his role as Operations Director at First Light. His experience includes facilitating and teaching backcountry skills, providing guidance and direct instruction to outdoor professionals and young people, designing and fabricating custom outdoor equipment and clothing, and managing all aspects of outdoor programming and logistics. Chris has worked with a diverse population of youth, across a multitude of age ranges, in various programs including therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness therapy programs, Outward Bound programs, environmental programs, outdoor education instruction and summer camps. The depth and breadth of his knowledge and experience make him an invaluable asset in the leadership of the program.

Christopher graduated from Georgia College and State University and earned both his Bachelor’s and his Master’s degrees in Education, with a specific concentration in Outdoor Education. He is also a certified Wilderness First Responder. Chris is dedicated to the application of his background and experience to facilitate both best practices as well as top-notch execution of the both the Operations and Development of the First Light program. Additionally, Chris is dedicated to mentoring both staff and students in best practices in the use and care of the environment which he loves so deeply.

Christopher is a proud veteran of the United States Marine Corps, having served and attained the rank of Sergeant. In his free time, he likes to spend time outdoors with his wife and son, and engaging in creative pursuits such as designing and fabricating the latest and greatest custom outdoor gear and clothing.

Admissions Team

Mary Jo degrandi

Mary Jo DeGrandi

Senior Director of Professional Relations

Mary Jo brings more than 20 years of experience in therapeutic settings to her role at First Light Wilderness. She began her career as a child advocate, working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in native Alaskan communities, where she discovered how impactful it could be to provide therapeutic treatment in outdoor settings. She went on to earn her master’s degree in Ecopsychology and Child Development from Antioch New England University, and subsequent roles included facilitating growth-focused young adult expeditions abroad, working as a wilderness therapist and as a clinician in therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment.

Mary Jo’s career has remained centered around serving children and complex family systems in a variety of treatment and community-based settings. Her outgoing nature and desire to build relationships and connect with others led her to roles in clinical outreach, admissions, and business development, with the goal of increasing awareness of and access to treatment options. Mary Jo believes strongly in engaging with others from a place of compassion and integrity, whether that be with a referral partner, a colleague or a family in need of treatment.

Mary Jo is married with 2 young children and 2 young adult stepsons. She is a passionate Italian cook who loves hiking around the woods of Vermont, traveling and exploring new places, listening to live music, getting her hands dirty in the garden, and enjoying time with family.

Aleshka Szypulski

Director of Business Development

Aleshka has a genuine and authentic passion for sharing the impact of First Light’s wilderness programming with referral partners, mental health providers, and families. She brings over twenty years of experience in outreach and public relations in New York City, Boston MA and Asheville, NC and holds dual bachelor’s degrees in US History and Studio Art from the College of Charleston. For the majority of the last decade, Aleshka has focused her career within the field of mental health; increasing the awareness of available treatment options and promoting access to treatment. Aleshka has previously worked for programs serving adolescents and young adults, in wilderness, residential, and transitional settings. Her most recent tenure was as the Director of Admissions and Marketing at a residential treatment center for adolescent boys in Colorado.

As a mother of four children, Aleshka has a personal investment and deep compassion for families as she helps them move through both the practical and the emotional aspects of placing their child in treatment. She believes in the power of wilderness therapy because she has witnessed the positive impact first hand within her circle of loved ones. In her outreach role at First Light Wilderness, she travels regionally and nationally to provide professionals and families with the information they need to understand the First Light trauma responsive treatment approach and how it lays the groundwork for transformative and lasting change.

Aleshka is an outdoor enthusiast and enjoys hiking and camping with her children. In her free time she enjoys oil painting, raising her backyard flock of chickens, gardening and playing piano.

Laura Storey, MPA, MBA

Director of Client Relations

Laura is a marketing and business development professional with a proven track record of cultivating strong and authentic relationships. As Director of Client Relations for First Light Wilderness, she brings that authentic ability to connect genuinely and compassionately to both families who are struggling with their loved ones’ mental and behavioral health, as well as with the professionals who are serving families during their most challenging life journeys.

Over the last five years, Laura served on the leadership team at a therapeutic boarding school where she developed winning brand management and retention strategies to connect families with the best mental health resources for their children. She was able to build and nurture relationships with educational professionals, families, other therapeutic programs, and clinical providers.

Prior to working in the world of behavioral health, Laura’s career started in politics as an intern at The White House, and subsequently, as a grassroots organizer for a presidential re-election campaign. After several years in political fundraising and grassroots organizing across the country, Laura took a career leap towards behavioral health and has loved every moment since. She is honored to work in such a meaningful capacity where her work directly impacts the lives of so many families. Laura is acutely attuned to the customer experience, is highly focused on the details that create a seamless enrollment and treatment journey for families and referral partners, and is naturally inclined to go the extra mile in order to respond to a family or referral partner’s need—whether it has been overtly stated or just observed through her keen sense of awareness.

Last October, Laura graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School from the Weekend Executive MBA program, where she focused on corporate strategy and entrepreneurship. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of South Carolina, as well as a Masters of Public Administration. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running her small baking business using her Mama’s heirloom recipes. When she’s not in the kitchen, she loves running, biking on the Peloton, attempting DIY projects, and spoiling her nieces. Laura lives in Asheville, NC with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Addie Lou.

Support Team

Crystal Stephens

Office Coordinator

Crystal’s penchant for helping others is inherent and has been apparent from a young age. Originally from Dawsonville, Georgia, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 19 to serve as a Security Forces member. After her military service, she continued her education while caring for her 2 children. She has lived in Texas, North Dakota and New Mexico, and in each place, she found ways to contribute and help others in her community. Crystal earned an Associate Degree in Communications and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in University Studies, with concentrations in Sociology and Social Work. Throughout her life, Crystal has sought out ways to help others through volunteering. She acted as a mentor, advocate and active member for several service organizations including Companions for Children, Arise Sexual Assault Services, ENMU Greyhound Connection Mentor Program, Wounded Warrior Project, and Portales Creative Group. Her motivation to help others is never-ending and she always finds the positive spot in even the toughest situations. At her last position as the Administrative Assistant for the Department of Art at Eastern New Mexico University, she served as a member, as the secretary and as treasurer for the Support Staff Senate, acting a liaison and advocate for the staff. Crystal has also worked with children in varying capacities, including as a tutor and an aide to children with special needs.

Crystal’s unique experiences in childhood in the foster care system have shaped and encouraged her in her quest to help other children facing challenges, which is evident in her servant heart and her commitment to volunteerism and mission-driven professional work. Adopted at the age of 15, her challenging early childhood experiences have always inspired her desire help others, especially children, to overcome obstacles and embrace positivity. She places a lot of merit and value in the importance of family and the connections made and maintained individually and within the family unit. She believes that all experiences, whether positive or negative, can lead to growth and becoming the best version of oneself. As a single parent of 2 teenagers, Crystal strives to be a supportive, positive role model, as her adoptive parents and family have been for her.

In her free time, Crystal enjoys reading, listening to live music, exploring nature, photography, art, writing, thrift store shopping, making jewelry and spending time with her family. She believes that getting back to nature allows the best opportunity for personal growth, and is passionate about working for an organization that is dedicated to helping others rediscover and remembering who they are at their core.

Field Team

The Field Team includes outdoor experts with an array of professional and personal experience. Our field guides are at the heart of our caregiving team and bring expertise in safety and risk management, as well as compassion for struggling youth, enthusiasm for utilizing the outdoors as a catalyst for positive change, and a sense of pride in their ability to build rapport and relationship. They frequently bring creative use of natural resources to individualized interventions and a curiosity and passion for learning how to draw out a young person’s strengths as well as to support them in facing their challenges.

Jake Stibbe

Jake Stibbe

Field Instructor

Jake Stibbe, BFA, is a Wilderness Field Instructor at First Light Wilderness. His primary focus is practicing the CASA model with his students in order to demonstrate and instill the practice of creating healthy relationships. Jake is certified as a Wilderness First Responder and is always attuned to the physical, emotional, and relational safety of each member of his group.

Stibbe graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emerson College and was working in the outdoor industry with Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School for the past year before coming to First Light in 2020. Since then, he has continued to find moments of joy with his students, feeling honored to be a part of each students’ therapeutic journey.

One of Stibbe’s most outstanding qualities he brings into the field is his emphasis on creating and maintaining a fun and joyous atmosphere. He continues to provide a space for learning and growth while simultaneously holding himself to a similar growth mindset.

Luke Cottom

Luke Cottom

Field Instructor

Stay tuned, my bio is coming soon!

Keiyanna Sealey Woodard

Keiyanna Sealey Woodard

Field Instructor

After exploring over 20 National Parks and Monuments across the United States, Keiyanna has a keenly developed appreciation and passion for teaching, learning and implementing thoughtful and engaging curricula in an outdoor setting. She brings her own love of learning to her role as a field guide at First Light and is inspired to keep students safe both physically and emotionally, as well as to support them in building healthy relationships and empowering each student to reach for the best version of themselves. Keiyanna earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology at the University of Georgia and her Master of Arts degree in Anthropology at Georgia State University. She is enthralled by the study of what it is to be human and the human experience in all of its beauty and challenges. She also brings a specialty in forensic entomology to her role as a field guide and loves instilling curiosity in students.

Michael Brown

Field Instructor

Michael’s experience in the mental health and behavioral health field includes community-based youth programs, inpatient and residential facilities, work in the Indiana state prison system, public speaking on suicide awareness and prevention, and crisis intervention. He spent six years in a variety of settings with youth before finding wilderness therapy. His passions in life include all things related to psychology, the human mind and human behavior, and being immersed in the wilderness, which combine perfectly in his role as a field guide at First Light. Michael believes there is no higher calling for human-kind than to help others in any way possible.

Michael is actively working toward advanced degrees in counseling psychology through Southern New Hampshire University and has received his survival instructor certification through Sigma 3 Survival School (2020). He loves all things outdoors and finds his role at First Light allows him to actively engage all of his passions and to live his dream of making a difference in the lives of others.

Grant Ritter

Field Instructor

Grant brings to his role at First Light more than three years of experience working with young people in roles related to mental health. His primary focus is student safety as it relates to their physical, emotional and mental health, and sees his role as supporting the wellbeing of students, families and the program. Holistic in his thinking, Grant is especially dedicated to helping students identify their strengths, experience success, and heal from trauma.

Grant earned his degree from Utah Valley University and is certified as a USAR LPN (licensed practical nurse). He prides himself on his ability to offer insight into safety and emotional trauma support. He is a sharer of knowledge, and enjoys lighting the spark of curiosity in others. In his free time, Grant likes to rock climb, hunt and fish.

Shelby Cundiff

Field Instructor

Stay tuned, my bio is coming soon!

Kristy Armstrong

Field Instructor

Kristy Armstrong is a 20 year retired veteran of the US Army. Kristy earned her Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from Park University, and is passionate about empowering young people through structure, guidance and building in them a sense that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve through hard work and persistence. In her free time, Kristy enjoys spending time with her family and doing volunteer work.

Alfredo Francis

Field Instructor

Alfredo Francis is a seasoned Field Instructor at First Light Wilderness. Alfredo graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He has a passion for climbing and is a certified mountaineer from the Mexican Alpine Club. He has more than 6 years of experience focusing on the challenge of alpine climbing and rigorous outdoor pursuits, including summitting the third highest mountain in North America three times and hiking 1200 miles of the Appalachian Trail before joining the First Light team. He enjoys sharing his knowledge of the outdoors with students, adding his passion for eastern philosophy and forms of meditation. His calm, patient demeanor and contagious sense of curiosity about the world around him contribute to his passion for working with young people in a healing capacity.

Melissa Julia

Field Instructor

Originally from Colorado, Melissa lives in the mountains of Northern Alabama, where she enjoys foraging, hiking with her dogs and playing the banjo. She has worked as an organic farmer for almost a decade and enjoys sharing her love of nature and plants with students. Her passion for the natural world contributes to her patience, her desire to help students slow down and pay attention to the world around them, and in doing so, learning to become more in tune with themselves.

Alexis Adkins

Alexis Adkins is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Experimental Psychology. Alexis (“Lex”) appreciates how nature aids the students through their healing journeys, and is passionate about mindfulness, double exposure film photography, and Trauma-informed therapy. Lex loves to bring fun into her work with students, creating opportunities for exploration of the natural world and a keen sense of observation and discovery that she enjoys sharing with students as they learn to cultivate their own sense of curiosity and wonder.

Canine Team

Rush

Hello, hello, hello!! My name is Rush, and I’m an amber colored Golden Retriever who works with our girls’ groups. As a K9 field guide, I stay in the woods 24/7 to care for our adolescent students. I am named Rush after the first US Gold Rush which took place in Dahlonega, Georgia, home to our First Light Wilderness offices. However, I also find myself "Rush"ing around to care for everyone in the group, which is what I’m here for! Emotionally dysregulated? I'm there to get your attention and remind you to use a coping skill! Need to reconnect with your sense of silliness and joy? I love games so let's play! In fact, I love playing fetch... endlessly. There are other times when we all need to calm down and find peace, so I will sit with you and give cuddles while you pet my soft fur. I follow commands really well and truly love my job. I even have my own tent and I enjoy hiking and exploring the beautiful north Georgia wilderness. I am incredibly outgoing and social, and I love everyone. I look forward to meeting you!

Springer

Hello! My name is Springer, and I’m a blonde colored Golden Retriever who works with our boys’ groups. As a K9 field guide, I stay in the woods 24/7 to care for our adolescents. I am named Springer after Springer Mountain, which is in our field area and is the beginning to the famous Appalachian Trail. However, I also find myself "Springing" into action to care for everyone in the group. Emotionally dysregulated? Me too! Let's calm down together. I may have a little doggie ADHD so it's easy for many students to relate to me and my energy, but they also gain the perspective of their parents while trying to care for me. When I don't listen, they get to feel frustrated and work through not being able to control others. I’m working on learning to obey commands and respond really well to consistency and structure, which I find helps our students too! I even have my own tent and I enjoy as much attention as you can give me. I look forward to meeting you!

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