The Epiphany Project: Facilitating positive change through experimental education and adventure
By Michael Brady, M.Ed.


Epiphanies are powerful moments in our lives that have the ability to lead to meaningful insights and can transform our thoughts and actions. They can be the spontaneous moments of self-awareness that reveal themselves suddenly, or they can be intuitive hunches that echo in the back of our minds until we tune into them.
Epiphanies often result from personal experiences. Typically, following an experience that has precipitated an epiphany, we process the experience in our minds and apply what we have learned to our values, attitudes, behaviors and/or actions. Epiphanies can spark small changes in our thoughts, or they can be the catalysts that dramatically transform our lives forever.

On the scenic Orchard Hills Campus in Orefield, Pa., there is a program that is helping to spark “epiphanies” across the campus. The Epiphany Project: Facilitating Positive Change through Experiential Education and Adventure was piloted two years ago and has since received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from participants and staff.

The Epiphany Project is a structured nine-week, strength-based program, which is founded upon the philosophies and methodology of experiential education and adventure-based learning. Additionally, it is grounded in resiliency and positive youth development research.

Over the course of the program, participants create a safe, supportive group environment and participate in a purposefully sequenced series of engaging adventure-based activities. Through creative processing methods, the clients reflect upon their experiences and have opportunities to take ownership of their own learning. They are encouraged to apply the lessons learned from their experiences together into their own lives outside of the group.

In addition to the anchor program, customized Epiphany workshops are created for more specialized groups, such as individual units and staff.

The Epiphany Project has a set of driving tenets that guide all Epiphany experiences. 

1) Embrace Adventure – This approach encourages participants to be open to new experiences, take healthy risks, accept the idea that we can learn from unsuccessful attempts and to have fun.
2) Accept Challenge – This is the understanding that personal growth comes from pushing beyond our own boundaries and transcending the limitations that we perceive. Challenge can also mean letting go of familiar/comfortable thought patterns and/or behaviors.
3) Connect with the Natural World – This principle is the understanding that the human and natural world are interconnected; therefore, we must learn from and appreciate the world around us.
4) Self-reflection – This involves looking inward and processing experiences to truly find the meaning and lessons to be learned.
5) Creative Expression – This is about providing a variety of methods to express each person’s individuality.
6) Give Back – The group provides meaningful and relevant opportunities to make positive contributions.

In the program, participants are introduced to a set of tools that are helpful to learn and practice important life skills.

1) Epiphany Values Agreement – Using the hand as a symbol, each finger represents a value to help guide the group. The values agreement promotes consistent social norms and encourages healthy behaviors. The agreement also empowers each individual to hold himself/herself and the group accountable.
2) LOOP IT UP – This is a powerful communication tool where participants can call a “loop” (circle) and use the process, which is taught through the LOOP IT UP acronym:
L: Leader?
O: Our topic?
O: Observation or feedback?
P: Plan? If no plan’s needed, skip the next two steps.
I: Initiate the plan.
T: Timeframe?
U: Understand?
P: Peace out or Pause, depending on if the group needs to revisit the loop.
3) Experiential and Adventure-based Activities – Very engaging and purposefully selected and sequenced activities are used as the primary catalysts for positive change in Epiphany.
4) SMART Goals – This is an acronym and framework to establish and work towards specific goals. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Responsible and Time-Frame.
5) Zone of Challenge – Participants are asked to step out of their “comfort zones.” A zone of challenge model is utilized, which has three levels of growth zones. Participants use this model to check in with themselves and others about the level of challenge they are experiencing.

The Epiphany Project was piloted in 2010. Over the past two years, more than 150 clients have had the opportunity to participate at the Orchard Hills Campus. Although we are still developing a research tool to fully measure the intended outcomes of the program, a tremendous amount of positive feedback and anecdotal data has been collected regarding participants’ experiences in the program.

Data collected from exit surveys show that more than 98 percent of participants felt safe, supported and cared for during their time in Epiphany. Furthermore, many clients have written about their experiences. Here is what some of the clients have said about Epiphany:

• “Epiphany is the best thing I’ve been involved in so far during my stay at KidsPeace.”

• “Every game or activity we do and accomplish, makes me feel so good about myself knowing that I have contributed towards success instead of failure, which is what I am used to.”

• “I feel like during those few hours on Thursdays, I am not “the girl with the eating disorder,” I am just like everyone else.”

• “The Epiphany Project helped me during this low point in my life. I will never understand why I got to be so lucky.”

• “I have learned that I can be myself around others without being worried what other people think of me. I can be independent. I have learned about my peers, too. People may look “not nice,” but if you get to know a person, you can learn their true personality.”

• “I have seen from my peers that they have come out of their shells and comfort zones, even when they didn’t think they could.”

• “Best program at KidsPeace, hands down!”

• “The LOOP was helpful many times because we tend to become short or shut down. The LOOP gave us that level we needed to balance us and get us refocused.”

• “Epiphany allowed me to voice my opinion and it was actually taken into consideration and used.”

• “The Epiphany Project has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I have come so far since I’ve been in it. I have learned to trust people more often. I’ve connected with people that I never thought of talking to. I have become more positive. I am more happy with myself. I learn something new every week. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve been involved with.”

• “Epiphany is definitely effective with teens. It helps us deal with the struggles of life’s obstacles, especially the ones you can’t control.”

The Epiphany team recruited new candidates for the fall session, which began in September. All residential clients at the Orchard Hills campus are eligible to fill out an application and go through the interview process to participate in the program. Feedback from clinicians and house staff also helps in the selection process. 

A major focus has been to help reduce the number of restraints on our campus by actively recruiting clients who have higher numbers of restraints. Each Epiphany group includes activities and discussions revolving around dealing with emotions during stressful events. Additionally, we establish goals, and with the support of the group, actively work on healthier alternatives when dealing with crisis.

The Epiphany Project started as a small pilot program and has developed a good deal of momentum. As Epiphany grows on the Orchard Hills campus, we hope to expand to other KidsPeace campuses, as well as to the community. We believe the anchor program can be replicated and integrated into our other residential facilities. Moreover, the philosophies and methodology Epiphany utilizes can be adapted and customized for a broad spectrum of needs and groups, such as businesses and youth organizations.

I would like to leave you with a quote that may lead to your very own epiphany:
“We have a very powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power towards good ends.” -Mary Mcleod Bethune