When Gwen Miller of Lombard was sexually abused as a young child, she found a less-than-obvious place for therapy and comfort: nature and the outdoors.
Now, as a 24-year-old, she's on a path to become a wilderness therapist, opening the outdoors to others who need nature's healing powers.
Her aim? Help other survivors of childhood sexual abuse recover through nature -- just as she has.
"Because of the help I received when I first disclosed it, I want to provide that level of help to others who have just disclosed it," Miller said.
Before she starts her own wilderness therapy career, Miller is piling up volunteer experience by introducing others to the beauty and healing power of the outdoors.
"(Nature) really helps her a lot, so she feels it can help other people as well," said Miller's fiancee, Jared Kau of Roselle. "She's had a therapist and worked with a therapist who's done amazing things in her life, and so she just wants to give back."
Miller's done that by leading inner-city kids on hikes and backpacking trips, as well as traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby for legislation that encourages kids to go outside. Miller's outdoor activism is motivated by her desire to help young people benefit from the natural world.
"When you like something, you care more about it and you want to protect it," she said. "Without an interest and a comfort level in nature, a child might not see conservation as an important factor in life."
Camping, hiking, horseback riding, bonfires, canoeing -- as far back as she can remember, Miller says the outdoors have been an enjoyable and welcome escape.
"I just felt so much happier when I was in the outdoors. I felt so much more alive and safe than I did at home," she said.
At home, a relative sexually abused her when she was between 4 and 7 years old, she said. She said she didn't tell anyone until going to police at 16, when she understood sexual abuse and wanted to heal mentally so she could have healthy relationships and a family of her own.
But even as a child, dealing with her hidden abuse and shyness, Miller joined an environmental club at Westmore School in Villa Park and began to learn about conservation.
Later, in addition to several types of therapy to help her recover from the abuse, she took an outdoor education class in wilderness survival skills at College of DuPage. The class taught her how to build shelters and collect safe drinking water. That led to an increased interest in rock climbing, hiking and everything outdoors.
"Even going on nature hikes can be really calming -- simple hikes, time spent reflecting in nature, journaling in nature," Miller said. "There's a lot of different ways you can use nature for therapy."
Miller wants her outdoor activism focused on children, whom she says can benefit from connecting with the outdoors even if they don't need therapy.
To that end, she's a volunteer for Chicago Inner City Outings, a project of the Sierra Club that takes urban children on day-trips so they can experience an environment other than the metal and asphalt of the city.
"She really does relate to the kids and care about kids, and care about inspiring them," said Colin Tyso, director of Chicago Inner City Outings. "She's very good at working with kids of different abilities."
In September, Miller traveled to Washington, D.C., with other Sierra Club volunteers to advocate the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, which would give states funds to develop plans to get more children involved in outdoor activities.
"Physical activity is also good for mental health," she said.
A few Chicago-area organizations that offer wilderness or adventure therapy also promote the mental health benefits of spending time outdoors.
Wilderness therapy programs offered by Chicago Adventure Therapy and Buffalo Grove-based OMNI Youth Services have been growing the past several years and can be effective for youths struggling with substance abuse, risky behavior or some traumatic experiences, said John Conway, coordinator of experiential and wilderness therapy at OMNI.
"Being in an outdoor adventure-based opportunity provides kids, especially adolescents, with high risk-taking types of behavior, (with activities) that are a little safer than the risks they might already be engaged in," Conway said. "In terms of the impact and the ability to have a very large impact in a short period of time, I don't think there's anything more effective than adventure-based therapy."
Many wilderness therapy programs combine the outdoor expertise of a field guide with the clinical counseling skills of a therapist who stops by during the expedition, Conway said.
But those best suited to become wilderness therapists have nature knowledge and clinical skills, said Andrea Knepper, founder of Chicago Adventure Therapy.
"They should have some understanding of the way sport or nature can influence someone -- that it can have a transforming effect on people," Knepper said.
With Miller's wilderness survival skills, her job as a climbing wall attendant at Lifetime Fitness in Schaumburg and her personal experience with the transformative power of the outdoors, she's got the nature knowledge down.
She plans to enroll at a university outside Illinois in the next couple years to learn clinical techniques to start a therapy program for others who suffered sexual abuse.
"She's had some past experiences in her life that weren't very positive, and it's kind of driven her," said Kau, Miller's fiance. "She loves listening -- truly listening to people's problems and trying her best to help and understand."