“No Care In Carolina, No Hope in Costa Rica”
I guess it all started in high school, with my quest for acceptance. Self-acceptance? Group- acceptance? Yes, and yes. Unfortunately, when I found what I was looking for, it was with the group of kids that threw the parties. That were themselves the parties.
It didn’t take long for me to start experimenting with drugs. Cigarettes? Check. Weed? Check. Alchohol? Check. Cocaine? Yeah, check. I started to skip school, and consequently, my grades dropped. I fully acknowledge the fact that I needed help. I shudder to think, though, that my concerned parents didn’t do better research on who they were receiving the help from.
My mom and dad brought me to Carolina Springs Academy in Due West, South Carolina, a mere three and a half hour drive from our North Carolina home. Upon arrival, two women came out of the girl’s dorms. They lovingly greeted my parents, and assured them that I was in good hands. One of the women took my things, and the other started to guide me inside.
I turned back to my parents, but the woman who had a hold of my arm blocked my way. She said it was late; that there would be plenty of time for goodbyes in the morning, when my parents came back to meet with the schools representatives. So I let them go without a hug, without so much as a goodbye.
The next morning I waited and waited to be called to see my parents. I waited during morning head count, when my “Hope Buddy,” a level 4, shoved me down, called me stupid for not turning my head while saying my number, and pulled me back up by my hair. I waited through two male staff picking my uniform from out of an old, dirty storage shed, and then waited as I suffered through the indignity of thier making me strip naked to change in front of them. I waited all the way through the afternoon, through “family group.”
I then asked Mrs. W., the older woman who was to be my family representative throughout my stay, when I could see my parents to say goodbye. She told me they had already come, met with her, and left for home. She went on to say that my parents were the ones that didn’t want to see me, a dirty, bad, unworthy kid, until the school had fixed me.
Over the next months, I became known as a refuser. I refused to work the program. When I was caught making plans with another student to run away, I spent a week straight in OP. OP is a small outdoor closet that is barely big enough to turn around in. When I was first put into this torture chamber, they left the door open and had two staff, one male and one female, watch over me. The male made me stand with my arms over my head for hours. When I lowered my arms from exhaustion, even a little bit, he yanked me out of OP and restrained me: he clamped my arms behind my back, shoved my face down into the dirt, and lay on top of me, yelling into my ear with various degrading names. I finally held my arms the way he wanted, taking breaks only when his back was turned.
That night they shut the door on me. For six more days, it was opened again only to push in a glass of water, the occasional piece of stale bread. I spent the next five months going in and out of OP.
When I was in OP, I missed school. When I got out of OP, I lost points for not doing schoolwork. In this country, it is illegal for a minor to be prevented from attending school. Carolina Springs broke the law by preventing me from attending school–by literally trapping me in a box—and then punished me, for being trapped in that box.
During my OP-era, the seminars rolled around. I do not want to spend a lot of time on seminars, because they horrify me still. I will describe them, though, in a handful of words. Brainwashing, demeaning, violent, and brutal. I think the company went on to do some really brilliant things, like be classified as a cult. Please note the sarcasm.
Because I am agnostic, I was often singled out and told that I was wrong. I needed, we all needed, to believe in and practice Mormonism. David Gilcrease himself yelled at me in a seminar about it. He is now recognized as a cult leader.
To give a sense of everyday life, here are a few of the rules. We could not sit without permission, could not stand without permission. We couldn’t readjust our ponytails without permission. We were not allowed to speak, ever, unless staff addressed us. We had to use bizarre hand gestures to ask permission to do anything, like go to the bathroom. We could only hand-gesture “ask” an upper level, and if one wasn’t around, then tough shit. Even when they were around, they could choose to tell us no, which they often did. We couldn’t wear shoes in the bathroom, couldn’t sit on our beds unless it was time to go to sleep. It was considered “run plans” if we did.
I wrote home a few times, seeing as we could not talk to our families on the phone, let alone see them. I begged my parents to come get me, and even mentioned some of the things that were happening to me. They followed up on my pleas for help with phone calls to the school, and each time, Mrs. W. assured them that I was safe, none of the things I said were true, and I was just trying to manipulate them into bringing me home. My parents finally sent me a letter that essentially told me not to write again unless it was about the progress I was making. All of my chances of escape were now closed to me.
Then March 2005 came. At group one day that month, Mrs. W. told me she needed to talk to me after group. I sat there for an hour terrified of what I had done now, and dreading my trip back to OP. Finally, group ended and Mrs. W. sat me down and told me that my grandfather had died. Then she stood up and offered me only this: “Maybe if you weren’t such a bad girl, Mattie, you could’ve been there for his last months, his last holidays, and his last days. Now he has died knowing what a failure you are destined to be.” Then she walked out. I was then told by staff that my family didn’t want me home for the funeral, seeing as how big of a disappointment I was.
That’s when I decided to stop fighting it, and instead, to beat them at their own game. I decided to fake it to make it.
For the next year, I followed the rules, did my work and wrote light and fluffy letters home to my family.
In February 2006, I was promoted to Level 5. My good behavior was rewarded with the chance to open the parent company’s new school, Pillars of Hope, in Orotina, Costa Rica.
Costa Rica was a breath of fresh air and a piece of cake.
Because the staff weren’t trained to be violent and malicious.
The longer I spent time there, the worse my reality became. Every morning we were forced to do strenuous landscaping work, picking up giant weeds with thorns, without gloves, before we were allowed to eat breakfast.
The girls were eventually moved off-campus and had to ride to the campus every day, packed into a small SUV. One day, another girl student and I were packed into the very back of the car, barely big enough for one—the kind of space where someone might put a few groceries. We were on a dirt road, went over a giant rock, and the back door popped open. We both happened to be leaning on it, and we both were thrown from the moving vehicle at 40 MPH. We were stuffed back into the car, regardless of our dirty, bleeding wounds and possible concussions. We received no medical care. That is when I realized that the Costa Rican staff didn’t give a crap about us, either. I settled back into my routine: doing what I had to do to get out. I left six months later, only two weeks before my 18th birthday, graduating both the program and high school.
In total, I was in the WWASP program for a total of 22 months. But the effects didn’t stop when I left. I spiraled downward into drugs and alcohol, twenty times worse than before. With drugs, I thought I could escape the terror-streak WWASP had created in me. I tried to commit suicide once, and was hospitalized for severe depression resulting from PTSD. I barely talked, especially if men were around.
After a four year struggle with drugs I quit, cold turkey. I later entered therapy, where I struggle to scrub those horrifying events from my memory. I suffer, still, from nightmares and flashbacks. I’ve been in therapy for nine months now, and clean for fifteen months. To this day, every day is a struggle. My relationship with my parents has never recovered. I doubt it ever will.
I am in contact with other students that went through similar experiences, and people that are ready to take a stand. I thank these people for all of their encouragement and kind words. Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to take my own personal stand, here, by writing my story.
The parent company of both Carolina Springs Academy and Pillars of Hope is called WWASP, the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. The owner of WWASP is Robert Lichfield. His brother, Narvin Lichfield, was in charge of both of my schools.
I would like to take a moment to recognize two friends and former students of CSA who have since lost their lives. You both will always have a dear place in my heart.