Airplanes and counseling are rarely two things that are paired together. As a family therapist, Joe McCarron understands what difficulties families go through when there's an illness or something traumatic that occurs. To help those who most needed his attention, he created a nonprofit that uses the metaphor of flight, including a ride in a plane, to counsel children through their most difficult times.
S.O.A.R.I.N.G., which stands for Special Opportunities Affirm Recognition in Noteworthy Goals, is run out of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho where McCarron has his own business as a family therapist.
McCarron explains S.O.A.R.I.N.G. "uses aviation as a metaphor for life and the stressors and accomplishments on the ground. It also uses aviation as a reward on accomplishing those things that you need to get through on the ground."
As a lifelong pilot, McCarron felt that he could combine his knowledge of flying and therapy to create a program that would best help children who needed counseling for challenging situations in their lives.
The program provides therapy for children from ages seven to 17 and is tailored to each of their ages and needs. There are four categories into which most children fall while participating in S.O.A.R.I.N.G.: Eagles, Phoenix, Falcons, and Angels.
Eagles are those with emotional and behavioral issues, Phoenix are participants who have family members who are ill, Falcons have challenges related to military life, and Angels are children with spiritual and community challenges.
The sessions are created to encourage children to express themselves and cope with their emotions. The metaphor of flight helps McCarron show the participants a more concrete example of how to be in control and how to draw parallels between different parts of life.
As part of the airplane-related component of the program, McCarron first explains what the different parts of the plane are used for. While the participants do not learn about every one of the many constituent parts, they are expected to memorize a list of the most basic components.
McCarron then connects each of the elements of the plane back to dealing with problems in daily life. For example, McCarron explains that, "There's a little thing in the back of the airplane that keeps the attitude of the airplane flying straight. Well, guess what? It's good to have a good attitude when you get up in the morning."
Each child is also told to reach into a bag filled with toy planes, which McCarron equates to the 'bag of life.' Just like life, you don't always know what you're going to get, but being prepared can help you handle the unexpected.
"I make it pretty dramatic before they pull that out. Like all of us when we make a choice, that plane needs to be taken care of and you're committed to bringing that back in and talking about it and working through the program," he says.
Once the program is complete, the graduation ceremony provides just another example of how they can soar in life. The child receives a certificate for their hard work as well as a plane ride, during which they fly all over the surrounding area.
The plane ride is not the goal of the program, however. The children certainly enjoy the chance to fly but it is all the work that happens before, while they are working through the stresses in their lives, that has the greatest effect.
For Madeline Caro, whose mother, Heather, was diagnosed with breast cancer, S.O.A.R.I.N.G. was the chance to talk about how she was feeling. She says that the program involved "talking about mamma and her treatments... I can finally let everything out that I've been thinking of."
For Heather and her husband, Christopher, they were most worried about how they could help their children cope with her illness. Their reaction to the work McCarron has done with their two children is one of gratitude. Despite the very challenging situation they find themselves in, they know that their children have received the help they need.
Heather explains that, "I think it makes counseling as a whole a lot less intimidating and it's turned into something that the whole family's been part of... It makes every difference in the world for our family."
"When I see a kid graduate, I kind of forget about the program and trying to keep the dots all connected and the work... it's kind of like I'm flying with them," says McCarron. His devotion to helping children and families cope with very difficult circumstances could not be clearer.
The joy he gets from helping children to challenge themselves and learn to express themselves in every day life is visible in his every interaction with both the children and families.
McCarron emphasizes that, "You introduce them to aviation and to getting in an airplane, and they start learning that they can have control over something... Anybody can do it, you don't have to be a pilot. You [just] keep thinking about how this plane represents life."