Matt Claybaugh ‘87 (above center) is the co-author of a chapter in Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy, and the president and CEO of Marimed Foundations, an organization that has changed the lives of at-risk Hawai`i youth, the majority of whom are native Hawaiian, through ocean wilderness therapy for the last twenty-four years, and now adults through a mariner training program.
“Living on islands, the ocean is ever-present—we do have woods and wild places—but none of them compare to the ocean’s challenges and gifts in my mind,” he said.
Claybaugh was born in Wisconsin but moved to Hawai`i when he was seven. He spent most of his waking hours surfing the north and east shores of O’ahu and then every other summer, he explored the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at his family cabin on Gunflint Lake.
In high school, he wanted to be a forester. “Northland sent me a brochure and I was sold on the fact that I would be in the north woods and go to college,” he said.
Here he studied history and secondary education and paddled and surfed kayaks on Lake Superior.
Out of college, Claybaugh taught high school on the Big Island of Hawai`i then returned home to O’ahu in 1991 to attend the University of Hawai`i, Manoa, receiving his master of art and PhD in American studies.
“I always worked with the most disenfranchised and challenged kids in the state and that led me to Marimed in 1993,” he said.
Claybaugh joined the team as program director and spearheaded a two-year joint venture with a ship-based, rolling admissions program for twenty-eight, court-referred youth from several states, including Hawai`i.
He helped create Kailana (Calm Seas) a residential adolescent behavioral healthcare program that incorporated boat building and daily ocean-based activities like rowing, sailing, and outrigger canoe paddling, with individual and group therapy sessions.
“I was hoping to help create an ocean-going wilderness school for at-risk youth, reflective of the ocean wilderness I had grown up in,” he said.
And it worked. Between 1993-2017, Marimed treated more than two thousand young people. “I run into them all the time—many are doing well and claim that their time with us transformed their lives,” he said.
The Kailana model became and continues to be Marimed’s therapeutic template, blending western therapy methods, outdoor adventure, and culturally-aligned traditions into one treatment model.
Marimed decided last year to shift its focus to training native Hawaiian men and women for careers in the maritime industry. The field is experiencing a high demand for labor and they are high wage careers, Claybaugh said of the decision. Some 220 future mariners have graduated from the program in the last five years.
“There is no better role model or example than to see your parents put on their gear and head out the door to work every day,” he said. “I think there are many ways to break the cycle of poverty and having exemplary role models cannot be overstated.”