MUNCIE -- When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke in early 2004, Deirdre Sayre began having traumatic emotional flashbacks.Sayre hadn't done time in an Iraqi hellhole or a military prison of any kind. But at the age of 15 in 1990, she had been sent to the New Horizons Youth Ministries camp in the Dominican Republic.
Sayre says she witnessed or was subjected to the following while at the camp, Escuela Caribe:
"I had post traumatic stress disorder," Sayre told The Star Press. "When Abu Ghraib happened, I really started having major flashbacks. I could relate to the torture."
Sayre, who lives in Georgia, is one of several former New Horizons students who have come forward in recent months to tell their stories. New Horizons is based in Marion and, in addition to its camp in the Dominican Republic, has a camp in Missanabie Woods, Canada.
Many of the former students were prompted to go public by Jesus Land, a memoir by San Francisco author Julia Scheeres. In the book, Scheeres writes about growing up in Indiana in the 1980s and being sent by her parents to the New Horizons camp in the Dominican Republic after reacting with "bad behavior" to troubles at home, including her sexual molestation at the hands of an older brother.
Others talking about their time at New Horizons have found community and encouragement through an Internet site, www.nhym-alumni.org, where former students share stories about their experiences. A few cite positive experiences while in the New Horizons program. Others tell stories of physical and emotional abuse.
New Castle resident Lisa Brown Wilbur was in the New Horizons system from age 16 to 18. Much of that time was spent in the Dominican Republic.
Wilbur vividly remembers being assigned to the camp's quiet room for two weeks. Her memory is hazier when it comes to the whipping she said she received that went beyond welts -- customary for New Horizons students -- and resulted in broken skin.
"There was one time I was hit so hard that instead of blood blisters, my skin actually broke," Wilbur said. "I don't remember much about that."
Wilbur does remember wanting deliverance from the camp but being certain it would not come.
"I thought I was dead and in purgatory and nobody cared enough to pray me out," she said.
Wilbur told The Star Press she found Scheeres's book "really gentle. Much more went on than she wrote."
Scheeres acknowledged that she tempered her published account.
"I wrote several angry drafts," she said. "You can't write angry without sounding whiny."
Nevertheless, the author said the experience is still with her.
"I do still have nightmares about being sent back -- as a 39-year-old woman -- about being sent back to that place," Scheeres said.
Tina Male, who spent nearly two years in the New Horizons program in the mid-1990s, has posted comments to the Web site critical of the anger directed at the program.
"I wouldn't ever deny that those things [abuses] happen," Male said in an e-mail to The Star Press. "I don't feel that they should still hold the baggage 10 to 20 years later."
Male said the program was intended to be harsh.
"For most parents, [New Horizons] was the last resort and they had nowhere else to turn to," Male said. "So do I honestly think that it should have been a walk in the park? Hell no. It was meant for us to fall in order to bring ourselves back up."
That fall was almost too great for Deanna Wagler of LaGrange. She and her husband, Robert, sent their daughter to New Horizons' camp in the Dominican Republic. At 14, Stephanie Wagler had been diagnosed as bipolar. She refused to go to church or school, and a social worker recommended she enter the New Horizons program.
In June -- after their daughter spent seven months in the Dominican Republic -- the Waglers pulled her out and brought her back to the United States.
Their decision came after they visited the Dominican Republic and found that their daughter was being whipped every week with a leather paddle and being forced to spend hours at a time in the camp's trash pit.
The whippings "would leave red welts on her legs and butt," Deanna Wagler said. "I didn't like that at all."
The Waglers say they were paying $4,200 a month for their daughter to attend the camp.
"I think their intent is good," Wagler said. "The way they go about things is not good.
"There were kids there who had been in jail, but her problem was mostly depression and that she didn't want to be involved in life," Wagler said. "But she was treated the same as the kids who had been in jail."
Sayre, who is now married and works as a school librarian, said she hopes to channel her haunting memories of the New Horizons camp into something constructive.
"I'm in the process of writing a book," she said.
Wilbur is skeptical about the ability of New Horizons students to put the past behind them.
"I don't think it's possible to ever leave something like this behind," she said.
Contact reporter Keith Roysdon at 213-5828.
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