Sara Henley is an AmeriCorps VISTA member with SOS. She recently joined our Masters students on their summer backpacking trip, and took some time to reflect on the difference time in the wilderness makes in kids’ lives:
In high school, I had a biology teacher who had my utmost respect. His preferred method of discipline was having students come in to his classroom to feed the turtles. In reality it was an excuse to build a relationship with the kids and reinforce positive behavior. So I took my cues from Doc Lynch and used this tactic with the Masters, focusing on building relationships with them one-on-one before and after class. Over time we built mutual respect and trust. Our recent backpacking trip was an opportunity to solidify that relationship and hang out with these kids who I’ve grown so fond of.
Day 1 was spent in the gear closet prepping supplies and creating a list of rules we vowed to follow as a group, as well as sharing our fears and excitements about the trip. Some students were scared, some wanted to be strong, they all wanted to feel emotionally and physically safe, and everyone wanted to get to know each other and have fun. Establishing these rules as a group is a key component to team success. We also introduced the core value of our trip – integrity – and discussed how that could impact our actions on this trip. As our guide John said, “A group that goes on an expedition and does not act as a team will ultimately fail.”
The next day we set off on our adventure. It was clear from the start that this group was special. Little moments made me proud to say I had worked with these kids for a year: Chris shared his sandwich with Noah, who had forgotten to pack lunch. Alexis helped Sarah cross the river without even being asked. As appointed team leader, Kevin set a pace for the group that was considerate of everybody’s needs. And Noah kept us in high spirits despite the rain by leading group songs. As the group stated regularly, we were a squad.
The next day was orienteering. John showed the kids how to use a topographic map and a compass, and told them our goal: an ascent up a nearby peak. They would have to orienteer their way there – there was no trail. After providing them with the resources and knowledge necessary, we sat back and let the kids come up with a plan together. That night, drying our socks and shoes around the campfire, we talked about the day. What did we do well? What could we have done better? This led back to the theme of the trip we’d been discussing since Day 1: integrity. Did we act with integrity? What does it mean to have integrity as a team? When navigating a difficult decision, you must use the resources you have and work with your team mates. But in the end, it all comes down to that compass. If you follow it in the direction you want to go, you will ultimately arrive at your desired destination. We talked about how this applies to their lives and the difficult decisions they will have to make. As these high school kids grow up, they must listen to their own inner compasses in order to make the choices that are right for them.
The conversations that happen in the wilderness are special because when we are away from the constant pressures and distractions of everyday life, we break down walls that we didn’t even realize were there. In the wilderness, I got to know every single one of my students on a whole new level – the same way they got to know me and each other.
On our last night we had some time to sit and stare out at a beautiful vista, a view of the entire valley. One of my students told me this trip opened his eyes. He had never seen a beautiful view like that before, and he wanted to see more of them. Another student asked me for advice about how to stay on the right track. Another remarked on how he is excited to step up and be more of a leader when he starts high school next fall.
Back in civilization the next morning, we gave the kids compasses as a parting gift. As everyone was leaving, I heard Alexis say, “I will never forget this trip.” I feel exactly the same way.