More Than a Kayaking Trip
Since I was young, both nature and travel have been important to me. Nature was healing and calming, while travel was exciting and perspective-broadening. I took this for granted because I had abundant opportunities for both. I went to overnight summer camp every year; I camped with grandparents; I swam in the Mississippi and the ocean; I climbed trees, rode bikes, and chased lightning bugs in a neighborhood that was completely safe for a young girl and her friends to roam.
Fast-forward to 2 years ago. I was several years into working as a therapist in Chicago, in neighborhoods where it’s not safe or advisable for kids to leave the yard; where multiple young people have told me that they try to stay inside in the summer because there’s too much going on outside. A colleague had designed and implemented an Adventure Therapy pilot program for youth at my agency, and I inherited the opportunity to keep it going as she moved out of the country. She passed it on to me because she knew I was “outdoorsy” and would keep the group going the following year. This was novel programming at UCAN; there had been occasional camping trips and recreational outings for youth, but to my knowledge, this was the first multi-week therapy group dedicated to building social and emotional skills through exposure to nature and outdoor recreation.
The majority of my work is trauma work. The youth I encounter, across the board, have experienced trauma that most of you (and I) would rather not know or think about, let alone live through. The youth I encounter have often received several lifetimes’ worth of negative feedback from adults who are supposed to care for and protect them. They are expected to graduate high school, handle their finances, and figure out how to get into college and get a job, largely on their own. As a therapist within larger systems such as foster care or public schools, we try our best to be voices of empowerment and strength, but negativity can be overwhelming for the most needy and vulnerable youth.
Adventure therapy is different. By leaving the neighborhood or the city to hike, bike, paddle, or climb, young people get to explore their physical and emotional capabilities in brand new ways. They get to face real fears about nature and their limitations, in a safe, supportive, and strengths-enhancing context. And hopefully, if I do my job well, they return to their homes and neighborhoods with an increased sense of their internal resources to face challenges that are not so safe and supported.
My proudest moment with this group so far happened just 2 weeks ago, when 3 of these young people received their Level 1 Paddling Coach certification. These youth are teen parents, abuse survivors, prescribed with “anger problems” and “mental health issues”. They are also leaders, teachers, and coaches with employable skills—at age 16, one happens to be the youngest to ever become a coach. And one will be traveling to Scotland with me in a few weeks to paddle alongside several other adults and young people in an environment that will be exciting and challenging for all of us.
If you’ve been wondering why this one trip to Scotland matters so much to me, and why I’m asking you to give–this is why. It’s a culmination of seriously hard work by the young people attending, as well as intense commitment of numerous adults to create ways for the young people to keep pushing their limits and take this “outdoorsy” thing as far as they want to go with it. It’s much, much more than just a kayaking trip.