Archive for the ‘Gitchi Gumee’ Category
Do you remember your first camping trip? Roasting marshmallows around the campfire; watching shooting stars at night; being terrified of the creature outside your tent at night that must certainly have been a bear, and a REALLY big one – only to realize it was a raccoon. … or a chipmunk. Swimming in mountain lakes, skipping stones on any body of water you could find, climbing rocks and trees, eating food that may or may not have been good, but always tasted beyond amazing when you were eating it outdoors after a day in the sun or the rain…
Sometimes we get to create those touchstone experiences for the young people we work with. They are invariably some of my favorite CAT programs. Our most recent trip was to South Carolina for the East Coast Paddlesports and Outdoor Festival, with a young man who participated in the 2013 Gitchi Gumee Project – and this trip, too, was amazing.
I don’t know whether my favorite thing about this trip was the 80 degree weather in early April, the hospitality of the organizers and coaches of the event, the variety of sports and craft that Jose got to try out, or the fact that, once again, I had the tremendous privilege and joy of introducing a young person to something brand new to him. And then getting to show him even more of that sport – new skills, new crafts, new venues, a broader cross-section of the community…
I think, when it comes down to it, that what makes my favorite programs my favorites is this. It’s about that same visceral, not quite speakable sense that comes with the smell of rain and the sound of it on my tent. The years-long search for the perfect golden brown marshmallow, and a way to melt the chocolate for the S’more it will fill.
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Jose was nervous about paddling when he joined us at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium for the Gtichi Gumee Project. Some of our volunteers were worried, the first day, when he had a difficult time staying calm with a wet exit. (A wet exit is a required skill when you paddle a sea kayak if you wear what’s called a spray skirt. The skirt keeps water from coming into the cockpit – it’s not so important, it turns out, to stay dry; but a skirt is helpful for the stability of the boat. A boat filled with water handles sort of like a dishpan filled with water. If you’ve ever tried to carry a full container of water, you know that once it starts sloshing, it just starts sloshing more. It can be tricky to keep your balance in a boat that’s doing that.)
I worked with Jose for a good 30 to 45 minutes, helping him to find a way to stay calm as he dumped his boat over, pulled the skirt off his boat, and came back to the surface holding onto his boat and his paddle. Two days later, he was surfing on Lake Superior. The grin on his face touched the hearts of a whole lot of paddlers. It was one of those rain-on-the-tent marshmallow moments that none of us quite had the words to describe.
Jose can surprise you. He’s very quiet, almost painfully shy. It can be hard to tell if he understands a piece of technique you’re teaching him, whether or not he’s having a good time… Then you watch him in a class on technique and realize he’s really quite talented, and is taking in everything the coach is saying. He’ll tell you that he hopes he gets to come back to the event, and you realize, in the tone of his voice and the way he looks directly at you once he’s finished his sentence, that the event hasn’t just been fun for him; it has made an impact on his life. You ask him what the best part of the trip was, and he says it was the rescue class. You ask him why, and he says it was because the instructor trusted him to demonstrate how to stabilize a boat as the instructor climbed in and out, demonstrating a variety of entry strategies. You hear him say that it “touched his heart” that the coach trusted him to do that. Now, you realize why he wants to come back. You begin to realize the nature of the impact this has had on his life.
* * * * *
Jose is very quiet. Sometimes, when others are quiet, we want to talk. When there is silence, we want to fill it. — If we can listen into silence; if we can listen long enough to let someone else talk; if we can listen our young people into speech…
… if we can listen, we realize that our young people have something to say. And that we will find our hearts split open
warmed and filled – touched, perhaps
at what they have to say.
I got to accompany Jose on his first airplane trip and his first time seeing the ocean. I got to teach him how to tip at dinner at the Baltimore Airport on our way home. I got to paddle with a dolphin with him. I got to watch him learn archery, struggle with short track mountain biking, learn to sail a kayak, practice a variety of rescues when he still doesn’t much like a wet exit, learn to move a boat with some precision, try out a surf ski and paddle a SUP board without falling down once. I got to watch coaches take the time and care to coach him well; and to watch him experience trust. My job was to accompany him. To watch and to listen.
I got to listen him into speech. And then I realized – we’d had a rain-on-your-tent marshmallow trip.
In the midst of a very cold winter in Chicago, we just completed what might be my most favorite CAT program in our six years of programming.
We met Fred and Greg* in July in the Gitchi Gumee Project – a group of 20 who went to the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in July. They came to us from The Night Ministry, one of our partner organizations that works with street-based youth. They’ve both faced tremendous challenges and obstacles. But here’s the thing – one of the things that gets my hackles up, and can set off a very LONG stint on my personal soap box, is when we, as well-meaning adults with privilege, see our youth first through the lens of the obstacles they face. Being in a program can pigeonhole how other people see them – they’re “Homeless” first; they’re “Gang-Bangers;” children of immigrants, they’re “Illegal;” they’re “Bipolar” or “ADHD” or HIV-Postive.” [* Fred and Greg have given their permission to use their real names]
In San Fransisco last week, at the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, things went down differently. A few of my fellow coaches were jealous of me because I get to call these two guys my students.
- They were jealous because Fred and Greg have some of the GREATEST attitudes in the world! They both capsized – well, they capsized more than most of the students – and they both just jumped right back in the boats, even more energized and motivated than before they dumped.
- With backgrounds in gymnastics and dance, coupled with great fitness levels and a lot of physical strength, Fred and Greg have more natural ability than most paddling students we as coaches come across. This fact was not lost on my fellow coaches.
- They both have an uncanny ability to take direction. With that huge natural talent they have, matched by a huge desire to learn more, they soak up every last suggestion, tip and challenge. They’re eminently “coachable.”
This is what strengths-based youth development is about. It’s about strength, not deficit; about ability, not obstacle; about opportunity, not compensation for poverty, diagnosis, oppression or flat-out bad luck.
When I had the great good fortune to spend a month paddling on the West Coast a year ago, it changed me. It also changed the way I think about CAT programming. Taking our young peoples’ strengths seriously means that we have to challenge them. We have to give them the type of challenge that they can meet – but not ace 100%. Challenge that demands the very best of what they have to bring to it, and leaves them with so much still to work on. For some of our young people, this means climbing to the top of the climbing wall in the gym, or climbing half-way up, or one body length up the wall. For some, it means sleeping in a tent. For some, it means paddling “out the Gate” in San Fransisco Bay, learning to peel out and eddy in at Yellow Bluff (a tide race that “goes off” on the ebb tide in the Bay), or getting worked in a rock gardening class or in waves that they eventually learn to surf… It means preparing to teach and lead other young people.
It means challenging them to share what they’ve gained with others. Fred and Greg are grateful for the experience. Truly, it breaks my heart just a little bit how often I hear them say “thank you for believing in us.” Or “I can’t believe we got to do this.” Or “thank you for giving us these opportunities. We would never get to do this.”
If it stops at gratitude, they are still those young men who face such great obstacles. “At-risk kids” who don’t have access to the resources that so many kids do.
If they are deeply grateful for the experience, and use it to bring their very best to bear on the world – then they are young men with amazing strength and amazing skills that will change the world. They are not “disadvantaged youth.” Rather, they are powerful agents of change; a force for good that we ignore at our own, and the world’s, peril.
After my own time paddling on the West Coast, I look at CAT programming with an eye towards how it will empower our young people to change the world. What can we give them; and also, what will they give back. They will do so much more for this world than ever I will. To do it they have to know that they are not “at-risk kids,” but amazing young adults with so much to offer the world.
• This program shows the power of outdoor activities to motivate, to challenge, and to open up lines of communication in children from various backgrounds. To see the shy and introverted smile and show excitement and self-confidence, the normally self-centered helping others, or one afraid of water rolling three days later…wow, what a feeling. (Chris Delridge, Riverside Kayak Connection)
• I was not sure what I’d expected being with the kids from CAT and Detroit. What I found was that these kids were some of the most delightful, thankful, and appreciative people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being with. The benefit I believe they received from the project this year was immense. I saw huge gains in self confidence, skill, problem solving, and reaching out to other people. This
project has got to go on and expand way beyond it’s current state. (Jim Palermo, West Michigan Coastal Kayak Association)
“I was a little reluctant to work with the program at first. I’m more comfortable with adults than I am with teens. However they told me there was a need for an adult female role model so I agreed. How wrong I was. Those kids were amazing to the point where I came close to tears several times. Days later I am still re-living it and sharing the story of the impact those amazing kids had on me. Sign me up for next year.
The young people and all of the adults with us were pleased, and the young people were surprised, at the very warm welcome our whole group received. It would have been easy for them to meet with condescending or patronizing attitudes. They all noticed that there was very little racial
diversity among the rest of the symposium’s attendees. That could have ended up being a very uncomfortable position for them – either because they weren’t genuinely welcome and were treated with suspicion; or because people could have been overly enchanted with them precisely because of their race. What happened instead was that this community welcomed them with open arms. They remembered our youth from one class to the next. Coaches and other students alike treated our young people with respect and warmth, and gave them the very best they had to give.
welcomed a 14 year old into their circle and facilitated my paddling in a way that would have been impossible without them. What I do now – training and communication with specialties in risk management, decision making, and leadership for both the healthcare and aviation industries – is directly descended from what they taught me on the water 20-some years ago.
I’d like to give that back in some way. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you or the kids. I’d very much like to see them come back. The GLSKS is a magical thing for teenagers.
• Feb 7-9, 2014 – full group ice climbing in the UP with Bill and Arnie of Down Wind Sports?
definitely coming back for more. Thank you guys.” — age 15, DeKalb, Illinois
2013 Gitche Gumee Project!
GITCHI GUMEE PROJECT PARTNERS
building and problem-solving, among others, and these skills then transfer to their everyday lives.