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Posts Tagged ‘2011’

Welcome to our new Chicago Adventure Therapy website and blog!

I don’t know just what to say in welcome. When I don’t know what to say or where to start, I usually start with the here and now. Right now, I’m sitting here on a sunny, blue-sky January day, with a cold front coming through tonight to bring us 6 inches of snow.

Corny as it sounds, the warm sunny day with its impending Winter Storm Watch brings me to what I’d like to say today.

Because the weather is at once a profound equalizer and a harsh reminder of the difference that privilege and circumstance create. We’ve all gotten to keep our winter coats in waiting; we’re all gonna get dumped on. The weather doesn’t play favorites.

But we’ll all take the news of snow in so many different ways. If you’re a paddler and you’ve been enjoying the extended Chicago paddling season, you might be disappointed. If you’re a skier, you’ll be pleased. If you’re harried with the everyday work slog, you’ll be annoyed to have to get up a half hour earlier to clear ice and snow from your car…

Personally, I’m hoping that the snow comes early, and that I can play hooky for a few hours and go paddle on the Chicago River. I think the River might be at it’s prettiest in the snow.

Chicago River in the snow

When I paddle on the River, I’m reminded that there are those who experience the River as a means of survival, not recreation. I’ve learned which bridges have dwellings under them; where there are people who want to be quiet and unnoticed, and where the guys are who will give me a hard time; whether it’s a make-shift dwelling with beer and a pile of clothing, or a well-designed shelter made by someone with solid campcraft skills.

My point is this. Chicago’s resources are like the weather. They are at once a profound equalizer and a harsh reminder of the difference that privilege and circumstance create. We all experience them. We’ve all got the River, the Lake, the parks, free days at the museums. But those resources mean such different things for each of us. The River is a recreational treasure for me. For the people living along its banks, it’s a means of survival.

The youth we serve experience Chicago’s resources radically differently than most of us reading this blog. When I paddle by a shelter along the Chicago River, I find myself thinking about the youth we work with at The Night Ministry – youth who sleep at friends’ houses, at shelters, outside – wherever they can find a place. I hope with everything in me that while they’re still young, we can help them develop the personal resources they need so that as adults they won’t be living in one of those shelters.

But it’s not just personal resources they need. They need access to our city’s resources.

 

I want to digress a moment to tell you about a friend of mine. I’ve known him for maybe 7 years. “Joe” grew up in the Lathrop Homes. He’s got a history riddled with violence, mental illness, substance abuse and heartbreak. When I met him, he lived along the River. When he gets lonely or his heart breaks, he thinks about going back there, because he doesn’t have to deal with other people when he’s under the bridge.

“Joe” and I once had a very long conversation about the guys in the gang prevention group we work with. I asked “Joe” for his advice and insight because as a boy and young man he was successful in the Latin Kings. I asked him to help me to understand the realities of a life so far removed from mine.

The next day, “Joe” called me. He told me it was really important. He said

I have to talk to you about the kids you work with. You just have to love them.  That’s what you have to do.  You have to love them.

I don’t want our youth to have an adult life like “Joe’s.” Our hope, our job, our dream, our mission at CAT – is to make a difference in their lives so that their adult life is different than “Joe’s.” We look everywhere we can to figure out how to make that difference.

  • Our first program evaluation is almost complete
  • Our staff has been working hard to develop and define out Clinical Frame
  • I talk to “Joe” fairly frequently, to try to get a better understanding of what life and this city really is for our youth
  • We look to Best Practices in the field of Adventure Therapy, recent brain research, and a variety of clinical theories and practices in our program development
  • We try to give our youth access to the amazing resources this city has to offer

The most important point underlying all of this is to follow “Joe’s” advice – to build authentic, appropriate relationships with our youth.

 

Sometimes it sounds a little silly to me to say that we’re changing our youth’s lives by taking them paddling; or making the city better by climbing with our youth.

But I believe it 100%.

A new perspective

 

Imagine our 4 weeks paddling with a group of 15 girls from Alternatives, Inc. The first week, many of the girls were scared to put their toes in the water. They were scared of fish, sharks, drowning, barracuda, getting their hair wet… Stephanie had bruises on her arm at the end of the first day because one girl held onto her arm so tightly the entire time – in knee-deep water. The next week, we went into water that was over their heads, to many screams and squeals and shouts of “I’m gonna die!” The next week, we went into water not only over their heads, but deep enough that they couldn’t see the bottom. This was when several of them, including the girl who bruised Stephanie’s arm, got out of the boats and learned to swim. The last week, we paddled beyond the pier at the south end of Montrose Beach. If you know that beach, you’ll know that when you round the pier, you lose sight of the beach. And you get about the most spectacular view of this city’s skyline that you can find anywhere. These girls got that view on a perfect summer Lake Michigan day, when the water has just a touch of movement to it, and a color that rivals any Caribbean beach.

Here’s the exciting part – memory and emotion are stored close together in the brain. The neurons activated in each are close together, so they spill over into each other a little. The emotion that goes with that day and that view – the magic that is a combination of accomplishment, wonder, satisfaction, camaraderie – that emotion is tied to that view of Chicago; it’s one piece of their experience of Chicago. They literally, concretely saw this city as they’ve never seen it before.

Chicago for them is just a little bit changed. — And it’s theirs.

I love the warm weather we’ve been having. And I can’t wait for the winter beauty that comes with fresh snow. I hope that both will remind me that we’re all in this city together; and also that this city treats people very differently based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender expression and sexual orientation, access to power, and a lot of other sad and unjust reasons. I hope that you’ll join me, our staff, our board and our volunteers in the momentous adventure of changing life for our youth, and changing this city for them.

We’ll keep you posted on the adventure, and how you can be a part of it.

Thanks!
–Andrea Knepper, LCSW
Executive Director

Good paddling

 

Ready to Launch on Montrose Beach

 

Today I’d like to tell you about a young person who we had a harder time connecting with than we do with most of our youth.  We found it challenging to connect with her because it was a little bit challenging to like her.
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There were several things that made it difficult for us to have the empathy we strive for.
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  • She lied
  • She was manipulative
  • She was very good at pulling each of us away from the group
The hardest thing for me, though, was how hard she worked to convince us she was inept and incompetent.  She learned, somewhere in her 13 years, that it was beneficial to her to hide her strengths and convince people she was helpless, worthy only of pity.  She seemed to crave connections, but only knew how to create them through weakness.
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We don’t know a lot about her life or her home.  She told us disturbing things about her family.  She told us disturbing things about how much food she got at home.  We had to talk with our partner agency several times to figure out which of us was going to follow up on some of the things she said.
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One thing is clear to me.  She desperately wanted to be loved.  And she thought she needed to be someone different than she was in order to get that love. 
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So she told us lies.
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  • She tried to get us to pity her.
  • She tried to get us and her peers to admire her.
  • She tried to get us to give her enough attention to fill up the hole in her hurting heart.

Learning to Surf at Montrose Beach

The responses she tried to elicit from us, sometimes successfully, didn’t make her feel better.
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They didn’t make us feel better either.
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So we thought carefully about how to respond.  There were lots of ways we knew we DIDN’T want to respond:
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  • We didn’t want to let her take any of us away from the group
  • We didn’t want to let her isolate HERSELF from the group
  • We didn’t want to ignore any real fear she had
  • We didn’t want to ignore any lack of basic resources at home
  • We didn’t want to pity her
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What ended up seeming to work was something that I found difficult to do.
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  • I’m a good social worker – I like to think I’m compassionate and that I respond when people need help
  • I’m a good guide – I don’t let a group get spread out, especially when the group is kayaking
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I let “Cora” go farther from the group than I ever let people go.
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I didn’t go after her or give her individualized instruction when she took off away from the group, looked back at me to make sure I saw her, and then plaintively called to me that she couldn’t turn her boat back around.
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“Use your turning strokes.”
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We had all seen her use her turning strokes.
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            — So I paid little attention to her.
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That is, I paid little apparent attention to her. I knew exactly where she was, how fast she could paddle, how fast I could paddle, where our staff were in relation to her, and how fast they could paddle. But I gave her little attention.
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“Use your turning strokes.”
“I can’t turn.”
“You can turn.  I’ve seen you.  Use your turning strokes.”
“I’m scared.”
“Use your turning strokes.”
“I need help.”
“Use your turning strokes.”
“Come get me.”
“Use your turning strokes.”
She cried.
“Use your turning strokes.”
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We didn’t go after her. 
She used her turning strokes.
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When she got back to the group, we gave her lots of attention.  We congratulated her on her turning strokes.  We told her exactly what it was about her turning strokes that we thought was good.  We welcomed her into the activity the group was doing.
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We learned to pay enough attention to her to know what her skills were, where she was, and whether she was safe.
We learned to give her attention when she paddled back.
— When she paddled back to the group whose admiration, respect and acceptance she craved.
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It broke our hearts not to give “Cora” the sympathy she so expertly and plaintively elicited from us.
We think it healed her heart just a little bit to coax her to show us her strength.
To relate to her around her strengths, not her limitations.
To empower her to paddle into the group instead of away from it.

This week I want to tell you about “Rico,” a young man in the same gang prevention group as Humberto.

That’s not to say that I DON’T like others of our youth – I find that I truly, authentically enjoy intereacting with almost all of our youth.
But there’s something about “Rico” that I really like.
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  • He’s got a great sense of humor, that’s frequently slightly mocking of us, the CAT staff.
  • He’s really smart.
  • He’s not afraid to call us out when we say something or act in a way that’s not quite right.  Which is not to say that our staff is inappropriate – but when we work every day with people who live in a world pretty different from us, we sometimes say things that are offesnsive when we have no intention of doing that.  I think it takes a lot of courage and poise for a young person to call out an adult in a position of authority, and to do it appropriately and with humor.
  • He’s willing to try almost anything; even when it makes him nervous.
  • He’s got remarkable people skills.
  • He’s a natural and graceful leader – I have much that I can learn from him.
  • I love his enthusiasm for the technical pieces of sea kayaking – “Rico” and I are kindred spirits when it comes to paddling.

Devil's Lake

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There are so many stories about “Rico” that I’d love to tell you
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  • how he helped one of the mentors with his program on our camping trip:  She was terrified of heights, to the point of tears and hyperventilation.  “Rico” went back down the trail, sat with her, talked with her, and then walked back up the trail slowly right in front of her so she could watch his feet, and make it up the trail.
  • how he used his own experience to encourage his peers: On the first paddling program, he challenged me about whether the life jacket would work.  When I told him it would float him, he eventually told me “I don’t believe you.”  He was the first to capsize that day, and flailed around a lot in the water – until he realized he was standing…  The next week I asked him to help a new paddler with his life jacket.  “Rico” said “You have to make it tight.  Otherwise if you fall in, it’s gonna float up here (indicating his forhead) and it’s not gonna help you.  And you have to stay still.  If you move around it’s gonna get in your way.  You have to be still and it will work.”
  • how he worked hard to get his roll: He was scared to put his face in the water; but ended the summer so close to a roll that all the help he needed was a slight push on the boat with one finger.  (If you don’t know what a roll is – it’s when you sit in a kayak, turn it upside down, and then bring it right side up again while you’re in it.  It’s not in fact difficult to do, but it can be very difficult to learn.)
  • how he calls it as he sees it:  I was a little bit surprised when he told me that at the beginning of the summer I “talked like a rich person” but that now I talked “more normal.”  I was surprised again when I called out one of his peers for mocking us, thinking we weren’t getting it, during a serious discussion.  “Rico” grinned and said “you’re starting to understand us.”

Here is my hope for “Rico.”
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I would like to help him find a job in the outdoor industry.  He’s got the natural leadership skills and athletic ability to make an excellent outdoor leader.  When I asked him about it, he took it very seriously and told me that yes, he was interested.
More to the point – one of the mentors in his program told me that his gang has also noticed his leadership ability, and is recruiting him pretty hard.  A job in the outdoor industry could potentially give him an opportunity to use his leadership skills, still give him the adrenaline rush that he likes, and give him job experience.  It could provide the opportunity for a very different life – a life that could give him the opportunity to travel the world, rather than a life bounded by a territory four city blocks in size. 
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This is my hope for “Rico.”  We are trying to give him the opportunity.
We finished our fourth program season this summer.  For me, it seems like just yesterday that we were starting up.  We’ve learned a lot of systems; we’ve met so many youth (700 and counting) and the adults who work with them; we’ve had the great pleasure of developing partnerships with diverse youth-serving agencies and outdoor companies (over 20 organizations); we’ve gotten better at what we do…  The list could go on.  And we’re excited about it – I’d love to tell you everything! (If you missed our Summer Reflections, take a look.)
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But what sticks out is the youth we’ve worked with.  Each is different. Each takes something different from our programs.  We’re inspired by each.
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So rather than tell you all about what we’ve done as an organization, I want to take the next three months to tell you about 12 youth we’ve worked with. I can’t tell you their real names.  I can include pictures of some; for others we don’t have photo releases, so there are some pretty amazing photos I can’t share with you.
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If you, like me, find yourself inspired by their stories, I hope you will take a moment to make a donation to Chicago Adventure Therapy.  We work with some of the most at-risk youth in the City.  Most of our partner agencies are working with very limited budgets.  We offer programming on a sliding scale – agenies pay what they can afford.  We believe that no individual or agency should be unable to participate because of financial reasons.  We work with each referring agency to negotiate a realistic cost for them.
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We started programming in 2008, when the economy crashed.  Many foundations took a hit when the economy crashed, so they have to be more conservative in their grant-making.  We’ve had to be a resilient organization in order to stay in business and provide expensive services for youth most in need in Chicago.  You all have made that possible – last year 61% of our revenue came from individuals like you.  Donations of less than $100 are our mainstay; larger donations go a long way to support our programming.
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Please take a moment to read about a young man who participated in our very first rock-climbing program in 2009.  And then take a moment to make a donation.  Whatever amount you can afford will make a difference for other Chicago youth like this young man.
What a view from the climbing wall!
“Frank” was a student at Lakeview Alternative High School when he participated in our very first climbing program in the spring of 2009.  If a young person is attending an alternative high school, it means that they were kicked out of at least one school.  It usually means that a number of adults have given up on them.  It’s often a bit of a “last chance.”
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This program was 5 weeks long.  The first week, “Frank” said that his goal was to “get to the top.”  But he couldn’t get past the crux of his rope.  He was frustrated and disappointed – but said at the end of the first day that his new goal was to get to the top of EVERY rope.  (I was worried about this – one of the hardest things we do is to help youth deal with it when they DON’t reach their goals.  It’s exciting and fun when they do.  But sometimes in our lives we don’t.  We do our youth a great service if we can help them cope with that.  If we can help them set new, more modest goals; or help them set intermediate goals; or help them create a realistic plan to reach that goal they really want.  I was worried this wasn’t going to go well…)
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The next week he got stuck again, in the same place.  He told his belayer, one of CAT’s first staff members, that he was scared.  He understood that the rope and his belayer would catch him if he fell – but he was afraid to fall nonetheless.  He explained that he was scared to reach for the hold he knew he needed because he was scared that reaching for it would make him fall.
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“Frank” and his belayer decided he would practice falling.  He went partway up, warned his belayer that he was going to fall, and fell into the safety of a good belay.  Then he started falling without warning his belayer – and still fell into a safe belay.  He got back on the rope where he had stalled, got to the same place that had stopped him several times, stretched to reach the hold he needed – and made it to the top. 
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At the end of the 5 weeks, “Frank” had made it to the top of all 6 ropes.  He also belayed his Principal while she tried the first rope “Frank” had tried to climb (and got stuck in the same place he got stuck).
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That last day, his principal talked to me.  She said that at the school they’d seen a remarkable transformation in “Frank.”  She told me that he had a strong interest in film, and wanted an internship. They’d never seen him work to get something he wanted or take a risk.  But after he started climbing with us, he took the risk of applying for the internship despite discouragement from some people close to him – and he worked very hard to get it.  She attributed the change in his behavior and his sense of what was possible to the climbing.  I like to think that with the embodied knowledge that there was someone there to catch him if he fell, he was able to take a risk and stretch himself. 
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When I spoke with “Frank” the next fall to invite him to participate in our leadership program, he had finished the internship, and had gotten a job with the same organization.  He had one year left of high school, and was confident about a career in film.
I hope to see a film by him one of these days.

We’ve had a busy summer. We have more, but it’s drawing to a close. As we get just a bit less busy, I find myself contemplating the summer. The range of emotions I’ve felt working with our youth has been as wide as the Grand Canyon. The program that brought me to tears the most frequently was the gang prevention program we work with in Little Village.
Yes – I admit it – the guys brought me to tears, and more than once.

I cried when I got the email from our contact there saying he needed to cancel a program because they were holding a funeral for one of the youth that day. The young man was shot and killed.

I cried when one of the guys showed up with bruises all over his face because he’d been “beat out.” He’d made a decision to leave the gang – which meant that he had to show up for a scheduled appointment to be beat up by the people who’d been his closest friends for years. I cried because I was so proud of him. I cried because no kid – no person – should have to be beat up by their closest friends in order to live a life that isn’t bound by violence. I cried because I can’t imagine having the strength to change the course of my life like that, in opposition to my peers, when I was 16 years old. I cried because when it came down to it, I didn’t know what to make of it, or, really, just how to feel. I cried that we live in such a world. I cried that our youth live in such a world. I cried for the hope of changing the world for these guys.

I cried when we went camping with this group, too – when they started talking about beauty at the end of the trip. I was stunned when someone said that our evening paddle on the trip was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I cried because I often forget the beauty at Devil’s Lake – I’ve been incredibly lucky to go to many places I consider more beautiful. So it brought me up short to realize the lack of beauty in these guys’ lives. And it made me cry because of the impact that beauty can have on a person. These are tough guys – their peer who was killed earlier in the summer was much like them. They’re all familiar with violence. But there was such softness in their faces when, just for a moment, they talked about beauty.

I almost cry, if it weren’t for the absurdity, when I think about how scared these guys are of the activities we do – especially the climbing and kayaking. But that they’re not scared to pack a gun or Hunting Rifles. That they have a hard time trusting the safety of a belay system or a life jacket; but they don’t understand that much of the activity in their daily lives is more dangerous. You can imagine we talked a lot about safety and risk management with them.

I laughed so hard I cried – and nearly peed my pants! – when we did a Harbor cleanup with them. At the very end, one of the land-based crews spotted money floating all over the water, and sitting on the bottom as well! So – probably not my best moment – but with their suggestion, prompting, laughter and disbelief – I dove for the money. Yes, I dove for singles with the serial numbers cut out. I came up with fistfuls of money, to their disbelief not that I would dive for money, but that I would get into that water. And, despite their disbelief, to directions about where next to dive! The intensity of their directions was hilarious! We called the police, made a report, and turned over the money – because it was the right thing to do, and bills with serial numbers cut out are a little sketchy, to say the least! (I was impressed with how they handled themselves around the cops, too.) The spontaneity, shared laughter, engagement and absurdity that we all shared was one of the greatest moments of my summer. A summer that started with us not knowing if these guys would ever open up to us in the least; or if we’d be able to forge the slightest connection with them.

Thank you for making so much possible!
Thanks you for changing lives.

My thanks, too, to our many partners, especially The Northwest Passage, Lincoln Park and Lakeview Athletic Clubs, Bike Chicago, and Alliance for the Great Lakes

Andrea Knepper, LCSW
Founder and Director

Consulting the compass

Cooling down in the fountain @ Jackson Harbor

Cleaning up Jackson Harbor

Devil’s Lake

Looking Back

By admin
July 14, 2011 6:20 pm

2010 was a banner year for us. We worked with over 300 youth, compared to the 35 we worked with in 2008 when we started programming. We added several new youth-serving organizations as partners, and also added a new outdoor partner and went cross-country skiing for the first time. We’ve added staff members and board members as well. Sometimes, we hardly recognize ourselves… What has stayed the same through the first three years of official programming is that our dedicated, energetic and creative staff provide services that offer life-changing experiences for our youth. We never stop being inspired – blown away, really! – by the challenges our youth accept and the change we see in them as a result.