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Posts Tagged ‘Adventure Therapy’

Over the next 2 weeks, you get to meet Chicago Adventure Therapy’s interns! They’ve been with us for almost a month now, and have already made their mark on our organization. We are so thankful for their work and dedication, and thought you’d like to witness their awesomeness for yourself!

First up: Alyssa! 

Alyssa teaches our interns the ins and outs of belaying

Name: Alyssa Yokota-Lewis
Previous/Current Occupation:
 EVERYTHING.  Specifically, Climbing Instructor, REI Customer Outfitter (my name for it), Nanny, Tutor, Former Lead Educational Outreach Coordinator
Childhood Ambition: Librarian or Circus Performer
3 Words that best describe me: Passionate, Perceptive, Open
Proudest Moment(s): The moments I realize I have learned how to share.
Why CAT?: Because I believe in the therapeutic power of guided kinesthetic challenge.  And because that belief and a passion to help youth find their own inner strengths is wholeheartedly felt throughout this organization.
What have you learned so far in your internship?:  That we learn from each other as much as or more than from any independent pursuit of knowledge and experience.  And that by acknowledging and celebrating the unique qualities of each individual (leaders and youth included) we can grow stronger as a group.  No group exists without its individual parts.
What has surprised you about CAT/AT?: Given the incredible consideration, room, and access to nature it gives for an individual to grow by their own definition, I am surprised that there are not more Adventure Therapy organizations like CAT in areas where so many youth struggle to fit into their rigid and distracting urban environments.

Below, Program Coordinator Stephanie tells us about the CAT staff’s conceptualization of the Clinical Frame and how it came to exist over the course of several months. You can read the Clinical Frame by going to our About Us page, and clicking the links that correspond to each section of the Frame.

During a staff meeting, a few months ago, a discussion started on how we tell people about CAT, about what it is and what we do. Questions quickly arose such as, “What are all the components of CAT?”, “How do they relate and interact with one another?”, and “How do we talk about it in a way that makes sense to others not familiar with adventure therapy?” These questions ultimately started us on our path to the creation of CAT’s Clinical Framework. The reason for the creation of the framework quickly expanded beyond how we talk to others about it, but also included making sure we, as a staff, were all on the same page about what it is we really do and how exactly it works. It become a way for us to look at the results we desire to have compared to the actual outcomes we have seen in our program evaluation and ultimately be more intentional in our services.

At times the Framework seemed to take on a life of its own as we began to put the many, many pieces together. The pieces include the Chicago youth we work with, the environments and experiences that surround them, research on risk and protective factors of urban youth in general, clinical interventions traditionally used, the activities CAT uses (navigation, cycling, rock climbing, paddling, winter sports, and camping), research on brain development in relation to trauma, research on adventure therapy, and our own programming outcomes. One by one the staff created each component and every week we put each piece together and decided from there what else needed to be done. There were times when we realized we needed to change parts of it or that we needed to include more. We didn’t want to leave anything out and we wanted to be clear about the intricacies and complex relationships between the different components. Finally, we have completed what we like to call Phase 1 of the Clinical Framework. As both CAT and the field of adventure therapy continue to develop and evolve, so will our Clinical Framework. Until Phase 2…

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Meaghan ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon for CAT last year. Thanks, Meaghan! Read about her experience below and see some of the pictures CAT staff took at the Charity Block Party at Mile 14! For more info on the Chicago Marathon, head over to our racing page!
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Meaghan writes:
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I was approached by my very dear friend, Stephanie Miller, one day and asked, “Hey, have you ever thought about running the marathon?” I replied, “Well, yes, actually, I have. It’s one of the things on my life’s to-do list, my bucket list.” Stephanie quickly responded, “Would you want to run it this year?” Oh, wow, this year? I hadn’t been running very consistently and had always figured a marathon was a few years away. I told Stephanie I wasn’t sure, but asked her why she had asked. Was she planning on running it?? Because if she was going to run it, I totally was going to run it. Sadly, she told me that she was not planning on running, but that the organization that she works for, CAT, was looking for runners to fundraise for them and run the marathon. Then, I couldn’t stop thinking that maybe if I was supporting a good cause and if they helped me out a bit, I just might be able to pull it off. Of course, I was still skeptical about my ability to actually run this thing, but figured I’d hear her out. She told me that CAT would assist me in fundraising and would provide me with a coach. The amount I had to raise for CAT was a very attainable goal and I knew I would definitely need a coach if I was going to run A MARATHON! So, to both our amazement, I agreed! Uh oh, what did I get myself into? Oh, well. Too late. And, that feeling quickly passed. I was happy to be raising money for such a great organization. CAT is such a unique organization that does really great work with inner-city youth. I enjoyed telling people who I was raising money for and most people had never heard of CAT. I enjoyed spreading the word.
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At the beginning, before I had started training, there were a couple meetings with a couple of the other runners to throw around some fundraising ideas. The ideas from someone who had ran a few races and had experience fundraising was helpful. She let us know how often to email people, what types of things to include in the emails, and just some good tips about fundraising. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate in any group fundraising, but that probably would have been a lot of fun.
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The best part of being associated with CAT for the marathon was access to Coach Brendan and his running group. I emailed Coach Brendan a billion times, a few before I even met him, asking him all kinds of questions – did I need new shoes?; how should I be changing my diet?; should I try to get out of this commitment?; am I really going to be ready to run a marathon at the end of this?. He is an amazing guy who kindly answered all of my questions and didn’t make me feel strange for asking all of them. Coach Brendan was available via email for any question I had along the way. He would make sure he spent time getting to know you when you showed up for training runs and he would run or bike alongside you to watch your form, ask how you were doing, and give you some tips. He was always available after runs to talk about how you were feeling. I met some great people through this training group and ran with some of them on race day and still keep in touch with them – and am planning to run with them again this Spring to train for a half-marathon (yes, just a half…the full thing is no joke!).
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Ok, I know earlier I said the best thing about running for CAT was the Coach Brendan training, but I lied. There were a few “best” things: Coach Brendan, fundraising for CAT, meeting new people, talking about CAT along the way,…but I think the best part for me was seeing Stephanie out of nowhere run up to me with a sign she had made for me and having her run alongside me telling me how proud she was and how thankful she was that I ran for CAT. Since then, I have met more of the CAT family and everyone is so passionate about what they do for CAT. It was hard to say no to Stephanie when she asked me to run the marathon because I know she so strongly believes in CAT and its mission, which made me want to do what I could to help support that. Now, after meeting even more members of CAT, I can honestly say I am so glad I did it and I wouldn’t want to fundraise for anyone else. I won’t be running the marathon for a while (if ever), but I’ll be sure to make CAT my fundraising beneficiary if I do!
I want to introduce you to “Humberto.”  We first met him in August of 2010; he was pleasant, quiet and polite.  When we saw him again in early October, we learned while we were drinking hot cocoa after paddling into the evening that “Humberto” was going to be running the Chicago Marathon in a couple weeks.  We were going to have a cheering station halfway through the course, so we asked “Humberto” what he might like for us to have for him there – something he couldn’t carry with him.
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We were a bit surprised when he answered,
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“Well, I like watermelon.”   
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So started our now 2-year tradition of handing out watermelon at Mile 14 at the Marathon.
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“Humberto” paddled in the Flatwater Classic race with us on the Chicago River.  We saw him over the winter when we climbed indoors. We saw him at our very first summer program with this group of guys –  “Humberto’s” small group cycled to the Lincoln Park Zoo and were mesmerized by a tiger.  “Humberto” had never been to the zoo.  He’s 16.
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We didn’t see a lot of “Humberto” over the summer.  He had a summer job.  We missed him.
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So we were pleased when he showed up for a paddling program in July.
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He had bruises on his face. 
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For me;
for our staff;
perhaps for you
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it’s disconcerting and disturbing to see someone’s face full of bruises
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As he talked with Stephanie, he told her about having been “beat out.”  He’d decided to leave the gang – to do that, he had to make an appointment with them to be be beat for 3 minutes.
Cooling off in the Jackson Harbor Fountain
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We usually have lots to say about working with this group of young men.
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  • About trauma, and the way it re-wires the brain — and the way our programming can re-wire it again, providing access to the cerebral cortex and the ability to think before acting
  • About teaching them what we have come to think of as “Chicago Literacy” – where North is, where downtown or the harbor or the zoo are in relation to their neighborhood, how to get there on CTA, how to read a map – so that these guys can have access to their city
  • About what it is for them to get some simple respite, away from their neighborhood; a chance to let their guard down
  • About the way their faces soften when they start talking about the beauty we introduce them to; about the paucity of beauty in their lives
But when we think of “Humberto,” this is what comes to mind
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  • we hope he sticks to his decision
  • we hope his decision gives him more possibility in the rest of his life
  • we can’t claim that we had anything to do with it
  • we’re glad we have had the opportunity to meet him
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He has reminded us how hard it can be simply to bear witness.
We hope it matters.
We believe it does.

“I Feel So Free”

By admin
November 11, 2011 4:30 pm

Cycling with the Night Ministry

“Zara” came to a cycling program we did not too long ago in October (2011). She was very out-going and had a lot of what I would call spunk. Before the program even started, some of the youth, “Zara” included, went to use the public restrooms near the cycling facility. When they returned, the youth and one of their staff explained to me that a security guard had stopped them from going into the women’s bathroom. Why did the security guard stop them? Because “Zara” does not quite fit into one clearly labeled slot, as far as gender goes, in our society…Because “Zara” identifies as transgender.
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Their staff reported that the youth handled themselves well, despite the frustrating situation. Later the youth stated that the bike ride and beautiful fall day helped rid the negative feelings they had surrounding the incident. Finally, during the debrief “Zara” described what she had expected the program to be like and how it felt afterwards. She initially thought people were going to say, “Oh, that’s a man” and stare at her, but in actuality no one said anything like that and no one stared. Instead of having her guard up, “Zara” said she felt safe. She said she felt free.
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It was a great moment, for us CAT staff working the program, to hear “Zara” say those words. It felt inspiring to hear from one of the youth that we are doing some of the things we so desperately strive for…providing safety, acceptance, and a new perspective.

Fun at the Chicago Shoreline Marathon

Last week I promised to tell you about two young women who weathered the same micro-burst as Michael and Jeremy who Grace introduced last week.  I get to use Kawana’s and Latrice’s real names with you, because they have spoken in public about their experiences as CAT participants.  We first met Kawana and Latrice in the summer of 2009.  Both are in college now.
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I first met them at the end of our 8-week program with the girls from the Girl World Program at Alternatives that year, when four of the girls said that they wanted to know how to volunteer with CAT.  One of them went to college at the end of the summer and wasn’t around; the other three, including Kawana and Latrice, raced with us in the Chicago Shoreline Marathon and the the Flatwater Classic in August and October, and then joined our very first leadership program in January.  We created the leadership program because of them.
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I want to tell you about the Chicago Shoreline Marathon.  It’s an international race.  The girls talked with the winner from South Africa in 2009 (he told them to keep training…), with an Olympic kayaker who had driven a trailer of boats from San Francisco, and with the only woman in the heat of elite racers (who encouraged them to keep paddling); in 2010 they got their picture taken with the 1st and 2nd place winners who had last raced each other in Australia (a group of CAT volunteers are in that picture too). The race has three lengths – a 26 mile marathon length, an 8 mile beach-to-beach length, and a relay race just off shore.
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In 2009, conditions were rough.  When we arrived in the morning, I had a serious talk with the girls about coniditions.  Race organizers were considering cancelling the relay.  I was consdiering cancelling our participation in the relay even if the race organizers didn’t cancel it.
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The race didn’t cancel, I didn’t cancel, and the girls decided to go for it.  With my heart in my throat and already questioning my own judgment, I watched them launch into conditions they’d never paddled in before, each with a staff member at their side.  I gave Christine and Emily instructions about shortening the route, and last-minute rescue instructions despite the fact that they’d been teaching rescues all summer.
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Kawana capsized.  Latrice capsized twice.  On her second capsize, Latrice had a hard time getting back in the boat.  On the paddle back, Latrice was scared, quiet, and not very good at listening.  Emily struggled to help her calm down.  When Latrice got back and I congratulated her, she didn’t think there was reason for congratulations and didn’t fully believe me that she’d done a good job.  I told Latrice about the times I’d gotten knocked over  – that those were also the times when I learned the most and that my paddling improved the most.  I sent her a picture of me upside down in my boat.  I was worried we’d put her in a situation that was too stressful; that this was no longer going to be fun for her.
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We periodically have these conversations with our youth – conversations about NOT meeting our goals, about being disappointed in our performance, about feeling like a failure.  We love the times when our youth are successful beyond their wildest dreams. We like being cherr-leaders for them.  And we’re REALLY good at it.
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But I think perhaps they learn the most when they don’t do as well as they’d like.  Because one of the hardest things we learn to do is to deal positively with faliure.  To learn to scale back our goals.  To learn to be happy with doing our very best. 

2009 Relay Club Team First Place!

We stayed at the beach and had lunch, and left around noon.  We didn’t stay for the awards ceremony later in the afternoon. We didn’t learn until 2010 that they had taken first place in the Club Team category in 2009. 
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In 2010 both girls showed up to the Shoreline wearing their Shoreline T-shirts from the year before and the CAT baseball caps they got at the camping trip with “Micheal” and “Jeremy” where, as we like to talk about it among ourselves, they “survived the hurricane.”
We miss both girls this year.  We’re so proud of both of them to be starting their college careers.  And I’ve told both of them that if they come back to Chicago after they’re done with college, I would be honored if they would consider sitting on our Board of Directors.
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I’d like to leave you with something Latrice said this past summer.  Both of them spoke at our research presentation in August.  We asked them to answer a few specific questions – and we also told them that if there’s anything else about CAT they think people should know, to include that.  Latrice seemd a little nervous – but told us all that the thing she most appreciated about CAT was that we reach out and offer programming for “kids who wouldn’t normally be able to do stuff like that.” 
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I was so pleased that Latrice recognized the issue of access.  That social justice aspect of what we do is important to us.  I hope that if Latrice returns to Chicago after college, she’ll help us continue to offer programming in a way that rights some of the inequalities and injustices in this city.
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In the mean time, we so enjoyed having Latrice and Kawana with us for three seasons; and we’re so proud of both of them we hardly know what to do with ourselves!
This week Grace introduces us to two young men who helped introduce her to CAT.  Grace was a Social Work intern with CAT in the summer of 2010.  She completed work study hours with us throught the next school year, and then we hired her on.  We’re very glad to have her with us.
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If you, like me, find yourself inspired by the stories of these two young men and the other youth we’ve introduced in October, 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 – agencies 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.  We’ve had to be a resilient organization in order to stay in business and provide services for youth most in need in Chicago.  You 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 and are highly appreciated. Soon we’ll be sharing with you some new CAT projects that will make each dollar you donate make even more possible for the young people we serve.

Hiking at Devil's Lake

Grace writes:
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I met Michael and Jeremy* for the first time on a sunny morning in early summer 2010. As a new intern, I was a little nervous for the adventure ahead: a 2 night camping trip to Devil’s Lake with 5 youth, all of whom had more experience in adventure therapy than I did! The trip was the capstone experience for a year long leadership program in which the participating youth learn the more in- depth skills of each of the sports CAT offers, as well as the leadership tools one would need to lead a group through a CAT program.
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Michael and Jeremy were a funny pair. Brothers about 4 years apart, they were great friends, I could tell right away. From the first moment of stepping into the van, they were laughing and whispering to each other. Throughout the weekend, they proved themselves to be very respectful, helpful, and fun group members, very committed to their fellow participants.
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On the first evening, before we went out on the lake for a kayaking session, Andrea laid out her expectations of the group. Each youth was to be intentional about their role in the group; they should do their best to help the group reach its goals, even if those goals were as simple as putting the dishes away, or going to find water. If a youth didn’t know how to help, they should ask. Simple enough.

The whole group did a great job with these goals, and Michael and Jeremy were no exception. I especially appreciated their willingness to help that first afternoon. I had never kayaked before, and was learning some basic skills- paddle strokes, maneuvering, wet exits, and my favorite: the cowboy self-rescue. All 5 youth had experience paddling, so each helped me learn what I needed to know out on the water.

I especially remember Michael and Jeremy helping me learn the cowboy reentry. If you aren’t familiar, this self rescue has the paddler re-enter their boat by ‘swimming’ up onto the deck, scooting around until she’s straddling it, and then pulling herself forward until she can sit herself back into the cockpit. Not only did I need help learning the steps- which the brothers patiently led me through- I also needed help finding the motivation to jump into the chilly water. They were pretty convincing, and pretty funny, as they tried to come up with reasons for me to jump in. Alas, I took the cold plunge and didn’t regret it!

The rest of the weekend was challenging, fun, and pretty impressive. On the first night, we weathered a nasty storm, which blew over 2 tents, a pop- up, and had us all outside at 3am, reconfiguring sleeping arrangements. Our youth were pros, though, and dutifully helped come up with a plan to get everyone dry, warm, and back to sleep.

When we wrapped up the weekend of kayaking and climbing over pancakes and bacon on Sunday morning, we asked each of the youth what they would take away from this experience, with an emphasis on what they learned about leadership. Michael and Jeremy both chimed in with thoughts about always having a Plan B, having the skills to adapt to a new situation, and being able to help a group reach its goals.

As a clinician, I would say all 5 of these youth already had the skills they needed to make the trip a success. I think, though, what the trip really did for each, especially for the two young men, was give them a new experience in an emotionally safe environment, where they could practice those skills around a group that completely understood and believed in their ability to step up. They weren’t out there to prove to Andrea and me that they could be strong leaders, they were out there to prove it to themselves. And once they did, they were ready to go back home, with some pretty great stories to share, and fit those skills into their every day existence.

— Grace Sutherland, MSW
*names have been changed for confidentiality purposes

Last week I promised to tell you about “Monica” (not her real name), a young woman who has participated in many of our programs with The Night Minstry over the last 2 summers and the winter in between. “Monica” has a pretty smile that has thousands of unspoken words behind it.  Her smile isn’t happy per se.  It’s a little crooked.  It’s not big.  Her smile looks a little bit inward, somehow.  But when she smiles, it speaks volumes.  It seems to say that she knows she’s safe for a moment.  It seems to speak of fleeting contentment.  She looks not like she trusts you, but like she’s considering offering her trust. This isn’t a simple story; and it’s not entirely a “feel-good” story.  “Monica” is tight-lipped about her life, but it’s clear she’s weathered a lot.  It’s also clear she hasn’t come out the other side unscathed.  Her scars show – literally.

 

I first met “Monica” at the Night Minstry Youth Outreach bus – I told you last week about meeting “Bob” there.  “Monica” was much less outgoing than “Bob.”  She interacted with me, but said very little.  Her style of interaction was confusing and very reserved.  She seemed shy and uncomfortable – uncomfortable with me and uncomfortable with herself. I was surprised when she showed up for the climbing program the next day.  I wasn’t surprised when she said that she probably wasn’y going to climb.  We all told her that was fine – that we wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to do; and that we thought she might like it and she could change her mind and join in if she wanted to.

 

Truly, I don’t remember if she climbed that day.  I think she did.  Over the next year we got used to her pattern – she would tell us she wasn’t going to participate, she was just “going to watch” – and then she’d be on the wall, on the water, or on a bike. That first day climbing we noticed that she had cuts on her arms. She seemed ambivalent about offering us her trust – and that was beginning to make a lot of sense.
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The next month, she said something at the end of a navigation program at North Park Village Nature Center that set off some emotion and drama in the group.  As we sat down at the picnic tables to debrief the program, she looked around and said “all the crackers are together.”  She said it under her breath – but I think she meant for us to hear it.  As it turned out, I was one of only two people who heard her comment.  I was stunned to hear her say it.  In my utter surprise, I responded without thinking – and was appalled at how I responded.  Because what I said was, “No, there are two more over there.”  Plain truth about where the white people in the group were sitting – that she had missed the two sitting behind her.  And not responding in the least to the offensive language she used; to the undercurrent of mistrust, suspicion and challenge; or to the fact that she put it out there without being direct or honest about putting it out there… Or, very simply, to the issue of racial prejudice as it plays out in our lives.

 

The other person who heard “Monica’s” comment got quite angry and responded in that emotion.  EVERYONE heard him, and the group was on a dramatic roll.

 

So – I was appalled at what was going down; Christine was thrown off her game trying to debrief the program; and emotions were running high.  For a little while we got back on track with the planned debrief.  But when we’d all settled down a little, Christine and I had a very brief conversation, and brought the group discussion back to the topic of race. In the course of the conversation, “Monica” asked me directly, “Are you uncomfortable with certain people?”  I wanted to say “no.” How could I possibly stand there and say “yes?” But direct questions of how we experience race are more complicated than that.  “Monica” asked me a direct question, and I knew she ‘d know if I was anything less than 100% honest. I asked her if she was asking me if I was uncomfortable with black people. She said yes.

 

I stammered for a little while, and then told her that yes, sometimes I am.  I said that I don’t think black people are less than me in any way – but that yes, sometimes I’m uncomfortable.  That sometimes I worry I’m going to say something stupid or offensive without knowing it.  That there are some words that black people can use with each other that I can’t  – shouldn’t and never will! – use.  And that when black people call each other those names in my presence, even in jest, I get uncomfortable.  I said that I was uncomfortable with the fact that our staff was mostly white, and the group wasn’t.  I said that I have the best staff in the world – and that it felt offensive to the group to have such a dis-connect between the racial make-up of our staff and the racial make-up of the group.

 

I tried to be as honest and as clear as I could be.  I didn’t like it one little bit.  And it was no fun doing it with an audience.
What ensued was an open and honest conversation about the role race plays in our daily interactions.

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As the group left, “Monica” looked back at me.  She made eye contact and held it until the group was out of sight. I wish I could say that I knew what was happening as she held eye contact with me, but I didn’t.  I was pretty sure she was taking my measure – and I didn’t know if I measured up.

Climbing at Lincoln Park Athletic Club

“Monica” came to the kayaking program the next month.  She smiled when she saw us – and seemed pleased that we remembered her.  She told us again that she probably wasn’t going to participate; that she was “just going to watch.”  We told her again that we wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to. She had a great time on the water that day.  Pictures of her that day show her smiling her smile that has so much behind it.  It was the first time I felt like she’d decided to offer a bit of her trust.  I took that as a precious gift.

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In the year following these programs, “Monica” has continued to participate in almost every program we’ve run with The Night Ministry.  She has continued to indirectly bring up race, and waited to see how we responded.  We’ve tried to respond directly each time. She has continued to be tight-lipped. But she has also continued to smile. She has continued to smile in that way that seems to say that she is considering offering us her trust.

 

And while she has remained tight-lipped, she has also started to talk with our staff just a little bit.  She told Stephanie that she felt like hurting herself.  She did it with her talent for saying something in a way that puts us on the spot and can feel just a little bit manipulative – saying it just as the group was leaving.  Stephanie made a quick safety plan with “Monica”; told her she was going to talk with The Night Ministry staff; and made a follow-up plan with The Night Ministry staff.

 

Like me, Stephanie had to be honest and appropriate in an uncomforatable situation.  “Monica” offered enough trust to tell Stephanie that she sometimes hurt herself – but would Stephanie respond in a way worthy of trust by taking appropriate action and side-stepping drama?; or would she lose “Monica’s” trust again by agreeing not to tell anyone or by being scared and glossing over what “Monica” said, and in the process not taking “Monica’s” safety seriously?

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This past June, one month after that first climbing program, “Monica” climbed with us again at the same wall.  We noted out loud that she had NOT told us she probably wasn’t going to climb; that she had NOT told us she was probably “just going to watch.”  We also noted that she looked much more comfortable on the wall.  That she looked more comfortable in her body as she climbed, and that she climbed with more confidence and finesse as she climbed higher than she ever had.
“Monica” said very little.  –But she smiled.
I take her offer of trust as something precious.

Montrose Beach

This week we’re continuing our introductions to some of the youth we’ve worked with over the last 5 years. The story I want to tell you today spans all five of those years.  It’s a story that starts with our pilot program in 2007.  We learned a lot in that program – including lots of things to do differently.  Our programming has grown exponentially since then, and looks a lot different.  (If you missed our Summer Reflections, take a look.)  But it all goes back to this (very) small program with a few youth from Center on Halsted in the summer of 2007.
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We didn’t plan for this to be a pilot.  This was going to be our first program – 5 youth planned to join us for 2 hours of paddling each week for four weeks.
I first met the group at Center on Halsted the week before for an orientation.  Little did I know that it was also an audition of sorts for me!  One of the young men introduced himself as “Bob,” and then said that people usually called her Aunt “Mary.”  Another young man, “Joe,” asked if it was OK if he wore a skirt to paddle.  I grew up in the gay and lesbian community in the 80’s, and had known several transgender people – so I asked “Bob” if I should call him “Bob” or if she preferred that I call her “Mary,”  and I told “Joe” that in general I didn’t personally find skirts to be practical paddling clothing, but that the more important consideration was to avoid wearing cotton.
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I think I passed the gender-bending audition.  Still, only two young youth showed up at Montrose Beach the next week.
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It was a sweet day.  At the orientation “Joe” bragged that he was going to paddle for miles, leaving us all in the dust.  When he got on the water, he was far more timid.  When he realized he was in water over his head, unable to steer until that point, he did a full 180, heading back to the shore exclaiming “I DON’T WANT TO BE DROWNDED!”
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He was adamant that if he went out deeper than his head he would drown, and the life vest wouldn’t help in the least.  So “Bob” and I each took one of “Joe’s” hands and had him lay back in shallow water to feel the effect of the life vest.  After several tries, “Joe” was able to float.  Now his exclamation was “I’M DOING IT!”
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Neither of the young men returned the next week, and despite the sweetnes of that day, we called it a pilot program, wrote off the season as a bust, licked our wounds, changed our approach based on what we’d learned, and moved forward.

Belaying

So imagine my surprise three years later when, in the June of 2010 we started programming with The Night Ministry, and I show up with a kayak and climbing gear at a bank parking lot with 200 youth hanging out at 10:00 at night to meet the outreach van and provide an orientation before we start programming – and practically run into “Bob!”  “Bob” was now on the youth council at The Night Ministry, and his area of responsibility was with the adventure club.  I was more surprised when I realized he remembered me – and downright speechless when he described, in detail and with amazing enthusiasm, the wet exit I’d made him do before kayaking with a spray skirt.  He corralled 10 youth, the maximum we’d set, to climb with us the next day.
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We’ve paddled, climbed, cycled and navigated with “Bob” and his peers for a year and a half now.  We’ve watched “Bob” cheer and teach and motivate and support his peers.
We’ve watched him be a leader, helping other young people to find their strength.
I’d like to tell you about one of them next week – a young woman who we’ve watched as her physical comfort with herself has transformed and deepened over that year and a half.
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.