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Posts Tagged ‘climbing’

February 20, 2013

I have had the great good fortune, because of the hard work and dedication of our staff and board members, to get to spend a month paddling on the West Coast.  Before I tell you about it, I hope you’ll humor me and go first to the scene of a climbing program a couple years ago.

Here’s the scene:

A tall, lanky young man is about two to three body-lengths up the wall.  He climbed there quickly and elegantly.  Now, though, he’s stopped.  He curls into himself and begins to shake.  He starts to look down, and we can see that he’s crying.  A chorus of shouts, coming from every last person on the floor of the climbing wall, demands “DON’T LOOK DOWN!”

 

 

He stops.

He makes himself as small as he can – squeezing his arms to his chest, squeezing his legs together, squeezing his eyes tightly closed.  Multiple shouts erupt now.  “Don’t look down!”  “You can do it!”  “Put your right foot on the blue hold!”

He’s stuck there a while longer.  Then he wrenches his head upwards, (we assume he opens his eyes), and this time, he climbs to the top of the wall.

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Fast forward a few years to San Francisco Bay, just last month.

We’ve “gone out the Gate,” as they say – which means we’re on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge.  I’m in the water next to my boat.  After watching three other students, I clip my tow line to the deck line at the bow of my boat and swim toward the cliff, my boat following on tow.  There’s a ledge above the water, and another one below it that gets covered and uncovered with the swell.  I watch the water go up and down; and eventually head in to the cliff, put my hands on the cliff wall above me, grasping it ever so lightly because of the mussels attached to it.  I put my feet on the lower ledge.  As the swell comes over the ledge, it lifts me gently to a standing position, my hands on the cliff wall at chest level now instead of over my head.  I step up to the next ledge, and then one ledge higher.  When the next swell comes, I discover I’ve successfully landed on a cliff face two feet above the swells.

I spend some time watching as the water rises and falls below me.  Eventually I jump back into the water, swim my boat out from the cliff, and get back in.  I have to get one of my fellow students to un-clip my tow line because I’ve left it clipped to the bow of my boat where I can’t reach it!

Steve, one of the coaches, moves us along to the next challenges.  We paddle as close as we can to powerful dumping waves (a dumping wave releases all of its power at once, straight down in a powerful wall of water; these aren’t the gorgeous spilling waves that release their energy gradually over both time and distance, somewhat forgiving if you happen to get yourself in the impact zone…).  We paddle as close to the cliffs as we can, in and around rocks, look for the perfect timing for runs in slots between rocks when the swell will carry us through, over rocks that will be exposed 30 seconds later when the swell has passed.

This Midwest girl falls behind, unable to quickly read the interaction of Pacific swell and rock.  Steve and the other coach Jen have a short conversation while I watch a few swells come through the next slot before I run it.  Jen paddles back to me to tell me that the rest of the group is going to go on and we’ll spend the time I need to watch the swell at each feature – to find me crying after successfully running the slot.  I’m having an amazing time; in a month’s time the Pacific has changed my soul with its swell, its salt and its wildness.  But it’s just too much information, too much stimulus that I have to respond to, too much new experience to process in too short a time.  I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, and poor Jen finds herself confronted with a student who’s tearful for most of the rest of the afternoon.

Like the young man on the wall, I’m at my limit.  Like the group of other young people on the floor of the climbing wall, Jen gets me past my limit and beyond.  When we launch from a nasty dumping beach after lunch, several people get caught by the sucking of the waves racing back to the sea into the wall of water of the next wave.  I time it right and use a good strategy; when I’m past the break Steve remarks, as I drop from my back deck to the seat of my boat, that I had a better launch than he did.

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Fast forward another two weeks, and I’m back in Chicago listening to my priest and fellow paddler Bonnie Perry talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Rabbi Heschel tells us that people must experience wonder, they must have mountain top experiences, in order to develop the passion and stamina to work for social justice.  I look at my hands, with their already-fading but still distinct drysuit tan lines – the bottom of my hands pale where the sleeves of my waterproof clothing covered them for a month of paddling, the rest of them tanned brown and cracked.  It’s a visceral, kinesthetic reminder of the mountain top experience I just had.  And mountain top it was.  I paddled with migrating gray whales in San Diego where I watched one just yards from my boat repeatedly lift its massive head out of the water and dive deep; in Baja California where one swam right under my boat, so close I could see the barnacles on its back; and in San Francisco, where one came right in under the Golden Gate Bridge, playing in the same ebb current we were playing in.  I paddled in Mexico through little slots between rocks, across overfalls that you have to time to ride with the swell or get stuck on the rocks that create the feature, among huge sea stacks with giant Pacific swell.  I saw gorgeous, long period waves breaking at Point Loma at the entrance of San Diego Bay; and waves jacking up to huge heights out of nowhere against the ebb current, breaking in slow motion all the way across the shipping channel under the Golden Gate Bridge.  I paddled at night in San Diego Bay with the city lights as the backdrop, successfully finding the spots Jen had set us to find – including the dock at the restaurant where dinner and a beer were waiting.  I saw beauty in some of its wildest, most inspiring forms; and at its most serene.  And I landed on a cliff wall.

 

 

 *     *     *     *     *

I am reminded of that young man who stopped on the wall, came down multiple times, kept getting back on the wall, cried and shook and squeezed himself up as small as he could get – and then climbed to the top of the wall.  I’m reminded of other young people in our programming who have mountain top experiences; who do what they thought was impossible.  The young man who describes seeing the whole of Chicago from the top of the outdoor climbing wall; the young woman who describes watching the “water just open out in front” of her kayak.

The mountaintop takes courage.  To get there, you have to risk not being good enough.  You have to risk falling or failing, or just falling behind.  You have to risk fear.  You have to risk depending on someone else for help.

When you get there, it delivers joy.  It holds a mirror to your finest, bravest, most joyful self; and demands that you live into it.

 

The best part of my job is watching when this happens for our young people.  As one young woman said, “I have learned to be a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.”  Rabbi Heschel is right.  The mountaintop demands our best self; our best work.  Just as for that young woman, my own mountaintop demands that I be “a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.”   It demands that I continue to work to make this city safer for our kids; that I work to make sure they have access to the resources they need regardless of their race, their socioeconomic status, their sexual orientation, their national origin or any of the other factors that make life so unfair and treacherous for them.  That I keep bringing Chicago youth to their own mountains and periodically remind them not to look down until they’ve reached the top.

The mountaintop demands that I, like it, see these young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves; and that I help hold the mirror so that they and the world can see the same.

I have no idea what the mountaintop will demand of each of them.

I do know that whatever the demand, it will make this City and this world – its streets, its homes and everywhere else – a better city and a better world.  These young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves are a force to be reckoned with.  They will show us what this world can be.

 

Chicago Mountaintop

 

Steve Maynard is a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the head paddling instructor at SUNY’s Expeditionary Studies program in Plattsburgh, NY.

John Carmody is also a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the owner of Sea Cliff Kayakers in Boothbay, Maine.  John was the primary coach for the 5 Star training in San Francisco where this post comes from.  On the day of the vignette I share, I was with the half of the group working with Steve and Jen, so John doesn’t make an appearance in the story.  If you’re a paddler and you have an opportunity to work with John – YOU SHOULD TAKE IT!

Jen Kleck was the first North American to become a  Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach.  (I was in great company in San Francisco!)  She is the owner of Aqua Adventures in San Diego and the coordinator of the Baja Kayak festival in Baja California.  You should go to Baja Kayak Festival, the first ever Baja Rock Garden Symposium, if you have the opportunity – April 11-14, 2013; and April 10 – 13, 2014.

Bonnie Perry is the rector (senior pastor) of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago – and the 4th woman in this country to earn her BCU 5 Star Award.

CAT has so many reasons to be thankful. This year, through a  capital campaign, CAT was able to purchase a fleet of boats. We received a donation of bicycles from Discover Card. 1 of our youth and 2 of our staff were certified as BCU Level 1 Coaches. CAT participated in the inaugural Gichi Gumee Project. The list goes on.

As we reflect on our achievements and our blessings, we must also remember why CAT exists. Youth in Chicago live in a city in crisis. Rates of violence are through the roof. Schools are struggling to offer students what they need to learn. The recent economic decline is still stripping under-served communities of resources. The list goes on.

CAT exists to offer Chicago youth ways to weather these storms with life skills, leadership skills, camaraderie, healthy relationships, and access to healing spaces.  Below, 6 present and former staff have shared their personal reflections on CAT and why they are thankful for its service to the Chicago community. Use the comments section to share your thoughts on thankfulness and why you support the work CAT does.

 

Andrea:

1. Name:  Andrea Knepper

2. My connection to CAT:  Founder and Executive Director

3. One awesome thing I did/ I will do in 2012:

  • Got to see one of our young people become a paddle sport coach and got to teach her to roll a kayak. She was SO EXCITED!

  • Took a solo kayaking trip to grand Isle in the UP this fall. Beautiful!!

4. I’m thankful for CAT because…   Where to start?!  

  • I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness the heart, the courage, the determination, the support that our youth bring to our programming.  I’m so inspired by them.

  • I’m overwhelmed by the generosity and hard work of all the people who’ve helped make CAT a reality and a success – our staff, our Board, our volunteers, our donors, our student interns, our funders, our partner agencies, the outdoor community…  I’m stunned when I take a step back and see how many people have come together to provide this opportunity for Chicago youth.

  • It’s really cool to get to see Chicago young people have the opportunity to do things they would never have otherwise gotten to do.

Stephanie Miller:

1. Name: Stephanie Miller

2. My connection to CAT: I have been with CAT since May 2010, when I did my 2nd level MSW internship there. I came on as full-time staff and Program Coordinator in 2011

3. One awesome thing I did/ I will do in 2012: Became a Level 1 BCU Paddle Sport Coach

4. I’m thankful for CAT because… 1.) it forces me to face my own privilege and biases on a daily basis and 2.) it provides an opportunity to create change in regards to those things, with the youth I get to work with.

Cycling with the Night Ministry

Grace:

1. Name: Grace Sutherland

2. My connection to CAT: I started out as a Masters of Social Work intern back in 2012, and now I’m the Resource Development Coordinator.

3. One awesome thing I did in 2012: Crossed off my #1 Bucket List item: seeing whales in in the wild.

4. I’m thankful for CAT because I get to be a part of a really amazing group of co-workers (staff and interns and volunteers alike!). There have been so many people involved in this organization over the years, and I’ve had the great opportunity to learn something from each of them. I am especially thankful that each of these people has been incredibly dedicated to opening resources and opportunities to young people, as well as treating each young person we encounter with profound respect.

 Ryan:

1. Name: Ryan D. Heath – the D stands for “Danger”

2. My connection to CAT: I was a Schweitzer Fellow at CAT in summer 2011- winter 2012, and became part-time staff in summer of 2012. I also provide comedic relief on an as-needed basis.

3. One awesome thing I did in 2012: I presented research on CAT at the AEE conference in 2012.

4.  I am thankful for CAT for its commitment to social justice in adventure therapy.  At the AEE conference in November 2011, I was reminded of how (even among social workers working in adventure therapy and experiential education) that much of the field and its dialogue is focused on methods and professional reputation. It was surprising to me because us at CAT, we not only focus on the psychotherapeutic as well as technical skills, but the staff is constantly reflecting on and questioning the social implications of the work we do and what the social justice purpose behind the work we do.  This is truly unique in the adventure therapy field, and a unique group of staff to be working with.  For that, I am truly thankful.

Erin:

1. Name: Erin Berry

2. My connection to CAT: I’m an intern with CAT.

3. One awesome thing I did in 2012: I started graduate school for a master’s degree.

4. I’m thankful for CAT because with them, I would not have met and learned from so many wonderful youth in Chicago.

 

Stephanie Taylor:

1. Name:  Stephanie Taylor

2. My connection to CAT: I worked for CAT in 2009 after I finished Grad School running programs over the summer

3. Awesome thing I did in 2012: Got married

4. I’m thankful for CAT because working for CAT solidified my decision to work in adventure therapy/experiential learning.   I now work for The Chill Foundation, where I’ve continued to utilize and build upon skills that I learned at CAT.

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!

Today, meet Jennifer!

The staff and interns attempt some teamwork at the 2012 Intern Orientation.

 

Name: Jennifer Lipske
Previous/Current Occupation: Special Education Teacher
Childhood Ambition: I wanted to be a teacher or an astronaunt.
3 Words that best describe you: Dependable, Competent, Flexible
Proudest Moment: The day I became a mother, and going back to school for my Master’s in Social Work.
Why Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT)? I chose to intern at CAT because I want to work with adolescents and young adults and help them achieve their goals, realize their strengths, and empower themselves. I believe CAT offers a unique opportunity to reach young people through the use of adventure therapy and provides them with the tools they need to achieve growth and change.
What have you learned so far in your internship? I have learned about a wide variety of adolescent populations and some of the challenges they face everyday, and this has made me more aware of the world as they see it. I also got on a rock climbing wall for the first time which was amazing!
What has surprised you about CAT and/or about Adventure Therapy? I am surprised at how much this opportunity has effected my life already and how just being out in natural settings can really be an empowering feeling and a powerful vehicle for change.  

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.

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.

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

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.

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. 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