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The Nature of Transformation

What's it take for outdoor ed to change a life?

By Reed McManus

Jeffrey Decoster

Any serious adventurer will tell you that a wilderness trek is a surefire source of beauty and refuge and sanity-saving. Biologist E. O. Wilson believes that human beings are hardwired to seek out connections with the natural world. And author Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, alerted us to how our increasingly urban and electronic lives distance us from the balm of nature. Outdoor adventure, it would seem, is a no-brainer solution to what ails us.

A middle-class parent horrified by Louv's warnings can pull the plug on the PlayStation, lure the kids into the minivan, and seek out a place to experience the world at the pace of birds and butterflies rather than bits and bytes.

But what about inner-city kids attending resource-strapped urban schools, and raised, perhaps, by a hardworking single parent? Programs like the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors, the venerable Outward Bound, and others have stepped up, targeting "experiential education" programs to at-risk and underprivileged kids. While we want to do right for these kids, it's worth asking a cynical question: Are these programs really helping the kids, or are they better at making the well-meaning environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts who support them feel good about themselves?

The quick answer, so you don't get depressed: A nature experience can change a kid's life. But the best programs acknowledge the gritty urban milieu most of these kids return to and help them use what they've learned in nature to cope with every day thereafter. The biggest surprise for skeptics: Nature is more than a pretty backdrop for this process of personal transformation; it's an integral actor, helping kids discover who they are and what they're capable of.

Jeffrey Decoster
In 2000, Massanda D'Johns had a label she couldn't shake: She wasn't just a high school student but a Castlemont High student, attending a notoriously underfunded and low-scoring public school in Oakland, California. D'Johns was naturally curious, which on many other campuses would have been a ticket to support and success. "Not knowing about something makes me want to know more about it," she says. But Castlemont's woes were extinguishing that spark.

A fellow student recognized D'Johns's plight, and recommended she apply to San Francisco's Summer Search program, which offered her a six-week scholarship to attend summer camp at Ojai Valley School in Southern California. D'Johns jumped at the chance to spend the summer camping, horseback riding, playing beach volleyball, and completing ropes courses on the campus of a cushy boarding school in the mountains. She was also flattered that someone had shown an interest in her.

At camp, D'Johns found herself wearing a new label. Surrounded by well-heeled and international students, she was constantly aware that she was "there on a scholarship." "I stayed inside my shell for the first two or three weeks," she says. Even a scheduled excursion to an outlet mall—a pleasure for a kid with a credit card, but no joy for one without—added to her sense of isolation.

The Summer Search curriculum calls for two consecutive summers of outdoor adventures, so the following year D'Johns attended camp in Maine. She was determined to put her best foot forward, despite her so-so experience the year before, despite being a non-swimmer at a canoe camp, and despite being completely put off by the rustic reality of washing up at a backwoods facility. "I knew that the goal was to get you out of your comfort zone," she says. "But I built up even more of a wall than I had the year before. I almost went home after two weeks."

This time, though, D'Johns had a breakthrough that's stayed with her. The counselors, she says, "wanted me to reflect on why I was there, and if I left, how it would affect me." She liked the group dynamics, she realized, and the fact that her mentors wanted her to analyze her own predicament. Her conclusion: "I was up against what I thought I couldn't achieve." She stuck it out.

Upon returning home to Oakland, D'Johns wrote her required essay ("They really pull it out of you," she says), which solidified the lesson. "To this day, I'm able to step aside and reflect on whatever situation I'm in," she says. That helped her through four years at the University of California at Santa Barbara and through a layoff from her first job after college. "My first response was, this could be beneficial," she says.

Could any Castlemont kid benefit from similar outdoor programs? Definitely, according to D'Johns. "They teach you that you're not already defined, that you don't have to be a victim of your reality." She sums up her experience this way: "It forced me to think the impossible."

For Niles Xi'an Lichtenstein, a Global Routes program in Nepal provided relief from a life that had become hard to bear for a teen.

Lichtenstein, who is of Malaysian and German extraction, struggled through sleepless nights as a young teen to keep up with schoolwork while helping his fragile mother tend to his terminally ill father and younger brother. The Nepal trip after his junior year gave Lichtenstein something new: time to spend with himself. "I had all this time to think," he says. "For two months I didn't have a mirror, yet it was the most reflective time of my life."

"I'm 27 now," Lichtenstein says. "I was 17 when I went to Nepal, and I still draw on memories of the trip for strength." The physical challenge of climbing a Himalayan peak would be transformative for any teen, but in his case it allowed him "to get in touch with emotional pain I'd never gotten in touch with," he says. On a rainy night in a Nepalese guesthouse, he realized that much of his unvented rage stemmed from the way his dying father had drained the life out of his mother, and how, at the time, he could do nothing to stop it.

Lichtenstein, the national teen-poetry-slam champion of 2000 (and a Harvard University sociology grad of 2005), explains his experience better than anyone else could in his poem "Something Worth Dreaming About", which reads, in part:

There is more than fate that gets you to 19,000 feet as a teenager.
19,000 feet becomes a compilation of struggle and self-doubt, of working through pain for progress, of dreaming in motion,
of small continual successes that elevate your soul,
and lift your gaze to lighten your step.
19,000 feet is about shedding all external context
and rearranging the raw internal elements of your soul's anatomy
to gradually provide a picture of an identity you can finally claim
as your own...
19,000 feet is replaying memories 8,000 times with the right foot
and 8,000 times with the left.
19,000 feet is a place you will go for the rest of your life to remind
yourself that you believe anything is possible.

It's no surprise that Lichtenstein believes the outdoors is essential to a true metamorphosis for troubled teens. "You have to put kids in what amounts to slightly traumatic situations," he says. "In some ways it's like administering a little bit of poison to remedy a huge amount of poison."

When he returned from Nepal for his final year of high school, Lichtenstein found that he was able to cope better with the "machismo challenges" that define life for young males in a 3,000-student urban public school. He began to mentor freshmen with gang affiliations, kids "in much worse situations than I was in." But without the ability to send them outdoors, he says, "I couldn't make the impact I had experienced. At the end of the day, they were in a situation that they really couldn't shake free from."

Lichtenstein, now a business-development director at a mobile-technology company, did shake free. "To this day, it's a huge part of me," he says of his outdoor classroom. "It's been more important than a business internship or an academic internship. I learned to trust myself to find answers."

Jon Howard, director of Outward Bound's programs for at-risk youths, isn't surprised by the success enjoyed by D'Johns and Lichtenstein. "If you want these programs to succeed," he says, "you need an integrated approach that involves the family and school personnel and a follow-up component that helps the kids transfer what they've learned back to their home and school environments."

The outdoors is the ideal clinical setting. "In wilderness there are no distractions," Howard says. "If something comes up, the group stops what they're doing and it's dealt with. If it takes two hours, you take the time to work a problem through from beginning to end."

Outward Bound offers three types of programs for at-risk kids. Its Intercept program mainly attracts middle- and upper-class families looking for an early intervention for self-destructive teens. Its Families in Need of Services (FINS) program takes on kids referred by schools and agencies, and its Short Term Expedition Program (STEP) works with kids referred by courts. Whether dealing with rebellious teens or "adjudicated delinquents," the goals are similar: Teach kids to take responsibility for their choices and to communicate in non-aggressive ways. Once they've returned home from the wilderness, the kids in the FINS and STEP programs attend regular follow-up meetings for up to three months.

Dropping troubled teens into an unfamiliar setting where they have to deal with cold and rain and fend for themselves might seem like a recipe for disaster. And, in fact, those conditions "bring out the same behaviors that got these kids into trouble at home," Howard says. "But in an urban environment they can blow up and go someplace else. In the wilderness they don't have that luxury; they have to learn to communicate differently."

The Florida agencies that contract with Outward Bound have had an 87 percent success rate (based on recidivism) for students in the FINS program and a 60 to 65 percent rate for the kids in the court-adjudicated STEP, which is better than the state average.

Jay Jacobs can top that. Jacobs is CEO of Summer Search, which boasts a 93 percent success rate. His program's target audience is different from Outward Bound's: high school students who have demonstrated innate leadership skills despite horrendous odds. ("These kids have shown that they can walk through walls," Jacobs says.) Its goal, getting kids into college, is as measurable as recidivism is to the criminal-justice system.

The Summer Search secret is intensity: Weekly preparation sessions preface each expedition and may consist of teaching kids to swim or helping them get into shape for a rigorous trek. The summertime wilderness programs last for at least three weeks. And after each trip, frequent meetings help the participants reintegrate into their urban milieu. Those meetings continue into the first years of college.

"We want to make sure they don't disappear," Jacobs says. The program settled on this demanding schedule after watching too many kids with one-off scholarships return to the city and suffer academically, unable to integrate their wilderness experiences into their everyday lives.

Jacobs admits that a mentoring process so thorough doesn't require a faraway wilderness. "It comes down to the number of hours involved," he says. But, like Outward Bound's Howard, he's convinced of the benefits of the wilderness setting.

"We underestimate how overwhelming an urban environment is for a kid," Jacobs says. "Wilderness gives them an opportunity to reflect." And surprisingly, it often plays to a disadvantaged kid's strengths.

"They are so often filled with messages about their lack of resources and ability," Jacobs explains. "The outdoor setting is leveling. Everyone is wearing the same clothes, everyone comes in equally useless, and everything you do out there is tangible and consequential. You can't talk your way up a ridge."

What delights Jacobs is when Summer Searchers learn to respect both themselves and the world around them. "Living a simple life can be a powerful lesson for an adolescent," he says. "These kids become conservationist in how they approach their lives. 'Leave No Trace' is as applicable in the Bronx as it is in the wilderness."

Reed McManus is a senior editor of Sierra.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors program.

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