By Scott Wager, Co-Founder, director, President/CEO
This expedition, sponsored by the Newark Central School District, was the first tier of a three year continuum of experiential social-emotional development programming. The continuum, aimed at improving life outcomes, also provides a mentorship pathway for five boys in the district’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) program who have just entered 7th grade.
Activity sequencing for this cohort’s expedition was designed to continually strengthen self-confidence and interpersonal relationships while developing supportive communication patterns and collaborative problem solving skills. Self-awareness, self-management, and self-efficacy were the overarching emotional intelligence pursuits targeted throughout every activity that directly support improving life outcomes.
Day one of the expedition is full of activities intended to break down inhibitions,
establish a set of guiding principles (group norms) for the week, and initiate conversations about integrity and trust. Jahlin was capturing the key behaviors and principles the group felt were important to uphold through the week and wrote the word out larger than all other words. When Gabe asked why, Jahlin said “because that’s the biggest thing for a group, not to leave anyone out.” A scavenger hunt for bags full of s’mores ingredients and flavored drink packets revealed that this cohort seeks to provide equity within the group before personal gain. Although they took a more individualistic approach to finding the stashed bags, once they opened them the dynamic changed and they quickly divided contents evenly amongst themselves. When everyone had an equal stash they began trading to suit personal taste preferences. I complimented their chosen action of sharing equitably, and used it to transition into a discussion about the autonomy they would have on the trip. I explained that throughout the week my role would be to tell them what needs to be accomplished, and they would be given the autonomy to choose how. I let them know that I would be there to help them when needed, and would support their choices as long as safety was not compromised.
The objective of the first challenge was for each person to inventory and take ownership of the gear we issued to them, and decide what personal items were most important to bring along. What made it challenging is that they could only take what fit into the backpack and plastic tote we issued to them. Although these two items provide enough space for everything listed as required and optional on our packing list, several participants perceived the space to be unreasonable and showed signs of quitting before trying. Darrian, the first person to embrace the challenge proudly announced that he had fit everything in allowed space. Excited by solving the problem, he began helping the others.
When we arrived at the campsite, I demonstrated how to properly set up the tents, using Gabe’s as the example. As a group they then set up the remaining tents in a circular pod, with doors facing each other so they could hang out while being in individual tents. While they worked on everyone’s individual tents, I set up the common area for cooking/eating that would be protected from the rain predicted later in the week.
After lunch we ventured out to explore the grounds of Ontario County Park in South Bristol, NY. Throughout the afternoon hike, a few tag based activities provided opportunities for the boys to expend anxious energy and for us to discuss the importance of integrity and trust. Some unstructured time on the playground allowed me to begin building trust through casual, individual conversations.
Hunger began displacing the desire to play around 5:00PM. Excited by the prospect of eating corn on the cob, cheeseburgers, and s’mores, the boys split into work groups shucking corn, gathering kindling, and cutting wood as I fired up the stoves and grill. While I cooked and Danielle brought the campfire to life, the boys spent time in their tents reflecting on what they had discovered about themselves and the group throughout the day, and what their individual goals were for the week.
During the evening’s campfire debrief session, Gabe, Darrian, and Jahlin shared that their goals were to learn some skills that would help them get through tough situations like getting stranded or being homeless. Ty also wanted to learn stuff, but his main goal was to have fun and Tristan wanted to improve his swimming skills. Now, with the formalities of the day complete, it was time to eat s’mores and establish the rules for their first game of manhunt. For nearly two hours they played, establishing new rules on the fly without any debate or complaint. By 10:00PM they had burned off the s’mores energy and decided it was time for bed.
Impressed by the groups positive engagement, teamwork and focus on equity, I was excited to see how they progressed throughout the week.
Day two of the expedition was focused on building self-confidence and collaborative communication skills through the combination of a strenuous 6 mile hike and shelter building activities at the beaver pond lean-to.
Following breakfast, I had the team complete individual Emotional Intelligence Assessments. I explained that the assessments (survey was the word used with the boys) would allow me to share specific insights about their strengths with them later in the week. Everyone was genuinely excited for the opportunity to learn about themselves. As we waited for Jesse Cruz (the groups Youth Advocate Program mentor) to arrive, the team was instructed to pack two sleeping pads, four tarps, their individual rain gear, water bottles and ropes, as well as the communal lunch and snack supplies for the day’s outing. Working collectively they divide up the gear amongst themselves, and then took the opportunity to rest before the hike.
Armed with spears they had crafted the night prior, the team explored plants and insects as we hiked along the Finger Lakes Trail. They discovered a Sumac fruit that looks like an apple, but turns to dust when touched, mushrooms, raspberries, a few unknown bugs and of course newts, squirrels and deer. A little over a mile into the hike, as the group ascended the first significant uphill, Ty was struggling to keep up. I knew he had not eaten much for breakfast and would benefit from eating now, but he did not want to stop. Luckily, the team was resting at the top of the hill. As Ty and I joined them I asked for an apple and casually commented how much better I felt with just one bite. Jesse reinforced the benefit of food on hikes, and within seconds everyone was eating a snack also commenting on how much better they felt. This led into a wonderful trailside discussion about nutrition and hydration both for athletic purposes and general well-being. Jesse and I chuckled as we resumed hiking, each of us admitting that we were shocked at their interest in nutrition.
The descent to the beaver pond is steep and challenging to those unaccustomed to hiking, and creates the I’m ready to be done feeling just before revealing the pond itself. Relieved to be done hiking the team sat under tree as Jahlin and I explored the beaver dam.
Refueled on PB&J sandwiches and applesauce pouches, we started the shelter building activities with a lesson on tying a bowline knot (helpful to their shelter building). After multiple attempts using different tying techniques, I was not able to teach the skill in a way that the group could understand. However, everyone could make a loop in the end of a rope, so we moved on to building a shelter before frustrations got too high. The objective was to divide into two teams and build a shelter that could keep their respective team dry overnight. Darrian, Tristan, and Gabe set off as one team, leaving Ty and Jahlin as the second team. Ty disengaged from the activity, laying face down in the lean-to. Jahlin, seeing clearly that his partner was not interested was unsure what to do. I tried to get Ty engaged with Jahlin by seeding them with ideas and asking how they could expand upon them. No luck, Ty was checked out. I tried quietly asking Ty to uphold his agreement to leave no one out. Again no luck, so I tried to draw him in by helping Jahlin build a concept he had. Now I had his attention, but he still would not participate. By now Jesse had observed that Ty was not participating and went over to sit beside him. A few minutes later ( after Jesse performed some “street magic” )Ty asked if Jahlin needed help and was fully engaged in the activity.
In the meantime, Gabe, Darrian and Tristan had split off with Gabe working by himself and the other two working together to build a different shelter concept. Jesse and I floated between the three shelter sites asking questions and offering support until each shelter was completed. Next, each shelter builder presented their shelter to the group explaining why they chose the structure and what their biggest challenge was. Gabe’s challenge was getting multiple sticks (used as posts) standing at the same time. Jahlin and Ty’s challenge was pounding sticks into the ground as stakes Sticks that fit through the tarp grommets were too weak to hold. Darrian and Tristan’s greatest challenge was figuring out how to tie the tarp to several trees with one rope. The activity debrief revealed that Gabe, Darrian and Tristan split because they could not agree on whose idea to build. This provided me the perfect opportunity to discuss and demonstrate how the construct of “yes, and” can be used to accept someone idea and build upon it.
The steep uphill hike back was challenging for everybody and provided the desired sense of physical accomplishment. As we approached our campsite with tired legs the boys quickly established and order for using the two available showers. Those awaiting others to shower were asked to reflect upon what they learned throughout the day, and to give thought to a goal that they would like to accomplish within this school year. It did not have to be a school related goal, but needed to be something important to them.
During our campfire debrief Gabe and Darrian both shared that they had made progress towards their goal of learning survival skills and were proud of the shelters they created. Tristian added that they worked well as a team and successfully resolved conflict by respecting Gabe’s wish to work alone. Ty and Jahlin simply said the day’s hike made them stronger. Later, while cleaning up after the trip I discovered three significant journal entries from this day that had not been shared during our debrief session. Ty had written “ I discovered that I can build stuff.” Jahlin’s was, “ I discovered that Gabe is really strong.” and “My goal [for the school year] is to get stronger.” Darrian wrote “My goal is to beat Minecraft.” and “I discovered that I am smart.”
Around 9:00PM Tuesday night the boys began asking Danielle what time it was, hinting at their desire to go to sleep. Shocked that it was 9:00 and not midnight, they spent another 30 minutes by the fire before announcing their decision to go to bed.
Wednesday was slated to be a recovery day where a casual hike up Conklin Gulley’s creek bed would facilitate being supportive of each other and being present in the moment. A looming threat of rain gave some of the group the idea that we would spend the day hunkered down, resting in our tents. After explaining that our morning activity involved walking up a creek to waterfalls, where we were certain to get wet, their reservation was replaced by a playful energy. As we pulled into the DEC parking area, the boys immediately identified the creek as “the cool hike the older boys went on last year.” Without hesitation they piled out of the van and into the waters of the creek where they marveled at the beauty of environment’s features as well as its abundance of frogs, tadpoles, and chipmunks. For nearly three hours, the boys sole focus was on exploring the creek and helping each other navigate small but slippery shale headwalls.
Gabe, was first to embraced being fully wet by using a smooth shale ramp to slide down into a mid-sized water hole. Emerging with laughter and smile from ear to ear, he encouraged the others to join in as he repeatedly ran back up to do it again. As we continued making our way up towards the large bowl of “Little Angel Falls” the boys laughed and splashed their way through the creek eyeing every slanted piece of rock for its potential to be a slide. Ty, being the most agile of the group was the first to ascent the rope aided ramp leading up and out of Little Angel’s bowl. As his teammates navigated the rope, Ty unexpectedly slid from an upper level slide into a deep bathtub shaped water hole just above the ramp his teammates were ascending. Surprised, and perhaps unsure if he was in trouble, he emerged wide eyed and smiling as his teammates shrieked in awe of the water he cascaded down towards them. Thrilled that the water hole refilled after each plunge into it the boys played in this spot for well over 30 minutes. If it weren’t for hunger, I believe we would have spent the entire day playing here. While hiking back to the van Gabe said he had money and wanted me to go to the store so he could get some Gatorade and snacks to go along with lunch. Not keen on either taking them into a store, or allowing them to buy candy, I offered them the choice of Pizza or their snacks as we headed towards Naples. The van erupted in shouts for pizza, so we picked up a pizza from Luigi’s in Naples and headed to the gear barn on Griesa Hill for lunch and afternoon activities.
We spent late afternoon focusing on clarity of communication and listening skills. Each person had to lead a blindfolded teammate through an obstacle course using only verbal commands. They quickly learned that their typical communication patterns assume that a common shared perspective (sight in this case) exists with those they are talking to. The activity also highlighted how important it is to ask clarifying questions when uncertain what we are being asked to do. I had been very impressed with the positive dynamic and teamwork of the group until it was time to clean up and head back to camp. Gabe, Tristan, and Darrian had gotten into the van, leaving Ty, Jahlin and I to pick everything up. Ty said “I don’t know why they aren’t helping that’s not right” as I thanked he and Jahlin for their effort. Then as Jahlin and Ty approached the van door, the boys inside thought it would be fun to lock them out. Their prank provided me the opportunity to arc back to Monday’s discussion of integrity and respect. I gave them a short lecture on how disrespected I felt by them ignoring my request for help after I had just bought them pizza instead of the food I had already purchased for the day. Then, almost symbolically the clouds above us released a downpour of rain. The rain lasted an hour or so which was just long enough for the boys to clean up and get dry and decompress in their tents while addressed some water pooling issues in the tarp protecting our kitchen and eating area.
Gabe had been insistent throughout the day that if it wasn’t raining at dinner time we should stick to the plan of fire grilled chicken, and a garden salad. So, as the rain subsided, he Darrian and Tristan began building a campfire, while I worked on a cooking fire in park’s grill. Despite using the dry kindling I had gathered in the morning, the boys struggled to ignite all of the wet wood they piled on top. Once they saw I had a fire to cook over, they lost interest in the campfire and decided to hang out in Darrian’s tent until dinner was ready to be served. About 30 minutes later Jahlin and Ty returned from their showers and began helping me finish up dinner preparations. By the time dinner was done, Darrian, Gabe, and Tristan had fallen asleep. Attempts by Jahlin and I to wake the boys were acknowledged with grumbles, and much to my surprise they chose to continue sleeping as Ty, Jahlin and I feasted on grilled chicken, salad and s’mores for desert. As the evening pushed towards 9:30, Ty and Jahlin had cleaned up their dishes and were ready for bed so I packed the food away and headed off to shower. As I walked past the boys tents, Gabe called out; “is the food still out? Cause I’m fixing to get a plate.” “No, you are too late. “We cleaned everything up and packed it into the cooler.” I said, continuing on to the shower. As I contemplated how to meet their nutritional needs and take advantage of this teachable moment to arc back to Monday’s discussion on choices and consequences, a vision of Tuesday’s leftover pasta sharpened in my mind. So, after my shower I told the three boys I wasn’t going to get any cooking or cleaning supplies back out, but hey could eat the leftover pasta and put the empty bag back into the cooler. Darrian took advantage of the offer and ate some pasta, but Gabe and Tristan chose to go to sleep hungry.
Thursday was the day of adventure and problem solving. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and eggs, we packed our helmets, harnesses, ropes and food, and headed over to High-Tor. While the team filled their water bottles, I reminded them of Tuesday’s discussion about “yes, and” and encouraged them to use that construct as they approached the day’s challenges. We hiked into a plateau overlooking the creek bed we had hiked in the day prior and set up for some rappelling instruction. Initially the boys thought we were going to rappel into the creek, and many of them were saying “No Way!” Later, after building confidence on lower angle rappels several of the team did rappel into the creek bed.
Explaining that part of this activity was trusting in themselves, we instructed them on how to tie a rappel extension to their harnesses and observed each person tying their own extension. This time everyone quickly learned how to tie the knot, and was proud of doing so. Next, Ben VanderStouw (an experienced climbing friend) and I demonstrated the principals of rappelling and how a prusik would be used as a safety backup (also known as a third hand). Ben coached each person as they practiced tying into the rappel system and testing the usage of the prusik as I set two 100ft. rappel lines down a 40o bank. Practiced, and seemingly confident in their new skill, the boys quickly hiked to the top of the bank and along with Ben inspected my anchor system. One by one, the boys tied themselves, rappelled down the bank, and then giddily ran back up to do it again.
After a couple hours of rappelling its was time to eat some lunch and move on to the main problem solving challenge of the day; crossing the raging river of school anxiety. This is a problem solving and communication centric activity that is designed to push some participants beyond their comfort zone and thus generate opposing ideas (conflict) that must be resolved. The scenario is that the team must cross the raging river with only one person getting wet. They were given a pile of ropes, pulleys, and carabiners, and instructed to develop a plan that the entire team is comfortable with. Within just a few minutes the team had created a plan to walk across a fallen tree. The first person across would be tied into a safety line, that they would then secure to a tree once across the river. Seeing that the tree was 15ft, above the creaked (which was actually dry) Tristan questioned the safety of this and pointed out that if the tree broke, the proposed safety line would not protect the first person. Ben and I encouraged the boys to keep building upon their idea, it could work. At one point Jahlin suggested someone “swim” across to tie the safety line above the fallen tree and they would use their rappel extensions to clip a pulley onto the safety line. It was now close to 4:00pm and Jesse Cruz needed to leave. He congratulated the boys on their accomplishments and encouraged them to have fun with this last challenge. After Jesse left, to re-engage with the activity, I asked the team what the first step was to executing Jahlin’s suggestion. To my surprise, they began throwing out completely different ideas, which caused Jahlin (the originator of the idea) and Darrian (ready to implement Jahlin’s idea) to become frustrated and withdrawn. Within minutes the team had completely digressed into trash talking each others video game prowess. After several re-directs from me, Gabe (who was most uncomfortable with the tree crossing) decided to look for a better area to cross. Acting completely on his own, he ran across a shallower section of the “river” and declared that he was across, now everyone else could follow. Although disappointed by his lone action, I went along with Gabe’s action and informed the rest of the team that he has swam across, so now they needed to move forward with their crossing. Without an agreed upon plan, the team didn’t know what to do and completely shut down. As Ben and I pressed them to move forward Tristan, Ty and Gabe began fooling around in the creaked and protesting the activity. Ben appealed to their desire to learn something, and I explained that sometimes in life you have to work through things you don’t want to do to get to those you do want to do. Tristan and Gabe, in a challenge of authority asked me “and what if say we’re just not going to do it?” In a very flat, matter of fact tone I said, “solving the problem, and getting everyone across is your only way home, so if you don’t do it, your going to have a long, uncomfortable hight out here” With a bold bluff, Tristan said he was going to walk home to Newark, so I wished him luck as he began walking the wrong direction. Pouting, he quickly returned muttering about a stupid activity that will never work as Ben, Jahlin and Darrian secured ropes for a zip-line. Recognizing the hanger induced frustration growing within me, I thought a snack might be just what the boys needed also. As we sat on the ground snacking, I directly asked Tristan what the next step was to implement Jahlin and Darrian’s zip line. After a longe pause, he correctly stated that hooking up a pulley was next, so I complimented his observation and told him to grab the pulley and connect it to the line. Suddenly this stupid activity was so much fun Tristan ran the zip-line 4 times.
After we broke down the system, we gathered for a debrief. I started by complimenting them on completing the activity and pointed out that their final solution was the same idea that had been brought up 90 minutes earlier. I asked what had made the activity so difficult and frustrating for them. Darrian, focusing on the difficulty of execution said that tying the rope was his biggest challenge. Gabe, said “honestly, being out here [in the woods] so long is hard. It’s like we are being pushed way harder [than the 8th grade boys].” I thanked Gabe for being honest with his perspective and acknowledged that the activity was specifically designed to be hard and to push them out of their comfort zones. I shared that what was challenging for me was watching them sabotage their own success. The debrief session naturally flowed into a conversation about growth occurring at the boundaries of personal comfort, and how their choices to fool around and stall the activity to avoid that discomfort only prolonged the suffering. I concluded the debrief by affirming their problem solving skills and encouraging them to work through discomfort the first time, rather that deal with the consequences of repeatedly trying to avoid it. With tensions and frustrations now behind us we hiked back to the van, thanked Ben for spending the day with us, and headed back to camp for hot showers and a meal.
In the evening, during our campfire reflection session the group spoke positively about the days experiences and everyone felt a sense of accomplishment. Ty, Jahlin, and Darrian were particular proud of rappelling down the steep bank into the creek. As darkness set in, the boys had begun grating each others nerves and a small splash of water turned into an all out war between Ty and Darrian. At one point in their squabble Darrian threw a shoe at Ty. In the darkness, Darrian was unaware that Tristan was in the crossfire and blasted Tristan across the eyes with a dirt filled shoe! Immediately, everybody stopped squabbling and began helping Tristan flush the dirt out his eyes and find his way to the picnic table. Once it was clear that Tristan was okay, the boys chose to call it a night and retire to their tents.
As the boys nodded off to sleep, Danielle and I sat by the campfire reflecting on the days activities and the boy’s responses. Danielle shared her insight that in school, disengaged or disruptive behaviors are often effective at getting the boys out of an activity they don’t want participate in because teachers don’t have the hours of time it takes to work through the process. Although the end result was positive, in retrospect I believe having a group conversation to re-focus and get everyones perspective would have been a better choice than playing off Gabe’s lead to force them into action.
Friday, the last day of the expedition I awoke to sunny, blue skies. I packed up my all of my personal gear, tent and the tarp that had been covering our camp kitchen and started breakfast. By 8:00AM the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were almost ready to eat. Excited to spend a day on the water, they quickly ate breakfast cleaned their dishes. and were ready to start breaking down camp as Jesse Cruz showed up with fishing poles that Gabe and Tristan had been asking about all week. Shortly after 11:00am kayaks were launched and the paddling began.
Ty, accustomed to being the most athletic of the group was frustrated by not being able to steer the kayak. Danielle and I took turns coaching him, and after about 20 minutes of exhausting effort he was heading north towards our designated swimming cove. Shortly, Ty and I met up with the others who Danielle had already led to the shallow cove on the western shore. After a long session of swimming, rock skipping, testing balance on a Stand Up Paddle-board, we began our journey back to Woodville. Ty had completely exhausted himself fighting his way north to the cove, and simply didn’t have the strength to paddle back into the wind. After several minutes of trying, he asked if I would tow him back. By the time we reached the Woodville boat launch everybody’s arms were fatigued, their bellies were empty, and they were psyched for grilled ham & cheese sandwiches at the barn.
We were running a little behind schedule so as Danielle cooked up lunch, I checked in all of the gear and shared the emotional intelligence reports with each of the boys. I focused on highlighting their individual social-emotional strengths and offered suggestions on how to use them to achieve their goals. Each of the boys indicated that the reports represented their experiences well, and were happy to learn they had strengths.
Back in Newark, James Schuler asked Tristan and Darrian if the trip was everything the had expected. My heart sank as Darrian said “No.” James looked to Tristan, and simultaneously he and Darrian said, “it was way more than ever hoped for.” I cracked a smile, thanked James and the boys, and drove away feeling relieved and grateful that we had connected with these boys and their families.