A three day journey, in our local woodlands, undertaken for the specific purpose of strengthening the social-emotional and leadership skills necessary for youth to positively influence their lives, and the climate of their school communities, through self-awareness and independent thinking. This outing was made possible through a collaboration with the Naples Library Teen Services Coordinator, Danielle Tcholakian.
Written by: Scott Wager
The outing began with a 9:00 a.m. gathering of participants at the Expeditions of Empowerment gear barn, located on Griesa Hill Road in Naples. Luca, a 12 year old German boy who recently moved into the Naples community arrived first. Luca, I quickly learned, was not one to sit idle. While waiting for the others to arrive, Luca busied himself by pulling staples out of the barn’s porch framing and arranging seating for our opening community circle conversation. Audrey, a 16 year old girl from Fairport who is connected to Naples through friends she made while attending The Walden Project last school year, arrived next. Audrey tentatively scanned the property, presumably looking for her friends, as I introduced myself and Luca to her and her mother. As Audrey transferred her bag from the car to our barn, her Walden Project friends Iris and Lulu, both 15 year old girls well connected to the Naples Library, arrived. For the girls, the morning gathering was like a class reunion, which made me a bit concerned that Luca, being three years younger than the girls, would be intimidated and shy away from connecting with them. After a quick tour of the barn, and an offering of food and drinks, I asked the group to come together in a community circle for an introductory conversation. The three girls arranged themselves in a semicircle where they could see each other while still facing me. Luca chose to stand next to one of the barn’s framing posts were he could see me, but was partially hidden from the girls. I opened our conversation with a prompt for each person to share their name, what they preferred to be called, and the best experience of their summer. As Audrey, Lulu, and Iris introduced themselves, Luca peered out from behind the post, remaining partially hidden. When it was his turn, he withdrew fully behind the post and spoke directly towards me. I wanted to bring Luca into the group, so I elaborated on his introduction and shared that he was twelve, raised in Germany, and had just moved to the community after a short stay in South Dakota. I also used Luca’s extended introduction to segue into a conversation about the purpose of the trip- developing leadership skills that can help empower youth within the community and contribute to an inclusive social environment. We explored each person’s perspective of what empowerment meant, what made them feel empowered, and how they could empower others. Lulu shared that creating space for others was one way she could empower them. When asked to elaborate on what she meant by creating space, Lulu described the mindset of being open to allowing new relationships to form. She gave the example of recognizing that Luca is much younger than her, but that difference should not prevent her from welcoming him into her community of friends. As Lulu spoke, Luca slowly emerged from behind the post, showing a newly heightened sense of inclusion.
Although the group’s energy was bright and sunny, the morning weather was overcast and threatening rain. Iris had wisely suggested that we delay setting up camp until afternoon, when the rain had passed, so I filled the remainder of our morning and early afternoon with emotional intelligence centric self-awareness and communication activities. By 1:00 p.m., I had learned that this group was highly self-aware, compassionate, and insightful. After setting up camp at Ontario County Park, we ventured into Conklin Gully to explore its many waterfalls. Here, scampering across rocks, clambering over downed trees, and using ropes to ascend low-angled waterfalls, Luca was in his element. Like a herding dog, Luca would lead out to explore the path ahead and then return to check on Iris, Lulu, and Audrey who were frequently stopping to inspect rocks, plants, and insects. Audrey, although thoroughly enjoying the hike, was more timid than the others on slippery or steep terrain. Each time she stopped and said, “I don’t think I can do this,” I would respond with, “of course you can,” and work with her to overcome the challenge. By the time we reached the amphitheater-like area known to ice-climbers as Little Angel, it was evident that Audrey was becoming mentally fatigued from pushing beyond her comfort zone. The group decided that rather than increase the stress on Audrey by descending what we had just climbed, we would exit the creek at the bridge and hike the rim trail out. Luca and Lulu took this opportunity to slide down a cascading waterfall into a bathtub shaped waterhole.
That evening, the girls wanted to make “Walden Soup” over a campfire. Lulu built the fire, Luca chopped wood to maintain the fire, and Iris, Audrey and I chopped vegetables. The process was long, but in the end we feasted on a delicious vegetable, potato, and pasta soup made entirely from scratch. Our evening’s campfire conversation began with a reading of the poem “Be kind to yourself”, by Sofie Diener. We discussed how nature is neither embarrassed of, nor apologetic for, its characteristics; it simply is, and each element coexists with all of the other natural elements, so why as humans do we tend to be apologetic for our prominent or distinguishing characteristics and dim what makes us shine when in the presence of those who have different characteristics? Our conversational path meandered through discussions about overstimulation and emotional desensitization resulting from unfiltered 24-7 access to digital content, and how this group uses critical thinking to navigate what they do, and do not pay attention to. I laid in my tent that night thinking about how powerful it would be for this group of teens to facilitate similar conversations with their peers!
Day 2 began at 6:30 a.m. with Luca walking in circles around our campsite’s picnic table. Unsure if he’d had a bad night and was pacing because he was upset, or if he was just an early riser trying to stay warm on a cool morning, I crawled out of my tent to assess the situation. Thankfully, he was just an early riser trying to stay warm! Luca and I foraged for kindling and started a campfire to ward off the morning’s chilling dampness as we waited for the agreed upon 9:00 a.m. wakeup time. Luca fed the fire as I prepared coffee (for me) hot chocolate (for him), and egg sandwiches for breakfast. We casually talked about our shared appreciation for German Pretzels and brötchen, and chatted about similarities he has observed in each country’s youth. Slowly Audrey, Iris, and then Lulu emerged from their tents and joined Luca and I around the campfire. Iris announced that she was going to do some journaling before getting into anything else for the day. Lulu and Audrey followed suit. Lulu had requested to make chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, but as the time approached 10:00 a.m. she, and the other girls were still engrossed in journaling so I made the pancakes. Iris, Lulu, and Luca were interested in a day of climbing, but recognized that Audrey was not so keen on the idea of spending another day outside her comfort zone. They collectively batted around some options and soon agreed upon a day of Kayaking. We made lunches at the campsite, packed snacks and headed downhill to the Woodville boat launch. When we arrived, the group quickly unloaded the kayaks, donned their personal flotation devices, and launched themselves into the water. We paddled up West River and into Naples Creek.
At the junction of the river and creek, Iris and Lulu asked if I would connect their kayaks, bow-to-stern, like train cars. They tried paddling forward in unison with each other and also in opposition, both resulting in a zig-zag path resembling an inchworm’s movement if viewed from the side. At some point, as we paddled up Naples Creek, they discovered that paddling the kayak-train backwards, with only the lead kayaker paddling was the most efficient. Iris happily paddled backwards with Lulu in tow for miles! We decided to have lunch at a downed tree that blocked our progression up the creek. Luca, while attempting to step out of his kayak for lunch, flipped in the shallow waters. “This bottom is like quicksand” he shouted in laughter as the water around him turned black from churned up silt. After a leisurely lunch, we paddled back into the lake for a swim. Once in the open waters of the lake, Lulu and Iris separated their kayak-train, and individually paddled towards an uninhabited section of east-side shoreline for a swim. For hours, the group swam, skipped rocks, laughed, and tested their balance on my stand up paddle board. Somewhere around 4:00 p.m. we paddled back to the boat launch so that the group could go see Danielle Tcholakian at the Naples Library. After a short visit at the library, we headed back towards camp to get a start on dinner. I stopped at our barn on Griesa Hill to drop of the kayaks and pick some fresh vegetables for dinner. While there, Lulu had the idea of gathering Autumn Olives to make a jam. “No” Iris said to Lulu, “its going to take too long because I am going to eat them as we harvest.” We all pitched in to harvest a bowl full of berries, and then headed up to our camp at Ontario County Park. At camp, the group wanted to shower before anything else to ensue none of the leeches we encountered on the lakeshore had attached under their swimsuits. As they showered, I started cooking rice and preparing the ingredients for stuffed peppers. Luca, the first one back from the showers, gathered kindling and started our evening campfire. We roasted our stuffed peppers in the fire’s coals and cooked sausages on the grill as the sun set and darkness set in. As I cooked and cleaned, I listened from afar to the groups rambling conversations. At one point, Luca was describing his frustration with being paired up in school with a less than motivated partner. As he described the situation, his language and tone became derogatory and belittling of the other student, so I intervened on the conversation. I reminded Luca, and the rest of the group of Tuesday’s conversation about empowerment, specifically citing their reference to “lifting people up.” I challenged Luca directly to consider how could use his own intelligence to uplift such partners. In response Luca said, “but he even said he was too stupid to do the work.” At that, I cut Luca off and told a story of how one of the brightest young women I know also professed to be stupid, because that is what her verbally abusive father repeatedly told her. I explained how I frequently see this language used as a defense mechanism by youth to shield them from the potential of failure or disappointing others. “You are young Luca, and it is not your burden to solve this problem entirely on your own” I said. “But you are smart and have had unique life experiences that put you in a position to help others, and that is what empowerment and leadership are about,” I added. I then asked the girls, what insights they could share to help all of us navigate such situations in the future. Iris suggested trying to consider what needs the person may have in that moment to be successful, offering that considering her own needs could provide the insight to the needs of others. Lulu suggested trying to be an advocate for the individual and approach the teacher with an ask for help, or a different method of conveying the necessary information. After a few moments of silence, I closed the conversations saying, “I don’t have an answer that is certain to resolve these situations, but you have suggested some great options that are certain to do more good than harm.” Later in the evening, as the fire was burning out and Iris was poking at the coals, I asked the group a reflective question. What would you do if hot coal were dropped into hour hands, causing you pain? Drop it, throw it, let go, was their response. “How is that response different than what you do when a painful thought drops into you mind? For example what if a friend does or says something that causes you pain?” I asked. Luca did not have an answer to this question, but he listened intently to the responses from Iris, Audrey, and Lulu. Iris and Lulu responded with a tentative and reflective tone, saying they tend to hold onto those thoughts. Audrey on the other hand said “I’d throw the friend away immediately, but hang onto the thought for a while.” “Care to elaborate?” I asked Audrey. She went on to describe how initially she would distance herself from the person creating the painful thoughts, like throwing the hot coal. Like a burn, the thought would stay with her for a while until she could fully process it and eventually heal. As Audrey spoke, Lulu confirmed that she has a similar response, but hadn’t realized it until this conversation. At one point in the conversation one of the girls said they enjoyed reflecting on the different aspects of themselves through these conversations. Hearing that, I asked if they were interested learning about themselves through the lens of an emotional intelligence assessment. With an emphatic yes, I agree to incorporate an assessment and group debrief session into our final day’s activity.
Day 3, the final day of a fabulous outing, began with all four participants sleeping as I brewed a morning cup of coffee and began breaking down my tent. Luca crawled out of his tent next, ready to start another day of adventure. Again we enjoyed mugs of warm liquid and some casual conversation as the girls slept in. We packed our bags, and helped each other roll up our tents before making a bagel and oatmeal breakfast. As Luca milled about the campsite, I logged into my computer to prepare the emotional intelligence assessments. Just as Luca was finishing up his assessment, Audrey appeared from her tent, bags mostly packed. A few minutes later, Iris showed up at the the picnic table with her bag fully packed. Last up was Lulu, cheerfully greeting everyone with a grand “Good morning!” Without any prompting from me, but help from Luca, the girls broke down their tents as I packed up our makeshift kitchen. As each person finish with their tents, they settled in around campfire pit, journaling, reading, and taking emotional intelligence assessments. “What would you like your adventure to be today?” I asked. “Please no water today, my feet need a break from my water-shoes” Luca said. Again in a collaborative manner, the group weighed their options and decided to play within the park and do a group review of the assessment reports at the Naples Library. While they played at the park’s main playground, I coordinated the printing of their reports with Danielle. Shortly after noon, at Lulu’s suggestion, we walked to the park’s overlook site. There, the group admired the surrounding hills and forest, and talked about how they would incorporate the knowledge and experiences they gained at The Walden Project, and on this outing, into the schools they would be returning to. Lulu shared that she would temper her desire to rebel against unfair rules and policies, and seek to build positive relationships with as many people as possible. “You have to be likable to be heard as a kid” she said. Iris, moving into a new school, was unsure exactly what to expect and simply planned to make space for, and listen to, others until she understood the new landscape. Audrey thought that she would use her skills to bring teen services into the Fairport Library. Luca, perhaps too young to internalize his own leadership, was not sure. I suggested that he use his intelligence and unique experiences from growing up in Germany and South Dakota to share insights of how others live. To the girls, I suggested creating a space for, and facilitating, conversations similar to our with other youth. “We have never had conversations like these before.” Iris said. I left the conversation with a simple, hopefully empowering statement; “You are all intelligent, philosophical, and compassionate people with the capacity lead. Start with a small conversation and grow from there.”We spent the remainder of the late afternoon enjoying a snack from Caruso’s Cafe, learning about emotional brain styles and underlying competencies, and finally unloading all of our gear.
Our trips are designed to facilitate thought and foster personal growth within those who participate. On this trip, I grew in my appreciation of the values, compassion, and capabilities of teenagers. If we as adults give them the space to explore their thoughts, and then listen with open minds as they process those thoughts into ideas, we just may restore our faith in humanity.