“It’s all right man…we all face difficult times. I remember when I first started paddling, I couldn’t get it. I still don’t get it all the time now. You know, it’s kind of like life- we’ll face our good days and our tough days. But we’re here to support you through it…”
These were the words of Christian, a freshman at UrbanPromise Academy, to one of his upper classman peers while on our Spring Break Outdoor Leadership Training trip. A freshman! His gentle humility, compassion, and wisdom astounded me in the moment. Did I mention he’s a freshman? You see, we had just gotten off of a time of canoeing on Lake Nockamixon, and there was one canoe without an experienced paddler. We had pre-taught all the strokes for steering, stopping, and going, but they struggled. I could tell one of the students in the inexperienced boat was getting frustrated at their inability to control the boat. We tried every approach at coaching them through the strokes- steering was definitely not their strong point- not that day anyway. Eventually I saw a shift from frustration to anger- I was worried their canoe buddy would end up getting the brunt of a blow up, along with those trying to throw out advice (i.e. me!). They never went off though- they exercised extreme self-control, even if they weren’t able to exercise much canoe-control in the moment!
Destiny was on shore listening in on our paddle commands over the radio, and when we were close to shore, she asked if she could come down and help us get the boats in. I saw her from a distance - she started waving her hands signaling us to our take-out spot, and over the radio started singing the sweet melody of, “lean on me…when you’re not strong…I’ll be your friend…I’ll help you caaaaaary ooooooon….” I also had reached the point of frustration in those last several minutes, but it all faded away when I heard Destiny welcome us in with outstretched arms and her heartfelt melody.
After pulling our canoes up, our frustrated student headed back to the cabins and called Christian over. I joined them, and that’s when I got to listen in on Christian’s wise advice for his friend. My heart was touched- doubly so with Destiny’s act of compassion. Once everyone had calmed down and changed into some warm clothes, we met up for dinner. Erin, our ever-amazing volunteer had jumped in for cooking duty that night when she saw us all struggling with the boats back to shore. She and Destiny cooked us up a delicious warm meal to close out our week. Everyone gathered around the table for our final big meal together- conversations had lightened once again, laughter could be heard from every side of the table, and everyone was extremely grateful to get to finally eat! The student who earlier had been so frustrated led us in a blessing for the meal, and in that blessing, thanked God for the family seated around the table.
Like many of the students in our community, the frustrated canoeist has had a difficult family history in his 18 short years. I’ve heard the word “family” used to reference the UrbanTrekkers and UrbanPromise community on multiple occasions, and it holds special meaning to all of us. That difficult afternoon turned into a beautiful moment of serving and supporting one another. It turned into an afternoon of being a family.
This past week, I was privileged to volunteer on a five-day trip with Urban Trekkers to Lake Nockamixon. Students, who could be spending their Spring Break on their phones or in front of screens in Camden, instead leave the technology, comfort, and noise of their homes behind to bask in the glow of a new adventure. Every day of the trip was spent in some combination of cycling the surrounding trails along the Delaware River Canal, hiking, canoeing on Lake Nockamixon, getting to go on a few historical and environmental science tours, and singing loudly in a fifteen-passenger van. We would spend most evenings cooking and eating together, reviewing the events of the day in front of a student-forged fire, and cultivating a better understanding of what it means to be a leader.
The prevalent theme of the week could be summed up in an activity the students were asked to take part in on the first day. At the beginning of the trip, each student created a “life map” which served as a representation of their goals and obstacles. At the end of the trip and after a college visit we managed to sneak in on the last day, each student was asked to look at their “life map” again, and make edits based on their experiences. As it is with most changes in our lives, the biggest moments are not always clear to us as they happen. Over the course of five days however, I saw students become aware of the power of their words and soften to the needs of others, cultivate an understanding of courage in the face of very real obstacles, and decisively commit to educational and vocational goals in life that they were formerly afraid to approach.
One student had come on the trip to learn to be a better communicator, and had discovered that his innate capacity to listen would allow him to grow as a leader. For one student, this had been the longest time that he had been away from his family or a phone. He would discover that anyone in a group can change the tide; we are all leaders in that we all rely on each other. Another student arrived on the trip sure of her ability to communicate, but unsure of how to pray. She would learn that prayer can be as simple as a moment of gratitude, and a voiced hope for things to come.
A freshman on the trip, new to riding a bike, new to canoeing, and new to Urban Promise Academy spent the third day attempting a short mountain biking trail under the watchful eye of Urban Trekker’s Director Kris Schnepf and with seasoned biking guidance from Dan and Joann Higgins. This trail challenged all of the students on a day when the morning bible verse for reflection had been, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go," (Joshua 1:9). At the end of a bumpy ordeal with a few falls for everyone, he stepped off his bike, with the whole group around him, hoisted it over his head and in a rare, exhilarating moment of triumph exclaimed, “I did it! I did it!” Turning to Environmental Education Program Director, Vicki Carberry, he continued, “I just kept thinking - ‘be strong and courageous!’ I even told Kris when he fell too!”
Why would I freely give of my time and resources to be in the woods for a week with a bunch of teenagers who I’ve never met? Because there is so much to learn from the struggles and triumphs of these students that I need to remember in my own life, and they will be sure to remind me of it! Because the gift of ourselves, the gift of listening to someone, is sometimes the most effective way to communicate. Because, as Walter Brueggeman said, “We go into the wilderness having nothing, and lacking nothing.” Because we are all leaders - we all rely on each other. Because bike by bike, s’more by s’more, someone has made it possible for Urban Trekkers to do work that is laying a foundation for years to come.
-Erin Farmer, UrbanTrekkers Volunteer
Congratulations and WELCOME to Tom Calisterio our new Program Director at Urban BoatWorks. Although, it seems a bit odd to welcome Tom who has been with us since day one. Tommy was one of the founding volunteers from the summer of 2009 who helped us begin the program that brought 5 young men and 5 not so young men together to build three wooden skiffs, Promise, Grace and Faith in a broken, run-down basement of an old church in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden.
Today Tommy leads a program that serves over 120 young people and 15 volunteers building character and life skills through the craft of wooden boatbuilding. The run-down, old church building is now the home of the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum and the boat shop for Urban BoatWorks. It is more than a joy to now have Tom “on board” as our Program Director. When we reflect on the names of the first three boats that were built, Promise, Grace & Faith they are all virtues I associate with our new Director. Welcome Tom!
Earlier this month, Urban Promise’s Stream Stewards Team presented their water research at the 2017 Watershed Congress along the Schuylkill River at Montgomery County Community College. Stream Stewards members, Yasiria and Destiny created a poster presentation with their compiled water data from three sites along the Cooper River in Camden. They spoke to participants about their findings and environmental issues concerning urban waterways including air pollution, stormwater runoff, and non-point source pollution.
Through opportunities like this our students aren’t just digging deeper into what they’ve learned, but they are also developing important life skills like positive communication and gaining confidence while speaking.
Big thanks to the Delware RiverKeeper’s Network for putting on a great event. We can’t wait till next year’s Watershed Congress!