“When I first came on this trip, I didn’t think I would like it. But now that I’m here, I’m glad I came.” I heard this profound sentence from a student while we were standing looking out across the dunes of Assateague Island. This response was not an unusual summation for the trip and the kids that went on it. Many of the students, 9th graders from UrbanPromise Academy, had never been camping before. Most hadn’t been this far from home and none had been to Assateague Island before.
Assateague Island, one of a long string of barrier islands that stretches from Maine all the way down to Texas, is a unique place. Found on the Delmarva Peninsula, the island is under the protection of three separate parks and reserves, each managed by a separate organisation. This protects many forms of wildlife that rely on its forests, beaches, and marshes for their resources. These habitats are widely different and require special methods to survive in each. A crab from the beach would have a hard time surviving in the tree and bush covered depths of the maritime forest.
Some of the students sympathized with this difference in adaptation as they woke to the feeling of sand beneath their tents and wind-blown dunes. It’s a daunting task to set up a tent when you’ve had the comfort of a bed and house. There are poles, stakes, bags (which usually end up blowing away if you aren’t paying attention), and your own two hands to make sense of it all. As any Trekker knows, the outside can be full of surprises. On our trip some horses ate a staff’s granola bar. We also had an extremely windy day, which while great for flying kites and enjoying the breeze, did have us double-check our tent’s stakes a few times. Life in the outdoors is not an easily predictable process.
But perhaps that is exactly what students are adapted to. Many students live in environments where their life is a changing thing, lifestyles that can turn on a dime or be turned into something entirely different. In all of this, UrbanTrekkers has strived to show that even in the hard moments and after a long day, you can still sit around a campfire at the end, sharing stories, insights, and some well-roasted marshmallows.
By Noilda Sousa - Environmental Education Program Director
The author and theologian C.S. Lewis had written in his famous book Mere Christianity that “Reality is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect.” This could not have been any truer than in the present year of 2020. Regardless of which country, political party, or age you are in this year seems to have found you with a change that you weren’t expecting.
The effects could be felt by us keenly in the UrbanTrekkers program. At UrbanTrekkers, many of our greatest programs involve overnight trips with our students to amazing natural places across the Northeast and beyond. These trips had to be adapted into a very new thing this school year to fit into the confines of health regulations and our own ability to transport students safely in this time.
These new trips we referred to as Trekker Mornings. Each week each grade would have a morning dedicated to an outdoor experience nearby. Beginning with paddling in BoatWorks-made canoes and ending with hiking and biking in local parks, the mornings had a wide range of topics and activities. The consistency of the trips allowed for a massive amount of genuine connections between staff, volunteers, and students. The short distance to the trip locations also allowed for a flexibility that would have been difficult to manage on a longer expedition. These small but potent advantages allowed for experiences that built up both the students and our Trekker team.
One October morning comes to mind this fall to illustrate this point. We had planned to take our senior class for a bike ride around Cooper River Park, a local park with many great paths for the amateur and experienced biker. Unfortunately, the trails were quite wet this particular morning due to some rain that had been falling steadily through much of the night, morning, and showed no signs of stopping. Some of our students seemed certain we were going to cancel our morning activities. We surprised them with a choice: we could continue with our scheduled programming and go for a bike ride, or we could do something unplanned and go for a nature walk in a park that many of us had never been to before. A vote was held and the hike was chosen. So, after a short drive and some wardrobe changes to include waterproof boots, ponchos and extra layers we set out in the relative wilds of Hopkins Pond. The rain had continued to hold up in a strong and thorough fall all through the hike. However, no one complained of the hike, some even were jumping through puddles with glee in their boots! As we returned to the vehicles at the end of a half-mile hike, soaked through and through, we congratulated the students on their grit and upbeat nature. We on the Trekker decided to reward this optimism with some warm drinks on the way back to school.
This memory stands out to me as a testament to both the unpredictable nature of the world, but also the resilience of our team and students. We don’t know what the rest of the season may hold for the world or our state, but we are working to be ready for it. We are preparing a number of programs: some tried, some different, and prepared for the unexpected. We are thankful to those that support us through this season with its twists and turns. We look forward to sharing more of this new season and its stories with you soon. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
“Hey Kevin...I can’t go tomorrow on the trip...sorry”
I got that text from one of our Seniors at 9:33 PM on January 28th - the day before we left for our Winter Outdoor Leadership Training. Yamiletz is a tough student to get to commit for trips. After a few weeks of trying to convince Yami to join her classmates for the trip, she was finally on board. Until we got that text Monday night.
Kris and I were winding down from a long day of final preparations for the 4-day visit to Nockamixon State Park, and Kris insisted that I call Yami back as soon as we saw the text. She later told me that she wished she never picked up the phone, but she did, and we spent more than thirty minutes talking to her before she finally committed.
One of the big things that stood out to me from the phone call was Yami’s response after Kris preached to her about the great leader that she is within the program. Many of the staff here have spoken highly of the role that Yami plays on the Leadership Team, but she couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that she is a strong leader and role model.
I texted Yami after our phone call. Here is how that exchange went:
“I believe you...I don’t think that me going will make my class think I’m a leader or look up to me in that kind of way but we’ll see.”
“I beg to differ. I don’t think they would tell you they look up to you or see you as a leader, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“If you believe that then I’ll try to believe it too because honestly they are wayyy smarter than me to even look up to me. Just because I stay to myself or that I’m shy doesn't mean I’m going to be a better leader or that I’m smarter.”
“Smarts got nothin’ to do with it. Being shy has nothin’ to do with it. Don’t sell yourself short.”
I had to stop the conversation there. I knew that I had a lot to say, so I saved it for the bus ride and told her I would try to hear where she was coming from.
This is a hot topic for me these days – doubting myself and not being able to see what other people see in me. I don’t like the idea that other people feel that same way. Especially young students who have so much potential to make an impact and be an example of kindness to the people around them. I made it my goal for Yamiletz to believe in and be confident in her leadership abilities, and her gigantic, kind heart.
I tend to be pretty quiet sometimes too. I am terrified of speaking in front of people, leading group discussions, and doing most of the things that my boss Kris is amazing at. I shared all of that with Yami, because I wouldn’t feel so strongly about all of this if it wasn’t coming from my own experience.
For as long as I have known her, she has shown how kind, thoughtful and genuine she is. She takes the time to talk, always asks me how my weekend was, asks me thoughtful questions about my family and what goals I have for my life. She doesn’t realize it, but all of this comes naturally to her. She isn’t a fan of speaking in front of people, but she is a master of leading by example. She quietly leads, thinking that others are more capable. That others are better. But, in my opinion, she takes on the most important role as a leader. She leads others by being compassionate and taking a real interest in others. She leads by being herself.
On the third day of our trip, Kris decided that he wanted Yami to be one of our “Leaders of the Day,” which meant that she would be communicating with the group on the trail, making sure everybody was drinking enough water and hiking at a comfortable pace, and that we kept a pace that would get us off the trail in time for dinner and the rest of the day’s activities. She was not so happy with me when I told her that she would be doing this, and she made it very clear to me that she did not want to be in this role.
We talked on the bus ride to the trailhead and I encouraged her to own the role for the day. I reminded her that I also dread speaking in front of the group and being a vocal leader. She was still a bit resistant when the hike started, but she allowed herself to be uncomfortable and pushed through the day. And she did a great job, obviously.
To finish up the night, we did an activity called “Pass the Story.” Everybody wrote a sentence, fact or fiction, about the hike earlier in the day. Then we all passed our notebook to the right and the next person down would add a sentence on without reading anything but the sentence directly before it. By the end of the activity each person had a short, 13-sentence story in their notebook. The stories were hilarious and barely made sense, which is the point of the activity. We all spent about a half hour that night crying from laughter as we read the stories.
There was a common thread in each story. At some point, “the Almighty Yami,” the fearless leader of the group, came into the picture and saved the day. It was a fitting role for her to play in every story that was passed around. Although she may not always believe it, she is the Almighty Yami - our genuine, kind-hearted and thoughtful leader.
It’s a sunny afternoon at Pyne Poynt right here in Camden, NJ. It’s low tide so the Stream Stewards walk down the boat launch and make a left onto the dry riverbed. We see a nice flat rock to put our water testing supplies on and get to work. The sky is blue with few clouds and we see geese, ducks, and then a hawk flying by. We remark how the air smells like spring and that we feel energized as winter slips away.
Two Stream Stewards throw our bucket on a rope into the river to take a water sample, then take turns testing temperature, pH, turbidity, nitrates, phosphates, and dissolved oxygen. As we carefully test our water sample and record our results, we discuss school days, work days, tell jokes, and admire the beautiful weather and take in the start of a new season. We chat about things to look forward to during the remainder of the school year and beyond, and simply enjoy the moment.
Stream Stewards may be a space to learn about what is happening below the surface of our waterways, but it is also a space to consider ourselves in the context of our environment. It is a space to step away from our phones and laptops, school books, and busy schedules to really connect with the river in our backyard. It is a space to connect with each other when the chaos of the day has finally taken a break. We come to complete a task, but we gain much more. This particular spring afternoon, I think about the fact that this space is a sort of refuge that we can return to week after week.
On the short ride back to UrbanPromise’s campus we enjoy each other’s company, eat snacks, and talk about our plans for our next Stream Stewards’ meeting. Until next week and until our next refuge!
Rachel Abbott, Environmental Education Program Director