Magazine article American Forests

Wilderness and the Human Spirit

Magazine article American Forests

Wilderness and the Human Spirit

Article excerpt

Something powerful is happening out there as programs like Wilderness Discovery help disadvantaged kids find new horizons.

FRIENDLY HOOTS, whistles, and applause filled the dining hall as students at the Curlew Job Corps Center operated in Washington State gathered recently for an after noon honors assembly. Peers and teachers demonstrated their approval as name after name was called to recognize leadership, most improved students, and best students in academic subjects and vocational fields. Despite audience enthusiasm, some of those young achievers received their certificates with heads lowered, unwilling or unable to meet the approving gaze of the audience.

It's obvious that Curlew's staff is working to build students' confidence, but these young people need all the support they can get. Some have been fortunate enough to participate in the Wilderness Discovery program, which takes Job Corps youth on backpacking trips into wilderness areas, where they can learn about themselves, taste success, and grow in confidence.

Wilderness Discovery, a program of the University of Idaho's Wilderness Research Center (WRC), was designed by WRC Director John Hendee and doctoral student Randy Pitstick, who believe wilderness is a classroom for personal growth.

"There is a large industry of literally hundreds of organizations that run wilderness-experience programs," Hendee said. "The use of wilderness as a teacher and classroom to heal the human spirit has developed quite rapidly in the last 25 years. It's becoming a major use of wilderness, and it has evolved almost entirely in the private sector, where thousands of satisfied customers provide data indicating that something powerful is happening.

"Those of us who have worked with wilderness know how powerful that experience is and how valuable and healing a 'back-to-basics' can be. We want to build a model program and lead the research that will clarify and explain how wilderness works for personal growth, therapy, and leadership development."

Hendee believes that economically disadvantaged kids deserve a wilderness experience as much as anybody and need it more than most. That's why the WRC is working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Labor on several national forests to develop Wilderness Discovery with Job Corps youths. The WILD Foundation is a supportive partner in the venture.

The 110 Job Corps centers nationwide serve young people ages 16 to 24 who are under- or unemployed or from impoverished backgrounds, and who, for a variety of reasons, have missed out on many social and educational opportunities. Some have come from abusive families; others have been homeless or suffered with drug and/or alcohol abuse. Job Corps provides the opportunity for young people to complete a high-school education, to get vocational training, and to build social and living skills--but students must supply their own will to make it happen.

WILDERNESS DISCOVERY is a low-risk, low-stress experience. Each trip takes small groups of up to 10 young people backpacking in the wilderness for a week. Students--most whom have never had such an opportunity--hike no more than five to seven miles a day carrying their own packs. They learn "leave-no-trace/minimum-impact" camping techniques and how to travel safely in the wilderness.

Currently in its developmental stages, Wilderness Discovery is offered on a limited basis. First tested during the summer of 1993 at the Curlew Job Corps Center, the program was expanded last summer to include the Trapper Creek Job Corps Center in the Bitterroot National Forest of Montana and the Timber Lake Job Corps Center on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. Next summer, a fourth, eastern center will be added.

Participants and alternates are selected from a list of volunteers that represent the full range of Job Corps students, including all vocational specialties and a balance of behaviors ranging from leaders to "problem students. …

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