Eleven years ago, a group of at-risk teens were encouraged to chart a new path for themselves, inside the classroom, in the great outdoors and within their own lives. For these 22 students, roadblocks such as addiction, abuse, criminal activity and depression were obscuring their outlooks on life. But a new program called 'Take A Hike' aimed to provide both purpose and positive encouragement. Today, it continues to motivate dozens of at-risk students each year.
Program organizers say the inaugural year of Take A Hike presented a challenge not only to students, but also to program directors, navigating a new path with limited resources. As a co-founder of 'Take A Hike' and teacher to Grades 11 and 12, Tim Gale remembers what those first few years were like.
"Our first year was tough, there was no basis for the program and it was hard to gauge how much potential each student had - when to push and when to back off. We started with four staff: an outdoors specialist, a therapist, a youth and family worker and one teacher," says Gale.
With each progressive year of the program since, expectations have evolved to help better understand and guide the diversity of the students that come into the program.
The stereotypical image of a 'youth at risk' (impoverished, cigarette-smoking, tattooed) has shifted. Take A Hike students encompass a broad range of backgrounds that come from different neighbourhoods, ethnicities and age ranges - all with the shared goal of discovering their potential in the classroom and outdoors.
Encouraging personal growth through experiencing the wilderness is important to both Gale and students of the Take A Hike program. A typical camping excursion will require students to adopt a do-it-yourself mentality to tent construction, cooking and navigation. To enforce the relationship between them and nature, students also forfeit cell phones and cigarettes for the length of the trip.
"The outdoors experience is constructed to show that life is very challenging, but it won't defeat you because you have the tools to be successful. When they start doing things on their own, the students are able to believe in themselves and their potential," says Gale.
Reuben Berge is a Grade 11 student of Take A Hike who came to appreciate what the program offered him, an understanding that began on the very first day.
"The first day of the program we all worked together as a team to build rafts out of wood at Jericho beach," says Berge. "Since we now see each other every day, we've come to know each other a bit better than a normal classroom".
Recalling a trip to the Chilcotin Mountain Range, Berge admits that although the level of responsibility was heightened, the opportunity to be out in the middle of nowhere provided him with a chance to reflect on his accomplishments.
"I've learned that I'm an outdoors guy who likes to physically exert himself," explains Berge. "Since being a part of Take A Hike, I've pursued a work experience of over 80 hours with Canadian Forces Search and Rescue. I'm 100% certain that I want to apply myself to working with the Coast Guard when I graduate".
The opportunity to clarify life goals and self-perception is a concept that is integral to the program. Reducing the fog of distractions that might obscure a student's path may lead to outbursts or withdrawals from some of the youth, but the importance of having an immediate and engaging experience is critical.
Klaus Klein provides therapeutic counseling and guidance for students in the program. Being able to offer conventional therapy alongside support in the wilderness for at-risk youth is a two-tiered approach that Klein says makes a huge difference.
"Being outdoors leads to experiences where you're challenged in real-time. You have to deal with problems immediately," says Klein. "The seeds of change are planted, even if the kids don't understand or appreciate it at the time".
When this understanding is made, the results can be astonishing.
Both Klein and Gale reminisce on a female student who had come into the program in Grade 11. She was bright, but also struggling to navigate through a great deal of personal emotional chaos. She'd been in and out of numerous foster families and was in an unhealthy relationship. Program coordinators say if she'd continued in that trajectory, she could have easily ended up on the streets.
Instead, Take a Hike provided her with a pick-up system that counseled her and provided a real and genuine attachment. Soon she was encouraged by a stable foster family and applied to Capilano College upon graduating and then transferred to the prestigious Sauder School of Business at UBC where she graduated with honours. A few years later, she returned to visit the program.
"She looked incredible. Super healthy, amazing self-esteem - she was hiking on the Grouse Grind, talked about setting goals for herself. We were just blown away," exclaims Klein.
"I think over the years, seeing these kids come in here and seeing where they're at when they leave, the big message to take away is smarten up and appreciate what you've got to offer," says Gale.
For more information about the Take A Hike program, visit www.takeahikefoundation.org