About the Author, Laura Nelson: I’m a lifetime researcher in happy, healthy, fun living. I love hiking, doing yoga, and playing my violin, and did I mention eating desserts? I’m taking a summer position leading groups of young women on outdoor leadership development trips through the Pacific Northwest. In my daily life I’m a massage therapist and health coach. I’m section-hiking the PCT through Washington with my partner, Josh, a stage 4 cancer survivor. My 70-year old trail-crushing mother is my hiking inspiration.
This post is a follow-up on the job I took as a youth trip leader for the YMCA’s BOLD/GOLD program. After the interview process in February, there was nothing to do but wait and get nervous! My training began in early June with a 2-day Wilderness First Aid course: 16 hours of study and scenarios for attending to basic wounds to more serious scenarios, including CPR. With each group of youth, there are two instructors, one of whom must have WFR (wilderness first responder) and one with WFA (wilderness first aid).
The following week we began our 7-day intensive staff training. We met at the YMCA’s Cascade People’s Center in downtown Seattle to get a first look at the rest of the leaders… scrappy, creative, outgoing, and many of them YOUNG. Coming to this both as a shy person, and later in life (late 30s), I felt like a square peg in a round hole. Many of the staff live out of their cars in the brief breaks between their 7-22-day trips. So I was already ‘weird’ for having a career and an apartment. Gasp… I even have a savings account!
There was a table to sign up for meal and cleaning shifts for the training, and a stack of white medical tape provided as name tags. They ask you to write your name and gender assignment (something I’ve only seen since coming to the PNW). Then commenced the awkward moments of ‘what’s your deal? Why are you here? Where are you from? What were you doing before this?’ It’s like putting out feelers to see who you have the most in common with, and how aggressively you can put yourself out there. The first day (Staff Rodeo) was a storm of paperwork, drug testing, learning to drive the minibus, and 4 hours of Teen Abuse Prevention training (we are mandatory reporters for suspected abuse).
I learned a few things that the YMCA does that stood out for me. First of all, they have a 3-tier program for accommodating different socio-economic status. Parents don’t fill out any paperwork, but simply decide which tier they can afford, and then pay that (very discounted, discounted, or full-price). Donors pick up the tab for those families who can’t afford full-price. The YMCA also run girls, boys, and coed trips. The participants choose where they feel the most comfortable. So, for instance, a trans-gender youth could choose any trip they feel the most drawn to. This began my understanding of how potent an experience with the YMCA youth program could be for children and families.
The next day we simulated the first day of students arriving in the lawn behind the center. You meet with your trail group, start the ice breakers and name games, discuss ‘non-negotiables’ (safety contract), and move inside for the ‘duffel shuffle’– the swapping of gear, deciding what to leave behind, and packing your bags. The acronyms abound…. ABCDEF of packing the bag (Accessibility, Balance, Compression, Dry, E for I don’t remember what, Food above Fuel and Fun). This can cause anxiety for youth, since many of them come with barely anything and will be borrowing gear OR will be told to leave half of what they brought behind. Plus even as an adult, I still had a vague feeling of ‘what am I getting myself in to?!’
The building is crammed with clothing and gear for youth and staff to borrow. Then we packed a lunch (a square sandwich smooshed into my round Tupperware) and board the buses to the Olympic National Park.
We arrive at Mora campground late in the evening, find tent-mates, set up camp, and start dinner at 9pm after ‘Chow Circle’ (link arms, announcements, moment of silence, quote, and an elbow squeeze that travels around). There are over 50 instructors-in-training plus the staff. It’s an introvert’s nightmare. It’s cold, damp, and after dinner we continue with the learning activities… instructor check-ins and ‘Courage Circle’, a bonding activity of the leader’s choosing. The campground is loud with activity most of the night, and I sleep thinly.
The next morning starts with 7am breakfast and 8am on the field to start the learning! They prepped a big pot of ‘cowboy’ coffee. You just dump a clean rock in the pot to sink the grounds. Somehow it’s nearly as good as my Seattle-strong pour-over at home.
The next 3 days consist of 8-12 hours of ‘classroom’ time outdoor in the cool drizzle. We learn about the tenants of the YMCA’s Bold/Gold programs (youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility), JEDI (justice, equality, diversity, inclusion), and dive deep into group management, risk assessment, team development, and conflict resolution. We learn about the stages of group development (forming, norming, storming, re-norming, performing). We practice everything breaking into partners, or small groups, every moment challenging my introversion and worry that I will not be able to absorb the lessons. We play field games, team-building games, and at one point we practice SOLO TIME (my favorite!) We discuss social norms, ethics, and the boxes of gender, socio-economic standing, age, sexual orientation, religion, and race. Most of the activities are practices we could use with youth to develop their understanding of the diversity of the human population and expand their social awareness and sensitivity.
On Sunday, we headed out for the backcountry training. My trail group consisted of 8 women (2 leaders and 6 in training). We packed group gear, and drove a short distance to the coast. Our hike started at Rialto Beach, lush with wildlife, epic scenery, and endless fascination. I was feeling more at home (I packed a bagel for lunch, which fit nicely into my round Tupperware), and the smaller group is a much more comfortable situation for me. I’m also confident with my backpacking skills, so it felt like a familiar challenge. We only trudged for 2 miles, but on rocky sand, it got the blood pumping. Due to a high tide, we climbed up and over a landmass that could easily have been circumnavigated 4 hours later.
We found a flat spot to set up tents just beyond the driftwood on the beach. We packed bear canisters (more for the raccoons than the bears, we later learn). We had a little down time to explore the crazy beach land formations and epic tidepools. I was enamored with what a cool ‘classroom’ this would be for young people.
The next three days consisted of a collaborative learning curriculum where we each signed up to teach lessons on topics we know well (Leave No Trace, tides, fire starting, pooping, first aid kits, map reading, self-care, staying warm, bear hangs, knots, difficult conversations with youth, etc). We ended our time with a Courage Circle around the driftwood fire on the beach. We put on Courage Cords (bracelets with the ends melted together to commemorate our experience) and writing a letter to ourselves. This is how we would end a trip with youth, reflecting on our experiences. I don’t remember exactly what mine said, but it will be mailed to me later in the summer. I know I included ‘You will be challenged. You will be humbled. This will be worthwhile. You will make a difference in a young person’s life.’ I hope these things are true for me, but I am sure that the YMCA experience will be impactful for the youth who attend these outdoor leadership programs.
On the second backcountry night, a raccoon ran off with my mess kit (bowl, spoon, mug). Should my new Tupperware be round or square? This is an interesting moment to choose my path forward ☺