I was raised on a Boy Scout camp. My life revolved around the nature center, boat docks, archery range and ropes course. My father ran the waterfront. My mother ran the leather workshop. My sister and I ran the camp! I am now grown, married and have my own child. Between those two life-altering phases I developed a passion to work in afterschool so I could give troubled youth the same kinds of positive experiential learning opportunities that I got as kid.
Afterschool educators like me combine the joys of the classroom with the energy of the backcountry. I believe so deeply in the relationship a coach has to a player, a mentor has to a challenged youth, and an afterschool teacher has to a student who so often lacks the opportunity to shine in their own special way. My organization, CHAMPIONS: After School, Adventure & Sports Programs, runs 25 afterschool programs and supplements dozens of others with outdoor education retreats. Each day CHAMPIONS allows more than 3,500 youth to dance, sing, create art, make music, play sports, climb rocks, paddle streams, track animals, and explore concepts of self and community. They build discipline and set goals like starting and completing a 20 mile walk together as a team. Our job is to help them translate the experience of meeting and overcoming these challenges into goal setting skills in their own lives back at home.
One of the youth that we helped is Jose, a tough former gangbanger kid in Massachusetts. Jose joined our program and started coming on many of the leadership trips that we offered including local hikes and an outing to Cape Cod. Jose told me that the Cape Cod trip was the first time that he had ever been to the beach. Being away from the concrete jungle of his neighborhood and the chance to experience something completely new was freeing for Jose. It showed him that the world was bigger than the few square blocks he’d lived in all his life. After the trip he told us that he “got jumped out” and that he’d left the gang. Helping students like Jose is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
Afterschool programs offer so many activities and opportunities for kids to feel good about themselves. One kid in my program had a really tough time interacting with the adult staff and his peers. He was really shy and stayed to himself but I could see that he wanted to find a way to connect with the other kids. And it happened during one of our adventure education trips! Without much prompting, he started talking with one of our staffers about building snares. He talked about all the different types of snares that exist and the intricate work that goes into building each one. He was like a walking encyclopedia on snares. This was his thing and he was great at it. The best part though, was that he had found someone who was willing to listen to him and validate his interest. During the trip, he made some really cool snares that elicited praise and compliments from his peers. The more he was praised, the more he opened up. In a way, the afterschool camping trip (via the snares) helped to give him a voice.