Every fall we have our youth group fall retreat. We travel an hour southwest to the farm/homestead of two of our beloved F/friends Annie and Eric in Yamhill. Annie is an incredible artist, and offers her studio to us for sleeping. It's incredible to wake up to her work glowing in the soft morning light.
Annie and Eric also raise Sicilian donkeys on their beautiful land. These donkeys are incredible. Much like attention seeking dogs, they come up to you and lean their heavy heads in, begging for love and affection. They are gentle, and beautiful.
On Saturday morning Annie and Eric make us breakfast. Using a sourdough starter passed down for generations they make pancakes. They are unlike any other pancake you've ever tasted. A slightly fermented taste, a lot like a good pretzel, drenched in maple syrup....oh man.
When your task is to get eighteen teenagers up and moving early on a Saturday morning, sourdough pancakes does the trick.
The big breakfast is also the perfect fuel for the day ahead. Shortly after breakfast wraps up we load into vans and drive to Camp Tilikum, twenty minutes away. We are there to do a "challenge course" which includes low and high element challenges designed to lead groups into reflections on group dynamics and skills. When we first arrived it was time for some orientation...
Before long the groups split up and head off to their first few challenges. The high school group worked on figuring out how to balance the entire group on a giant see-saw.
meanwhile the middle school group worked on navigating the entire group through a series of tightropes.
You learn a lot about communication and leadership during these challenges. Often times the voice that is the loudest is listened to. Often times that voice comes from a place of urgency. It's interesting to see how the group tries its best to function using the mostly unformed plan. Usually after 15-20 minutes the group has failed many times, and the volume is high, the number of voices many. Chaos. Usually this is where the leader emerges, often quiet and frustrated that their voice is being drowned out. Often it takes a companion to say, "Hey listen to her! I think she has a good idea." Strange how leadership works that way sometimes, it takes an advocate to hush the crowd. When a clear and calm plan for success is proposed the group's energy changes. Suddenly the volume goes down. Often times one person is talking, directing, encouraging. There is focus and clarity. It's a beautiful thing to witness.
Our teens are often in a hurry to harness up and get their feet 30-120 feet in the air. The facilitators at Tilikum gifted us with four high elements.
First, the giants ladder. A series of 4x4's strung together by thick wire cable. The whole contraption isn't anchored to the ground, so it swings and sways.
What I love about this element is how it invites group direction. When you are in the air and flailing, trying to figure out how to get to the next step it is hard to think. Your impulse is to give up, "I'm stuck here, I'm just going to stop." From the ground the next step is obvious. "Pull up with your arms, while swinging your left leg over." It is just what we needed to hear. From the perspective of safety, on the ground, comes a voice of reason, but it takes trusting that voice to take the next step. Oddly it only takes trusting that voice once to trust it the rest of the way. We acknowledge that from another perspective, wisdom is helpful.
Meanwhile the other group was taking on the Catwalk. A beam thirty feet in the air between two trees. At the end a ledge. A trapeze swing dangling just out of reach, requiring a "leap of faith."
What I love about this element is the individual battle each person faces. At one point one of our teens froze. After five minutes of encouragement from below the voices fell silent. It was if the group realized that the work that needed to be done needed to happen within that person, not from without. We all stood there in silence, for about three minutes. We watched as all the voices of fear, and of courage ran through her head. Out of the silence the first step and than the second. Within thirty seconds the catwalk was conquered.
Another teen reached the midway point and had a self identified, "mental breakdown." A rush of anxiety filled tears and breathing, "I need to come down, right now! I can't do this, help me!" It was a tense moment. She was frozen there, unable to even listen to the facilitators voice. As the group steadied their grip to bring her down the crying stopped in an instant and she started walking.
Man, did this moment resonate with me. The fear and anxiety is paralyzing sometimes. It shuts me down. It's only after looking at my surroundings and clearing my head that I can take the next step.
Next up, the climbing tree. A bell is located 126 feet up a tree. Staples guide the climber to the top. By the time they reach the top you can barely see them.
This element was about shattering expectations. One of our teens stepped up to the tree, a middle school girl who many thought would only make it ten feet before turning back. I was one of them. Based upon everything I've known about her, she generally plays it safe and shy's away from danger at all costs. She harnessed up and started up the tree. She never stopped moving. Never looked down, only up. Would you believe it, she was ringing that damn bell 126ft in the air within minutes. The shouts from the ground were inspiring, "OMG I cannot believe this! You are so brave! That is so awesome! Way to go!" Expectations shattered. Unrecognized courage. Misplaced judgement. People are never what we think they are. They are more.
Lastly, the unfortunately named Geronimo. A purely thrill seeking, nature park amusement ride. A release cable attached to the front of your harness is pulled after being hulled forty feet in the air. For a precious two seconds you fall straight down to the solid earth before a cable catches and swings you out over a lake. It's pure adrenaline.
We had to pull of a miracle to make this work. Seventeen of our eighteen teens wanted to do this. We had an hour. Getting them in and out of harnesses, strapped in, hauled up a tree and back again takes time. Before hand the facilitator rallied the team. Telling them the only way we could make it work was for everyone to bust their butts. They did it. Like a well-oiled machine. An incredible example of what is possible when we put in the work.
We went back to the farm. Tired, but not tired enough to ignore the tons of fun still available to us at the farm. Pickle ball, capture the flag, board games, trampolines...
I love this trip. I love our group.
On Saturday night, as we prepared for bed about five of us laid on our backs and watched the stars. We talked about the cosmos and about our lives. I was honored to be there for this conversation. Our teens are deep, beautiful, inspiring people. I am so lucky to be in a position to come alongside them.