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Outdoor education changes teens from the inside out

Outdoor education changes teens from the inside out

(ARA)- What happens when a tough, uncommunicative teenager comes face to face with someone even tougher? Someone, say, like Mother Nature?
"Outdoor education offersan education on so many levels," says John Weed, director of Montcalm School in Albion, Mich. The school is a private-referral treatment program for troubled youth and is part of the Starr Commonwealth family of child and family services. Starr has a long history of outdoor adventure activities on their 350-acre campus in Michigan. But, as Weed is quick to point out, this is not a boot camp or consequence-based experience. It's about building trust, building community and building kids up by recognizing what they do right instead of what they do wrong.
Starr's Clint Myers, an outdoor adventure specialist who works with youth on Starr's campus in Van Wert, Ohio, remembers the swaggering bully who participated in a Starr camping activity a few years ago. "I don't know that he'd ever seen a tree outside a city," remembers Myers. "He was definitely out of his element."
Peer group bonding, a hallmark of every Starr program, was the goal of a game where one team "captured" members of the other team as they hid or tracked each other in the forest. "I'll never forget this kid's face," says Myers. "His entire team had been captured. If he could successfully maneuver without alerting the other team, he could release them."
And that's exactly what he did. "The kids on his team ran out, cheering and calling his name," says Myers. "He was a hero that day, not a bully. That was a turning point for this guy."
Actually, says Weed, an outdoor program can be a turning point for an entire family. Weed recalls "Alex," a young man whose severe oppositional behavior problems had created an enormous rift between him and his family. Alex loved climbing and was particularly fond of the ropes course at the school. On Family Day, Alex encouraged his mother to try the climbing wall set up by the school for the occasion. Alex was on belay, which meant he held the rope that safely anchored her, and encouraged her as she made the steep ascent. "My life was literally in his hands," she told Weed later, tears streaming down her face. "I couldn't get over the fact that the tables had so turned. Here was Alex encouraging me. Here I was, totally dependent on him." For one awestruck mother, it was a first.
"Outdoor activities like these can be powerful for any family," says Weed. "By putting people in a different environment, one that calls on a new set of abilities and talents, people discover things about themselves and about each other. That's what happened with Alex and his mom. The experience allowed them to share a life-changing moment because it changed, probably for the first time, how they saw each other.
This summer, Starr launched a unique, year-round Outdoor Education component to its roster of services for struggling teens. The 60-day program for boys and girls is one-of-a-kind, say organizers, thanks to its "fixed base" design which allows kids to keep up with their studies at the on-campus school. For more information, visit or call Montcalm Schools 866-244-4321.
Founded in 1913, Starr Commonwealth is a nationally and internationally recognized private, non-profit organization. It serves more than 5,000 children, families and professionals annually from locations in Albion, Battle Creek, and Detroit, Mich. as well as Columbus and Van Wert, Ohio. Services range from foster care to residential treatment and from in-home counseling to programs that help young adults learn to live independently. For more information about Starr Commonwealth, visit

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