“This is Doug Bowne. Your name was given to me as someone who knows their way around the outdoors and can lead wilderness trips. Is that true?”
“I like to think so.”
“I’m starting an adaptive Outward Bound program for the New York State Division for Youth. We’ll be taking adjudicated youth on two-week wilderness trips in the Southern Adirondacks.”
It sounded like a dream job. I was only twenty-four and would be working outdoors, leading wilderness adventures.
Although it was a seasonal position (May to October), the pay was excellent and the work schedule extremely fair. We worked two weeks in the field, one 40-hour week in the office, got one week off, and were paid for all four weeks. And the learning experience was invaluable.
The goal of the program was to provide physical and mental challenges that the kids could succeed at and then convince them that they could succeed at the personal challenges of their home life. Carrying packs, cooking their own food, setting up their shelters, night hikes, river crossings, and rock climbing provided a variety of challenges totally alien to the kids.
As it turned out – for a dream job it left a lot to be desired. The kids didn’t want to be there, they were tough as nails and occasionally violent. The bugs were so bad they made us look like we were goalies for a dart team.
It was a crash course in working with mostly inner-city kids of color. I camped two-weeks every month for five months with primitive camping equipment, and had to deal with homesick kids, runaways, and periodic fights.
In the years after I left, I heard from colleagues that the kids got more and more violent, but during my two seasons, violence, while not unheard of, was rare. One memorable exception was during a layover day at Wilcox Lake. Layover days were infrequent, so the kids took advantage of them. Their personal hygiene practices were excellent, and they had learned to bathe and wash clothing according to the Leave No Trace Principles. A layover day provided the opportunity for both.
I was relaxing in the lean-to adjacent to the lake when a big strapping kid from Cuba named Jorge ran over and grabbed a soda can apparently left by a fisherman. It had been cut in half and looked as if worms had been kept in it. I noticed that it had jagged edges and judging by Jorge’s attitude nothing good was going to happen with it. Jorge started screaming at a Black kid and went after him with the soda can as his weapon.
My assistant and I jumped into action.
We quickly tackled Jorge and disarmed him. But it took the two of us to sit on him and pin his arms to the ground while he twisted, turned, and screamed for ten minutes, before he finally calmed down enough that we got off him.
He got up and before we could say a word, he picked up a small log at the edge of the clearing. He started swinging it wildly at us. We ducked and weaved. I felt the woosh of air as the log barely missed me. Calling on my days as a linebacker I sprinted forward, tackled him low and brought him to the ground. My assistant joined me and once again sat on him.
“Jorge,” I said, “you can’t do this. Calm down. Let’s talk.”
He kept saying, “I’m going to kill him.” I figured he would if given the opportunity. After fifteen minutes he’d finally calmed down, and we figured it was safe to let him up.
Immediately we got the entire group together and learned what happened.
Jorge had washed his coveralls and laid them out on a boulder along the shore of the lake to dry. As the coveralls dried, they got lighter and the wind blew them into the lake, getting them soaked all over again. This happened three times before he thought to put two good size rocks on them to keep them from blowing into the lake. It worked. The coveralls were dry, when a kid who was playing in the water thought it’d be funny if he splashed water on the coveralls. While the amount of water splashed was miniscule, it was enough to trigger Jorge, though it didn’t explain why his reaction was so violent.
As the entire group sat in a circle, Jorge told us a story that explained his reaction. When Jorge was six years old and living in Cuba, he got beat up coming home from school. When he got home, tears streaming down his face, his father said, “What happened?”
“An eight-year-old beat me up.”
His father then proceeded to beat him, warning him, “Don’t you ever let ANYONE beat you up!”
That lesson, along with the coveralls having gotten wet three times before they did a fourth time, put Jorge over the edge.
Those types of experiences, though not common, were frequent enough that after two seasons working at Higher Horizons, I realized several things. One was, despite some apparent natural ability to work with the kids, I found it incredibly stressful. The second was, by and large, they were good kids from terrible environments. And third, I learned that treating them with fairness and respect, I was usually treated with fairness and respect in return.
The problem was, while I loved leading kids outdoors, I didn’t want to be a therapist – I wanted to train outdoor leaders. And ultimately, thanks largely to my Higher Horizon’s experience, I did.