Throughout the year we take the teens in our Residential and Bridge programs on outdoor adventure trips with Environmental Traveling Companions (ETC). One such recent adventure was a kayaking trip that we took this summer to Angel Island. My hope for the trip was that the kids would get a break from their regular life, which I suppose is what we all want when we go away for the weekend. Many of the kids are the oldest siblings in their families, a position that often comes with a great deal of responsibility as their guardians face the day-to-day challenges of working their way out of homelessness. These are kids who take care of younger siblings, who help with numerous chores, and who put on brave faces and quietly take up burdens because that is what their families need from them. I had hoped the trip would be a break from those roles, a chance for them to just be kids, and it did just that, in more ways than I expected. The teens were given a few days to explore and the space to goof off, but they also had a chance to challenge themselves by taking on brand new physical tasks such as kayaking and a night hiking. The ETC guides were so supportive in helping the kids face these challenges. Their positivity, patience, and unconditional kindness modeled for the kids new ways of facing difficult situations. After the trip many of kids reflected that they learned that hard work pays off and that challenges that at first seem scary can turn out to be fun, that long hikes lead to great views, and that you never know what you can do unless you try—you might even find out you like it.
The Power of Experience
The trip also gave me one precious experience I will never forget. Two of the girls in the group recently fled their country where there is currently a terrible war. The forces in that country were very oppressive and so the girls were forced to grow up in a very unsafe place where they were denied many basic rights and freedoms. I was worried that kayaking would be triggering for them as the last and only time they’d been on a boat they were fleeing their country in an overcrowded vessel that threatened to capsize at any moment. Our ETC guides who met us the day of the trip were informed and ready. They matched the girls with a very sensitive and well trained guide that helped them feel safe. The girls were able to enjoy the experience without issue. When we got to Angel Island, one of the guides got into the water with the girls, and played with them in the sea for the longest time, probably well after she was ready to get out. The particular thing about this moment for these girls is that they had never been allowed to swim before; it had been too dangerous in their home country for their parents to take them to the ocean, let alone to allow them as girls to swim. I don’t know if you’ve ever been with someone the first time they get to be in the ocean, but witnessing someone absorb the awesomeness of it all seems to permeate to the core of humanness. I will never forget watching their joy of discovery—what it feels like for a wave to crash against you, for your body to float and tumble in waves, the glory of splashing your sister, gasping against the shock of the Pacific Ocean’s water, the taste of the surf. I remember hearing that amazing deep down laugh that tumbles out of all of us in these rare experiences,-the sound of elated surprise, thrilled amazement. It’s one thing to take someone to the ocean for the first time, but for that to be a part of their liberation as a girl in this world is something I can’t explain. It’s a feeling in the bottom of your heart that makes it clear what the point of this work is and these trips are for: to give people experiences of freedom and joy. I’m so deeply grateful that Raphael House was able to give this experience to these kids and that organizations like ETC and people like their guides we got to partner with that day exist. It’s making the world a better place, one kid playing in the ocean at a time. —Jenna Ornbaun, Children’s Program SpecialistBack to Blog