This spring our Survivor Care team brought eight youth who receive our long-term services to Wilderness School for a day. The school, located in East Hartland, Connecticut, provides a therapeutic wilderness challenge program for adolescents who have family problems and/or difficult behaviors, many of whom are involved in Child Protective Services. In recent years, Wilderness School has been working to develop its Hearts Transforming program, which is specifically focused on working with survivors of Human Trafficking or Commercial Sexual Exploitation (HT/CSE), or youth deemed of being at high-risk/suspected for HT/CSE. Wilderness School staff has been learning about the needs of this population and developing trauma-informed programing.
This April, our Survivor Care staff partnered with Wilderness School to hold the first Wilderness School day for Love146-involved youth. These were youth who didn’t know each other prior to attending the school. Both staff and youth arrived with their own set of insecurities and anxieties. These ranged from never having spent time in the wooded outdoors, to being afraid of bugs and heights — not to mention not knowing each other. And no cell phone service!
As we arrived in the morning you could see the hesitation and nervousness throughout the room. The Wilderness School staff warmly welcomed us and engaged us in various activities, each of which required a slightly increased level of trust. Each activity was “challenge by choice,” meaning everyone had the freedom to decide at what level they would participate for each activity.
It was amazing to watch the transformation for each person throughout the day. Friendships were built, laughter shared, and fears overcome as the group came together.
The big activity was “The Flying Squirrel,” in which the group works together to hoist one person, who is in a rock climbing harness, up into the air. Some people were up for flying as high as they could; others adamantly said there was absolutely no way they were going even an inch off the ground. One by one youth and staff took turns getting hooked into the harness system as everyone else worked together as a team to lift them up, cheer them on, and safely lower them back to the ground. It was amazing to watch the teamwork, encouragement and support by a group of people who had just all come together that morning. By the end of the afternoon almost everyone had taken a risk, trusted the group, and gotten lifted into the air. And each time someone became a “flying squirrel” the entire group cheered them on!
One way we could tell it was a success: One youth asked to be signed up for a summer program at Wilderness School and she was able to attend a 5 day session!