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August 2000

Wilderness Of Hope

Five troubled teens and three well-meaning volunteers head into the Colorado mountains, hoping the wilds will help heal the youngsters. But in the end, it's hard to tell whose lives were forever shaped by the experience, the youths or the adults.

Fragments of random conversations ricochet through my memories like bullets in a drive-by shooting. “Today’s at-risk youth are different…the stuff that goes on isn’t pretty…you can have a 12-year-old girl who has two kids and an old soul…we need to

get kids out of destructive environments and put them in the woods.”

But as I watch two “at-risk youth” suddenly and violently turn the supposedly healing woods into a “destructive environment,” I wonder if these kids can really break free from their pasts. A tent has just exploded and spit out Grace and Diane (the names of all the girls mentioned in this story have been changed), fists flying and cuss words tearing apart the clear mountain day. Mary Kay, trip leader and the adult closest to the mass of anger, jumps into the fray. Diane is big, nearly as tall as Mary Kay, and heavier. Grace is short but stocky. Diane swings and misses Grace, but connects squarely with a roundhouse to Mary Kay’s ear.

Mary Kay summons all of her considerable strength to restrain Grace in a bear hug. I can feel the adrenaline surge and my heart jumping in my chest: fight or flight. But I’m not running. I haven’t come this far, and invested so much emotional and physical energy trying to help these girls, to have two troublemakers screw it up. Anger suddenly overrides my fear and indecision, and I move toward the combatants, wondering what to do. Luckily, Diane backs away as soon as she realizes whose head she’s punched. “Sit down,” she barks at me with disgust, “I’m not going to do nothing.”

Grace screams out in anger and frustration (“I wasn’t doing nothing! That b**** just hit me for nothing!”) and sobs for half an hour. Meanwhile, Diane quietly slips into the wilderness.

While Mary Kay tracks down Diane, the rest of us-volunteers all, except for one professional counselor from the girls’ school-try to process what has just happened.

“I’ve never seen violence like that,” Myrna says over and over. “I’m not used to that kind of thing.”

We tiptoe around camp like we’re carefully traversing a war zone, wondering who will trip the next barely covered land mine.

Karen is in her tent, crying. “She’ll hurt herself,” she chokes out between sobs, “You don’t know.”

I’d seen the scars where Diane had cut herself before. I try to reassure Karen, and myself, that everything will be all right. Slowly she grows quiet and tells me more horror

stories of a gangbanger shooting her sister in the jaw, of brothers who went somewhere with her father and never came home. My legs go numb as she falls asleep with her head in my lap.

I try to remember what I was doing at 12, Diane and Grace’s age. It’s supposed to be an age of innocence, a word that, to these girls, probably triggers images of judges and courtrooms, and of the unlawful acts that got them there in the first place.

We all met on a sunny summer afternoon in the courtyard of the girls’ group home/residential school just outside Denver, Colorado. Five wary girls ages 12 to 16 lounged on the grass in a semicircle, leaning against duffles and garbage bags full of clothes and hair-care products. Diane gazed into the distance, then examined her fingernails with an air of extreme disinterest; whether genuine or feigned, I couldn’t tell.

“I’m Roberta, what’s your name?” said a pale, lanky girl with bobbed brown hair, offering a limp hand for me to shake. Her eyes seemed distant and unfocused.

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