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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.

Grace fidgeted with a box of Cheerios and chattered constantly, demanding everyone’s attention.

“Shut up, Grace! Marci, make her shut up,” said Carole, the oldest at 16. She examined the ends of her long, thick, blonde-streaked hair, seemingly anxious to be both cool and accepted.

Karen sat next to me, quietly taking it all in. A single curl was smoothed just so in front of her ear.

Marci Zink, the girls’ counselor, sat among them, as did Winnie, Myrna, and myself. The three of us were volunteers who’d signed on as mentors, role models, and sheep dogs who would attempt to keep our teenage flock motivated, moving along, and out of harm’s way over the next 8 days, 5 of which we’d spend backpacking through Colorado’s sublime Flat Tops Wilderness.

Before us sat tan and confident Mary Kay Stoehr, trip leader and president of the board of Big City Mountaineers (BCM), the nonprofit organization behind this unlikely alliance of at-risk teens and game-but-apprehensive adults. She explained what a great time we were going to have, and how important it was to respect and support each other in the coming week-much-needed words, since we adults had just emerged shell-shocked from a “getting to know you” lunch, during which Marci ran through the ground rules. For instance, collect all safety pins and sharp objects after a crafts session, lest the girls use them for self-mutilation. Sideways hugs only, since most of the girls had suffered sexual and physical abuse. Use office addresses for any correspondence after the trip, and be vague about home locations; school runaways, and their gangster boyfriends, have been known to remember such carelessly shared personal information.

The girls were described as “high” or “low” functioning, which corresponded to conduct levels assigned at the group home. The highest level attainable was 4, though most graduate from the program while still 3s. Our girls were all 1s and 2s. Marci would dispense all “meds,” the drugs many of the girls take for some medical, but mostly behavioral, conditions.

Winnie, Myrna, and I listened and picked at our salads, trying to digest what was suddenly too much to handle. Mary Kay laughed at our misgivings. “You’ll be fine,” she assured us. “They’re just kids.”

Which was, after all, why I signed up for this trip. As I’ve plowed deeper into my 30s, I’ve for some reason started to cheer for those who never thought they could succeed, or never had anyone prop them up when times got tough-women whose dreams and desires have been quashed by lack of opportunity or courage or time; girls who’ve been told they can’t do something because they’re too stupid or fat or female.

There was another reason I signed up: the old clich? that I want to make a difference. I want to be like the men and women I’ve admired, the ones who inspire people to do more than they thought possible.

Problem is, my travel schedule and lifestyle don’t mesh well with programs like Big Sisters, which requires a consistent, frequent presence. And I frankly can’t get excited about taking a youngster to a carnival or urban playground.

Then along came Big City Mountaineers. Ten summer days in the Colorado backcountry, four cool women, and five teenage girls just waiting for me to come along in my shining backpack and show them how great the wilderness, and life in general, can be. Perfect.

After leaving the school, we traveled by van to BCM headquarters, where we outfitted the girls with donated gear and clothing they’d return at trip’s end. I worked on the packs, and they all instantly wanted “that blue one” or “a pretty color.” When I informed them they’d get whatever fit, they shrugged and accepted. They were cooperative, and some tried to be helpful. I was encouraged by their attitudes.

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