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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.

When we finally reached camp, we changed into bathing suits and splashed around in the lake, the girls laughing and squealing and helping each other negotiate the slippery bottom.

The next morning, while everyone was supposed to be breaking camp, Karen and Grace got into a fight over a sleeping pad, followed by screaming and shouting about mothers. “Black” and “white” are terms too superficial to describe their complex heritage. The girls know this and use race like a razor. “Your white mother doesn’t want you!” one black girl hissed at another. Calling a girl a “b****” will get her mad, but to hurt her, bring her mother into it. More than anything, these girls want to be wanted, and they want to be loved. But what is a 13-year-old girl supposed to do when the people who are supposed to love her-her parents, in particular-have always betrayed her?

Now, before you call me a bleeding heart making excuses for bad behavior, consider what it must be like to have your mother blame you for her boy-friends’ infidelity, saying things like, “You’re too pretty, and that’s why they rape you.” She says that’s why she can’t have you around, and why at 14, some torturous path has lead you to a group home with a hundred-plus other girls who have been discarded like shoes gone out of fashion. “Troubled,” you are labeled, or more clinically, “at risk.”

After things calmed down, we held a “group,” which is standard procedure after a blow-up. We sat around in the sunshine, explaining what each of us was willing to do to make this trip work. Slowly the girls expressed remorse, fear of the trip falling apart, anger at the prospect of failing-all except Karen. “I don’t care what happens to me,” she said with cocky resignation. “I know I’m going to lose my level 2 because of the fight, and I don’t care.”

I was the first adult to speak, and to my utter shock and dismay, tears started streaming down my face. I could hardly get the words out. “It makes me so angry to see what people have done to you to make you think you aren’t worth anything,” I said, looking at each of them, my head and heart pounding. “I want you to see what I see-smart, talented, funny, beautiful girls who can accomplish anything you put your will to.” I hardly knew them, yet I could already see that they have no regard for their lives, no concept of anything promising, and that saddened me immeasurably. I tried to explain why it’s hard for me to imagine them throwing their lives away, and they looked down or stared blankly. I struggled to regain control of my emotions, feeling angry and embarrassed at my inability to bear up.

“Do you need a hug?” Roberta asked. Then she leaned over and wrapped her arms around me. All I felt was a deep, black sadness in knowing that they don’t believe anyone would want to give so much while expecting nothing in return.

That night, after yet another long, slow day, I lay in my tent, thunder booming all around, and wondered if the girls were afraid, and if they would call out if they were.

Morning dawned sunny and clear, with just enough breeze to keep it cool and bug-free. An idyllic day in the wilderness, in other words. Roberta and Marci headed out early for a nearby peak, and hours later Roberta galloped into camp, ebullient and breathless. “Michele, Michele,” she panted, “I did it! I went all the way to the top and I wasn’t even scared! I saw the whole valley and a whole bunch of sheep!” A big grin lit up her face, and her blue eyes sparked. I could hardly believe this was the girl who had scooted sideways along a gully’s edge 2 days earlier, pasty-faced with fear as she clutched me with one hand and Myrna with the other.

As morning gave way to a lazy, relaxed afternoon, the girls gathered in the tents to talk and work on bracelets. Such was the scene when Diane and Grace erupted into full-blown war and the temporary peace was shattered.

Long after the dust settles in early evening, Mary Kay and Diane return to camp, both unscathed. After a quiet, tense dinner, we convene our second group session. Mary Kay proposes that we cut our trip short and head back to the car at the campground. She holds a wet bandanna to her ear as she talks, trying to ease the pain from Diane’s blow. “I need you kids to build up my positive feelings,” she says, admitting that for the first time in her 5-year involvement with BCM, she’s doubting the program’s value.

I realize that I’m exhausted in body and soul. Half of me wants to go back home now, before another fight breaks out. The other half refuses to admit defeat. I decide to wait and see what the girls offer.

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