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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.

I don’t wait long. Soon everything comes out, and all of them are crying and recounting more abuse and neglect. Then Carole turns on the adults and directs her anger our way.

“Why should we let you in?” she asks, her fevered pitch rising as words spill out. “Every time I get close to a counselor at school, they leave. You’re giving up on us, like everyone else in our lives.”

“We can work it out,” Roberta pleads. “We can help each other more. I don’t want to go back.”

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” Diane says to Mary Kay. “I was taught I had to fight to survive.”

Why should they trust us, after having been let down so many times? Why should we trust them, for that matter, after they’ve broken so many promises already? The questions hang like a wall between us. Over and over the girls talk about pushing people away, not wanting to get close, yet knowing that’s what they need and want. Finally apologies are offered, admissions of fear are shared. Karen walks over to me, crying, and offers a hug. I now understand why some volunteers can’t do this more than once.

In the end, we do cut short the wilderness portion of the trip, and we make for the campground, where we spend a last uneventful night. Diane awakes the final morning with her eye swollen shut. We let her fret most of the day before revealing that the swelling is the result of a mosquito bite on her eyelid. Karen laughs so hard that I think she’s going to pee in her pants. Even Diane thinks it’s pretty funny. Either that or she’s just relieved that her head isn’t going to inflate like a helium balloon. We revel in our small revenge.

Our last day together at a hot springs swimming pool, topped off with dinner at a Mexican restaurant, goes so well that it’s hard to believe the fights and gut-wrenching dialogue ever happened. The girls are polite, and, well, girlish. We laugh and talk and have a great time. “This is what it’s supposed to be like,” says Mary Kay, her 1,000-watt smile restored.

When I ask the girls what they want me to write about them and what they learned, their answers give us more encouragement than we could have hoped for:

“That you need to pick up trash and be careful to keep the water and land clean,” offers Roberta.

“Leave No Trace stuff,” agrees Karen, “and to respect people and get along with people you don’t like.”

“That you should give people a chance to be trusted, that all adults won’t leave you in your life,” says Carole. She thinks a moment, then adds, “That you can do anything you want, even if you don’t think you can, because I didn’t think I could climb that mountain.” I smile, remembering how many times I wanted to leave her sitting by the trail as she whined and complained that the hike was too hard.

“That troubled teens aren’t always bad,” says Grace, quietly.

When we eventually arrive back at the school, saying good-bye to the girls is incredibly hard. There are tears and hugs-real ones, not the counterfeit sideways versions-and promises to write. I have trouble catching my breath, as if I’ve fallen from a great height and had the wind knocked out of me. Then I notice Diane standing tall, proud, and silent. A single tear creeps from under her mirrored sunglasses. She doesn’t wipe it away.

Postscript: It took me months to recover from this trip?if, in fact, I actually have. For weeks afterward, I would buttonhole anyone who would listen and passionately describe my BCM odyssey. I’d find myself sitting in meetings at work, staring at nothing and thinking about the girls. I felt like the survivor of an ordeal no one could understand.

In follow-up conversations with the other adult volunteers, Myrna told me that the week after returning home she awoke in the middle of the night in a panic, yelling, “Where are the girls?” Marci told me, “The minute I walked in the door of my house, I broke down and cried for at least an hour. I realized I’d been hyper-alert for 24/7.”

So why on Earth would anyone volunteer to do this? And why especially would anyone do it more than once, as I’ve decided to do? The short answer: hope. As evidence that such trips are worthwhile (see “What Is Wilderness Therapy?” on page 79 for more on this topic), Mary Kay points to the success of a girl who was on a BCM outing in 1995. Now 22, she has graduated from high school, stayed out of trouble, and recently married. Mary Kay feels strongly that BCM started the young woman down the healthy, productive path she seems to be maintaining. “If I can change just one kid’s life, and they marry someone decent and don’t abuse their children, that starts a whole family on the right track.”

What’s more, by all accounts, the trip I was on was anything but typical. The girls’ youth center acknowledged afterward that they delayed selection of some of the girls until only days before we met them; the process usually takes longer, with the teens carefully selected to meet the BCM requirements. Center personnel chose some girls who just weren’t ready for this kind of freedom and responsibility. According to Mary Kay, to her knowledge, no other BCM trip has ever experienced the violence we saw. On the contrary, BCM trips typically are challenging for everyone, but also filled with extraordinary moments of sharing, hope, and just plain fun.

As for the girls, almost a year after the trip, Carole, Karen, and Roberta are taking on new challenges, making good grades, and showing signs of being able to make a fresh start. Diane became increasingly confrontational and violent, and was expelled from the youth center and sent back to detention in her home state. Grace continues to struggle.

I cling to news of their successes and failures like a doting mother because I have to believe there’s hope for “my” girls. If this trip helped jolt just one of them out of the cycle of abuse, mistrust, and self-destruction that grips them like a cancer, then I wouldn’t take back a single tear.

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