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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.
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.
Next stop, a remote condo where we’d spend the night and do a final gear shakedown, distribute food, and sort through 12-ounce bottles of hair gel and extra pairs of underwear. It was during the van ride and the sorting and fitting that the personalities slowly emerged. They chattered constantly and brooded morosely. Some aspired to be singers or lawyers, or simply to get out of the group home. They told stories and wrote poems about pregnant friends and abandoning fathers. They wove colorful, complex bracelets with embroidery thread. Their laughter was easy and infectious, then would turn suddenly loud and mocking. They hated listening to others bicker, but then couldn’t keep from joining in. They were volatile, quick to accuse, and anxious to avoid blame. Their faces were capable of showing so many emotions, any one apt to emerge with no warning. They were teenage girls with ominous histories lurking below glib exteriors.
The first day on the trail passed without incident. If you’d hiked past our group, you’d probably have thought it was just your average gaggle of young women camping out in the mountains.
But during our second day on the trail, I started looking for and clinging to any small sign of progress. The hike up to our second campsite had been long and hard, marked by whining, yelling, cursing, and sit-down strikes by the girls who were the least fit. The adults and other girls cajoled, exhorted, teased, and bullied the slackers until finally they heaved up and, with much expletive-laden muttering, continued a slow trudge up the mountain. To be fair, it was a haul even for an experienced backpacker like me, and some of the girls did rise to the occasion. Roberta, despite her fear of heights and a nagging cold, forged on, determined not to be left behind. Up front, diminutive Karen, dwarfed by her pack but uncomplaining, struck up an endless chorus of, “The Ants Go Marching One By One.”
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.
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.