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Summit Trips Help Students Reach Their Peak Potential

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In addition to hitting the books this fall like students across the country, those at Summit Preparatory School in Kalispell, Montana, are preparing to hit the trails. That's because they have more on their mind than just reading and math--they are gearing up for one of the four challenge trips they take each year.

Effective teamwork is an important part of the Summit model and essential for a successful challenge trip. The girls spent their time at the Bob Marshall Wilderness sawing trees and cutting plants to make the trails more accessible.

Summit, a CWLA member agency, is an accredited private nonprofit therapeutic boarding school for high school-age youth who are struggling in their current academic or home community due to emotional, academic, and behavioral concerns. When a student is admitted to Summit, he or she is placed on one of the school's five teams, all same-sex and all named after a color. The Summit program is composed of three parts: academics, residential, and therapy. The team challenge trips fall into therapy.

The trips are typically three to eight days long and take place at a variety of outdoor recreational areas in the region, including Glacier National Park and Ten Lakes Scenic Area. How long the trip will last and where it will be are up to each team's staff--which includes the team therapist, an academic representative, and the senior house parents--who attend the trips as well. Their decisions depend on the group dynamic and what the team needs. "Sometimes it's not much, and you just want to have a solid bonding experience," says Dave Perisho, a senior house parent of Team Green. "Other times there's a lot of chaos on the team and you really want to spend a lot of time in fairly intense groups and challenge the kids physically so you can get a lot out of them in other ways."

The challenge trips are meant to test the students physically, mentally, and emotionally. The idea is to push the students out of their comfort zones, forcing them to show certain vulnerabilities that are easily masked otherwise. "We really get to see what they're capable of when left to their own devices, which turns out to be quite a bit," says Katherine Clements, a social worker on Team Purple. "Sometimes that doesn't always come out when you're just having a one-on-one session with a student in your office."

This past July, the students on Team Purple proved to themselves that they could handle more than they thought possible. The team, which is one of the two girls teams at the school, went to the Bob Marshall Wilderness for eight days. They sawed down trees and cut plants back to make the trails accessible to others. Besides providing a therapeutic experience for the students, the trips are designed to benefit the community as well. "You learn that you're actually helping a lot of people," says Lydia, a member of Team Purple. "And you have a lot more appreciation for [what you did] afterwards."

The trips involve lots of teamwork, which helps to strengthen relationships within the team. Since the students are away from their families, a strong support system is essential. "I think the team serves as a family [here]," says Brea, a student on Team Purple. "I can't say that I've ever had a bond so strong with any other girls in my life."

The members of Team Purple hiked the trails at the Bob Marshall Wilderness for eight days.

The challenge trips are just as much about strengthening the individuals, as well. Because there is no connection to the outside world, the students are able to better focus on themselves. "They find great benefit in being in an environment that has all distractions removed," says Judy Heleva, an admissions counselor at Summit. "They do [use] that as a coping skill, a way to help them think about what's going on with themselves." Not being able to have cell phones and iPods helps the students. "I learn a lot about my work ethic because sometimes I think that I'm really lazy, but doing [the challenge trips], I show a lot of determination," says Hayley, a student member of Team Purple.

It is the combination of therapy, team building, and individual growth that takes place on these trips that make them such a valuable learning tool. "One of the educational consultants that we use made a comment about our challenge trips, that when he looked at other programs, he did find it a unique piece of the program," says guidance counselor Barb Cunningham. "[There's a] different flair to it because they have the opportunity to do more intense therapeutic work than a normal backpacking trip would take." However, the spirited atmosphere the staff creates on the challenges can make the outings feel less like therapy and more like a normal backpacking trip to the students. "When I'm on the challenge trips, I realize that it's gone by really fast, and sometimes I really don't want to go back because I'm having so much fun," says Lydia. Team Purple and the rest of the students at Summit took their final trips of 2010 in early October.

Erin Borg is an editorial intern at CWLA.

Food for Thought

Food will always draw a crowd, and Arizona's Children Association (AzCA) took advantage of that this summer. The CWLA member agency held information sessions at neighborhood eateries to raise awareness of the need for more foster homes. In July the forums were held at a fish fry, and in August they took place under "breakfast for dinner" and pizza party themes. The events gave locals a chance to meet foster families and hear their first-hand perspectives on the foster care system. Nearly 100 years old, AzCA is one of the largest statewide child welfare and behavioral health nonprofit agencies in the country.

Intensive Volunteering

After Los Angeles County stopped funding it, the Court Appointed Special Advocate program became a nonprofit agency run by a select group of volunteers. They help foster youth manage the system and advocate elsewhere in their lives. Becoming a volunteer at CASA is an extensive process; the hopefuls must pass a comprehensive training program, interview with staff, and undergo security checks. Currently around 400 volunteers work with more than 600 foster children in the area each year. Dilys Tosteson Garcia, the new executive director, has plans to recruit more volunteers and increase the number of children being cared for to 1,000 annually.

Foster Families' Mahalo

Family Programs Hawai'i, a CWLA member agency, puts on an annual summer picnic to celebrate foster families in the area. The day includes food, games, entertainment, prizes, and giveaways. Sponsors and donors included Panda Express, Pepsi Cola, Frito Lay, and Zippy's Restaurants. This summer's picnic took place at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park and nearly 1300 families and volunteers attended. Family Programs Hawai'i is a social service agency that aids almost 4,000 children and families in the child welfare system. Its services include transition programs for high school seniors in foster care; visits for separated foster siblings; and counseling for foster families.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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