giving back

Nature: Lessons Learned from Camping with 15 Children

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When I was asked to help guide a trip of kids into the wilderness for a three day sleepover on top of a mountain, I jumped at the chance. As a trail runner, I had participated in mountain runs. Just days before, I had trekked to the summit of a 14,000-foot mountain filled with wildlife, like elk, moose, bear and mountain lions near Lake City, Colorado.

But what I was looking forward to the most was a chance to get my boys out of suburbia and into nature, along with a group of 15 rugged mountain kids, to sit around a campfire and talk about life, to roast marshmallows and sleep under the stars.

The children are residents of a small town of 106 families who live in a remote canyon an hour from civilization. The nearest hospital is a one-hour drive, and to get there you drive winding, and sometimes impassable, roads leading around tall cliffs. In the winter months there is only one restaurant. Most of the parents work two or more odd jobs as carpenters or waiters.

As we began our trek up the mountain with heavy backpacks, the tiny bodies I'd expected to see struggle and complain, rambled joyfully along the trail. An hour passed and we stopped for a water break. Two hours passed and the little hiking boots I'd expected would give them blisters, skipped along through the dirt.

We finally reached base camp hours later and set up tents at the edge of a beautiful lake high in the mountains. Five of the mountain kids were determined to sleep outside, despite the forecast of freezing temperatures! They did, and I shivered under 6 layers of clothing inside my tent with my two sons and another child, silently obsessing about a friend's story about her recent encounter with a growling bear.

An 8-year-old boy pulled out his bible and read out loud to us for over an hour, which gave me peace. He began with the very first page. "In the beginning...."

The next day I was the first one awake at 5 a.m., and I tiptoed out of the tent and stared at the tiny bodies covered in frost. They were at the very edge of the lake, zipped up in their nylon sleeping bags. Mountain kids are tough, I thought. They were the epitome of doing all things without complaining or arguing.

In the days to followed, not one of them mentioned technology, TV, or games. They played for ten hours a day and ate mashed potatoes in a cup at night.

One afternoon, in an attempt to add some structure to the weekend, we all sat in a circle and I facilitated an exercise about dreams and goals. I'd done this exercise with kids in the inner city, and also the homeless. I helped them walk through the process of achieving their dreams; the first step in becoming something is to envision it.

As we went around the circle, each child had minimal or zero goals compared to even the inner city kids in Dallas. In Texas, the goals involved owning cars, getting married, college, and having a career. But these kids were different.

Some of the kids shrugged and said nothing. I encouraged them to dream big. One girl said she didn't have any. "What's your biggest passion?" I asked her. She thought about it a bit. "Piano," she said finally. "Well, you could be a concert pianist! You could practice, and go to school at Julliard. It's a famous music school," I told her. With each individual child I detailed the vision.

Days later when we left the group, my sons and I talked about the kids. "We should help them see the possibility of what they could be," I said, "and where they could go in life." Without hesitation, my nine year old said, "But they seem very happy right where they are." And he was right. Have you ever had one of those moments where your own child seems wiser than you? It dawned on me that what I taught the mountain kids was so much less than what they taught me. They taught me joy, simplicity, play, resilience, and most of all, to just be.

 What are your hopes and dreams? What do you want to accomplish in your life that you haven't so far?

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Tammy Kling is a life coach, crisis management expert, and advocate for the homeless.

She is an international author of 37 books including The Compass. Tammy is also the founder of The Homeless Writers Project, an organization that helps those living on the street write out their hopes & dreams via writers workshops, free journals and other resources. In addition to writing and coaching, Tammy is a mom of two boys, an avid trail and mountain runner, blogger, and adventure travel writer.

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