By Alumnus Andrew G. Willey, 22-day Blue Ridge Mountains Backpacking Course
Outward Bound has been an enduring guide in my life since my first course at 16. Now 23, looking back on my experiences I am very humbled. As any alumni would say, Outward Bound is an experience you never forget. Looking back at myself before my first course at 16, I would tell him that nothing will ever been the same after this course.
My first course was a three week backpacking expedition in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. On course that summer I struggled to find my voice. The spotty weather, long days, and challenging environment brought me to many low points. I was discouraged by how physically and challenging this course was. Halfway through, my instructor explained to our group the difference between thriving and surviving. Half of us were merely surviving, existing day by day till it was over. I realized right then that I wanted to thrive and put my whole self into this expedition. So I charged head first into each day, eagerly wanting to see more, learn more, and be more than I ever believed I could be. I remember walking away feeling 10 feet tall and unstoppable.
Only 5 months later, my father died after a long battle with prostate cancer. My world shook. Nothing could have prepared me for that. My father loved the outdoors and he was the one who encouraged me to do North Carolina Outward Bound. His hug the day I returned from course is one of my most cherished memories.
The year following his death was very difficult. I was angry that he was taken from me. I didn’t know how handle the whirlwind of emotions that left me exhausted and without energy. No one around me understood what I was feeling. I felt isolated and alone. I knew as the summer approached I needed to get back into the woods and find a positive focus for my energy. That is when I signed up for a two week canoeing course with Hurricane Island Outward Bound.
This course was truly the first time I found peace and silence. I remember one evening standing out over a lake watching the sunset and feeling joy. Those weeks on the lakes in northern Maine began the healing process. It sharpened my mind to focus on each task before me. I took care of my crew and in turn they took care of me. Still I didn’t have the courage to tell my crew about the death of my father until my last night during the pin ceremony. I feared my crew would turn away from me over events that I was powerless to control — because I thought it was my fault that my father had died, because I was powerless to save him. At the pin ceremony I felt for the first time since my father died I felt I was apart of a group that loved me and supported me. I could finally accept his death. Thanks to the compassion of my crew and instructors, I had survived — and would thrive.
The college I chose to attend had an innovative, student led Outdoor Adventures program. Outward Bound had kindled a passion to be in the outdoors that I wanted to share. I was able to channel my energy into leadership development, building skills in the outdoors, and teaching others. Wanting to share knowledge and skills I had been honing for the past three years, I applied to be an assistant instructor at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. Instructor training that May found me again jumping into something new — Maine’s icy lakes, and 24/7 responsibility for teenagers and young adults. Of the three programs I led as an assistant instructor that summer, I feel particularly grateful to have led a week long Grieving Teens Program.
Grieving Teens was formerly called Heroic Journey. Because it truly is a heroic journey for these students. Grieving Teens serves high school teens that have experienced the death of a loved one. I saw myself in each of my courageous students. All of them in different parts of the grieving process. It was amazing to see their growth over seven days of backpacking. For the first time they were surrounded by people that were a similar age and understood their pain. I can say first hand that one of the hardest parts of losing a parent at such a young age is that you are very isolated because it’s not a commonplace circumstance. But on this trip these students had each other. For many of them it was the first time they had ever cried in front of anyone. The high point was dedicating a mountain peak to those who have died and leaving a rock cairn at the top to forever remember those who have died.
And at the end of my first summer instructing I found myself feeling the same way I felt as a student completing Outward Bound: humbled, empowered, hopeful, and healed. With my students I had survived – and thrived.