As a major national park enthusiast and nature lover, I have found Seattle to be a dream. From seeing Mt. Rainier backdropping the big-city skyline or driving down the highway with the North Cascades to the left, this city continues to awe me. So when my community partner, Young Women* Empowered (Y-WE), asked me to be a mentor on their annual backpacking trip, I was beyond ecstatic.
Growing up, my parents never let me go to sleepaway camp and, while I do love being outdoors, I had never gone backpacking. My experience working with youth was limited to summer swim lessons and occasionally babysitting my neighbors’ kids. Leading up to our departure day, I was unsure of what role I would play on the trip and how I would contribute. And if I’m being completely honest, I did struggle to find my place at the start of the trip. Technically speaking, I was a mentor. But seeing as the youth were between the ages of 13 to 18, I found myself talking to them the way I would speak to some of my friends. So trying to navigate communicating with the youth as a mentor figure but in a way that was appropriate for someone not much older than them was a bit tricky. Towards the end of the trip, I realized that the unique position I was in gave me an equally unique perspective. I could relate to them in ways some of the other mentors maybe couldn’t while also offering some sort of guidance because of the slight age difference. But more than what I could give to the youth, I found myself learning a lot from them.
Here are some lessons:
1. The power of positivity. This trip would not have been what it was without the attitude of every single person when an opportunity to complain presented itself. Like when it started storming and instead of going into our tents to cuddle up in warm sleeping bags, we started dancing like penguins in the rain. Or how after the rain, when the fire pit was wet and starting a fire seemed like a lost cause, some youth went about patiently building a fire so we could all get to roast marshmallows. Or when we had to make the hard climb up from the bottom of our camping site to the top and instead we turned it into a challenge of trying to run up the hill. I could probably count on one hand how many mentions of a phone were made which- in my eyes- is pretty incredible for a group of 13-18 year olds. It made me think about how my 13-18-year-old, phone-obsessed self would have responded to living out in the woods without any technology for four days. I don’t know if I would’ve had the same upbeat, positive attitude that I saw in all the youth.
2. Wisdom knows no age. Throughout the trip, I was reminded of a quote from a book I read recently called “When Breath Becomes Air”:
I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.
There were these momentary glimpses into some of the hardships the youth faced in their personal lives. It wasn’t these significant life experiences that made them wise but rather the way they spoke about how those experiences shaped them and how they responded to the adversity. Most importantly, their wisdom shone through the way in which they were all so fully present and willing to contribute to each and every moment- seemingly unbothered by anything but the moment at hand. Whether it was through a beautifully-led meditation or hearing them open up to the group about something personal, I witnessed so much wisdom in the youth. I have so much admiration for the way they all immersed themselves in the experience with no reservations or objections.
3. Being silly is good for the soul. I think the trip was so special to me not because of all the big things that I would’ve thought would have made it so (i.e. first backpacking trip or longest time not speaking to my family) but because of the small things I’ve come to really appreciate while reflecting. Before the trip, if someone had asked me to sing out loud, I would have profusely refused. So you could imagine how surprised I was when I found myself participating in sing-alongs or not holding back while leading the “Big Booty” rap. Or how before this trip I thought my sense of humor was reserved only for close friends and family. But then one of the youth told me I was really funny (which was honestly the best compliment I’ve received) and I saw a different side of me I didn’t even know existed. The youth inspired me in ways I never expected and being silly with them was so freeing.
I could go on about all the things I learned through the youth like how to speak your mind, how it’s okay to ask for help when you need it, etc. Above all, I recognized how deeply important the work that Y-WE does is. Y-WE is such a special organization. It fosters growth and confidence and empowerment in a way that feels so organic. There were no forced ‘deep’ conversations or mandatory activities. There was just raw communication and naturally-created relationships. By creating a comfortable space for expression and encouraging interests, Y-WE provides these young women with the tools they need to accomplish any goal. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this program. I’m taking away countless lessons, unforgettable memories, and a greater appreciation for nature. Oh, and I’ll probably have the tune of Big Booty stuck in my head forever.
Hiking to our campsite with our packs
Views during the hike
Trying to protect the fire pit and firewood from the rain
Doing yoga in our ‘living room’
A mentor and a youth