Kids from the city spend a month learning about the outdoors

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

AUGUSTA (AP) -- The tents are arranged neatly, close together, almost huddling in the shade of tall pines. As the teenagers troop in from a work session on trails that lead to a basin above it, the camp begins to come alive.

Each youth keeps a water bottle within reach -- it has been a hot day -- and most of them have been on a crew clearing brush, installing water courses and widening trails that lead up Whitetail Creek and into Carmichael Basin of the Scapegoat Wilderness. Some go straight to their tents; others lounge around the camp.

Seven miles in from the Dearborn trailhead, these kids are a long way from home in the housing projects of New Haven, Conn. They haven't seen home in almost a month and they miss it.

In the 30 days they are spending in Montana, they will have floated the Wild and Scenic Missouri River; explored Yellowstone National Park; gotten a close-up look at ranch life in central Montana; toured an Indian Reservation and taken a good look at Glacier National Park.

''The first day on the river was a complete culture shock. That's what it was,'' said Jason Wilfong, the leader of the group. ''You bring inner city youth out here and put them on a river and tell them they are going to canoe. There is no phone, no bathroom.''

The youths range in age from 15 to 17 and for one reason or another, each is considered ''at risk.'' They are part of the STRIVE-New Haven program and have successfully completed a Summer Youth Leadership Academy.

Jerome Turick, a board member of STRIVE-New Haven, said the idea is to show the youths that there is a different from the one in which they live.

''We wanted to show them that there is a big world out there and ... it is important that they know it belongs to them as well as everybody else,'' Turick said.

STRIVE stands for Support in Training Results in Valuable Employees. The program began in the 1980s in Harlem, N.Y. The trip to Montana involves the help of a lot of groups and agencies, including the Montana Wilderness Association, the Bob Marshall Foundation and the Glacier Institute.

Fairfield outfitter Don Cleveland packed in food and tools for the STRIVE youths and grants were received from United Illuminating and REI.

This is the second level of the program. Last summer, the youths went through a job training program, had internships and learned about the importance of education, building trust, life skills training and job readiness.

The goals of the Montana trip include keeping the kids engaged in STRIVE and to create some leaders from within the group.

Turick's brother, Hugo Turick, a rancher from Arrow Creek, helped arrange the trip.

New Haven is a long way from Montana, anyway you cut it. Group leader Wilfong describes it as the home of Yale University and a ''very, very big and a really active town.''

''The kids are from the housing developments, where all of the low income families live,'' he says.

The whirlwind trip for the youngsters began July 3 when they flew to Montana. From the Great Falls airport, they were shuttled to Coal Banks landing where they were instructed in the basics of canoeing and leave-no-trace camping.

Choteau outfitters Bill Cunningham and Polly Burke led that portion of the trip and Montana State University association photography professor Charlotte Trollinger instructed the group in photography. Each was given a camera and 15 rolls of film.

But what was to be a nine-day trip was cut short after four days when the STRIVE kids had problems coping with the wildness, the lack of plumbing and sleeping facilities.

''The first night, it rained on us really hard. When we got to Judith Landing, it was so windy that the tents sort of kicked in on us and then they kicked back out. That was insane,'' Wilfong says.

They spent four days on the Hugo Turick ranch on Arrow Creek.

''We got a little taste of ranch life and farming. Some of them went horseback riding and drove the tractor,'' Wilfong said.

From there, the group traveled to the Paradise Valley and spent several days touring and photographing Yellowstone National Park with Trollinger.

Then, on July 17, the group hiked in to the Scapegoat Wilderness.

From the Whitetail Camp, the youths and Wilfong went out daily to perform trail clearing and maintenance under the tutelage of Bob Marshall Foundation trail crew leader Paul Travis.

With a couple of work days to go, the crews had cleared four to five miles of trail of downed trees, widened the trails by removing brush and built seven water bars.

''We've gotten a fair bit done,'' Travis said.

''It is labor intensive,'' Wilfong said. ''Most of the kids have never done anything like this. They are learning how to use different tools. You get a sense of accomplishment. You go out there and say, 'Hey. You know what? I did that.''

Each evening, two of the youths cook dinner for eight to 10 people and they must clean up the camp.

As she waited for dinner one evening, Kiara Bryant, confessed that she missed a bath and she missed her mother.

''It's kind of rough for us. This is like a first-time experience,'' she said. ''If I was at home, I would be watching TV and (talking) on the phone.''

But there are no telephones here in the wilderness -- even the cell phone that one of the girls packed along can't find a signal. There is no pizza delivery and not even an outhouse -- pit toilets are the facilities; the foam mattress pads don't do much to soften the Rocky Mountains. And, homesickness stalks the camp.

''A lot of them want to go home,'' Wilfong said. ''A whole month away from their families is kind of tough. The kids are young and they never have experienced being away from family. Even if they were away from family, they could call. Still, most days they enjoy what they see.''

''You ask kids from Connecticut to come out and experience new challenges and get away from the harsh life to peace and quiet,'' says Whitney Cash, a member of the group. ''It's straight to me, but it's alone.''

Wilmont Kotey, an intense youth, is quiet and ready and apparently a natural leader within the group. It was Kotey who convinced the adult leadership to cut short the trip down the Missouri River.

''At first, I really wasn't enjoying it. Actually, I went kind of crazy,'' Kotey said. ''I convinced them top cut the trip from nine days to four. We went to Hugo's for a shower and then they made me support staff. So now, even if I didn't like it, I have to go hard and strong.''

Turick says there are changes that need to be made in the program.

''This was a pilot and we will evaluate,'' he said. ''Next year we would like to take kids from Montana and take them back to Connecticut and give them a like experience but obviously with differences.

''Conservation is a theme, but we also aim to give the kids experience, to broaden their horizons and to keep them engaged,'' Turick said. ''If you do not keep them engaged, you will lose a portion of them back into the problems they have had.

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