Getting wild, growing strong 

Getting wild and growing strong

Outdoors leadership project targets young women

They say adversity makes a girl stronger, and while a rafting trip down the Salmon River may not be a life threatening experience, the concept still holds true.

So say organizers of the Young Women's Leadership Project, a local program whose mission is "to increase the quality of life, the opportunities and the leadership capacity of young women using the outdoors as a catalyst for self-discovery." To that end, a group of teenage girls and guides will take on the outdoors this month in the form of a six-day raft trip through the heart of Central Idaho's wilderness.

Sponsored by the Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development in Women, itself a part of Women's Voices for the Earth, the project organizers thrust young girls into the unknown, forcing them to rely upon their own strength and courage, rather than counting on someone else to ride to the rescue.

"It puts you more in touch with the primal aspects. You can't rely on civilization to help you, you can't run home to Mommy and Daddy," says Jenna Wilkinson, a participant in the first trip in 1996 and member of WVE's board of directors.

The project began after organizers Bryony Schwan and Claire Berkey each had transforming wilderness experiences.

"I spent a month in the wilderness, and it gave me my life. I discovered a side of people I had never seen before. The sense of gratitude, awe and confidence led me to follow my heart," Berkey remembers.

The rafting trip aims to pass along a similar epiphany. Six days on the river gives girls and their mentors a chance to discover their own strengths and share life stories.

The rafting trip serves as a template for a new year long program starting up this summer, also aimed at teenage girls. The longer plan incorporates in-town activities involving several generations of women as well as outdoor trips. Additionally, part of the program hopes to train high school girls as mentors for the more emotionally fragile and reclusive middle school girls, who often mistrust adult figures.

The process of organizing the year-long program came from four of the original twelve girls from the first trip. The young women referred friends and gave tips for expanding the concepts of the rafting trip. Word of mouth, flyers and lunch meetings with interested teenagers became the strategy for recruitment.

And the mission of enabling young women to take charge of their interests and act out on their concerns seems to be working. "I've taken on a lot more leadership roles, and started taking charge of my life. Instead of just living my life, I'm starting to control it," says Wilkinson.

In a society obsessed with the perfect body, the project's emphasis on outdoor activities and physical exertion is key, organizers say.

"It takes girls out of context-out of town, out of the mentality of town, away from the influences of peer pressure," says Berkey.

The desire to create environmental activists in the spirit of WVE underlies this statement. By boosting girls' convictions of their own strength, the group believes they can channel new-found confidence into positive action for the benefit of the environment.

"Community activism is a natural direction for this program. They're learning to break down problems so they can take action for building dreams and reaching goals," explains Berkey.

The goals of the rafting and year long programs are tailored to the general ambition of WVE, which Berkey calls "to empower women and minorities of all backgrounds to gain a voice in creating environmental policy."

The year-long leadership project, in turn, "is a call to remind young women to become who they really are, to hold on to their bold and soulful selves so they can participate and make constructive contributions."

Within that statement lies the core of the enthusiasm that Berkey imparts to her discussion of this project. Through working with a central cause to preserve Montana's environment, the program attempts to enrich girls' personal sense of value. "We're trying to give girls an alternative to discover what it is to be a woman," says Berkey.

This year's rafting venture is the first since the initial 1996 trip, partly because of the lack of time and money. But strong community interest and seed money granted by the Women's Place Foundation has allowed WVE to make both the excursion and the year long program a priority.

Additionally, the group has established service/learning projects in conjunction with local businesses and individuals to make the rafting trip available to girls of all income brackets. The use of local money also increases the sense of community involvement in this program.

"It's all part of making the program organic and community based, by combining national money with local," says Berkey.

For more information, contact Berkey at 543-3747.

Robin Hammond
Sara Grossenkemper and Anna Roberts, pictured here with their river guides, were with the first crew of young women to brave the Salmon River as part of the Young Women’s Leadership Project.

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