Wild times help teenagers grow
Outward Bound instructor Cearna McKenzie (or CC as she's better known) likens the organisation to a "battery charger" for young human beings.
CC takes teenagers on 12-day trips into the bush which include hiking, camping, canoeing, and generally looking after one another as they undertake physical challenges and battle the elements.
She said seeing the change in young participants (some of whom come from foster families and some of whom lack self-confidence) is what keeps her out there in the bush doing her job, despite the mud and the leeches.
"When the students arrive they don't know if they can do it, or if they want to do it, but they really get charged up from it. It's really rewarding to see that personal growth… the glow they come out with is amazing to see," CC said. "We're often getting messages from family members saying they were not in a happy space but they came back and they're alive and full of energy.
"Sometimes it can be small steps - they all have their bad days. But they push themselves through… and they come out with a smile and a greater sense of self. Seeing that sense of achievement in them is very rewarding for me personally."
CC's latest crop of recruits from Lismore, Casino, Ballina and south-east Queensland were sponsored by several Lions clubs from northern NSW and south-east Queensland who banded together so locals could experience the Rainforest Navigator course for the first time.
Thirteen young people aged 15-17 took part in the inaugural program, bushwalking and mountain biking around 3000 acres of Outward Bound's Nightcap property at Uki. It also included a three-day white water canoe trip and a mountain climb.
Casino local Lara Ran, 17, said the course has helped her relate to outside situations based on what she accomplished during the program.
"If I can walk up Mount Jerusalem, surely I can public speak!" Lara said.
Ben Parker, 16, also of Casino, said he gained a lot of self-awareness during the course.
"It showed me that the only thing that will stop me is me… And that people really do notice the little things you do for them."
CC said that was why experiential learning was so effective - the kids are in the bush and forced to rely on each other for survival. She said that gives them an incredible boost in terms of self-belief and teaches them the value of human interaction.
"Over the course of the program they became just like family. They were so tight knit at the end… they had a group hug and some of the parents got tears in their eyes because they didn't want to break them up," CC said. "The program takes them away from their comfort zone and modern, everyday society - the TV, cell phones, friends - so you have to rely on yourself and others. You learn that small things matter… if you can't pack your sleeping bag up and someone comes and helps you, it means a lot. It makes an impact."
She said having to face tough physical obstacles gave the teenagers an important lesson about potential and the ability to do anything they set their mind to.
"I think they have a more realistic expectation of what they can do by the end. At first they don't think they can carry a 15kg bag up a hill. They get tired and sweaty and frustrated but they do it and they learn they can do it. They begin to think, 'If I can climb up this hill with leeches in the pouring rain then I can study for that exam or go for that job interview'.
"They push themselves further than they thought they could and then life's challenges seem easier."
The course was such a success the Lions clubs have all committed to work towards a second camp at Uki in July. CC will be ready and waiting to put another group of youngsters through their paces.
"I get eaten by insects, sleep in a tent more often than my flat, and work long hours… but these young people are going to go on and be prime ministers or important, good influences on other people down the track," CC said. "It all pays off seeing the positive changes that happen within them."
If you know of someone who could benefit from a life-changing Outward Bound experience or a Lions club that would like to get involved, phone Lions past district governor Tony Cornell on 6680 2011 or email email@example.com.