Youth Odyssey’s mission is to provide at-risk youth, ages 10-17, with positive youth development through adventure programming. As most people understand Youth Odyssey to be “an organization who works with at-risk youth to help them make better decisions by playing games and taking them on trips.” Honestly, that’s not too far from the truth, but it is a very brief, Cliff’s Notes, version on what it is we actually do.
Yes, our goal is to focus on the at-risk youth population, ages 10-17, in the Coastal Bend by keeping them engaged and motivating them to work hard for results. We do this by implementing the use of cooperative games, trust activities, problem solving initiatives, high adventure activities, and wilderness exploration as a means of helping the youth engage, change and grow. Our lesson plans consist of a curriculum of six life skills; communication, teamwork, leadership, goal setting, problem solving, and trust. In order to prevent boring the kids through lecture-style teaching, Youth Odyssey, guides kids through in team-building games that help them to communicate, work together, and develop trust. This way they are seeing the positive results of applying the six life skills in an almost instant gratification kind of way. They can see the cause and effect of good communication versus bad communication; overcoming a challenge with the team versus going at it alone. After every activity we have what is called a debrief, where we talk about how the activity went, what worked well, what didn’t work well, was there something we could have done differently, and so on. This allows the kids to create the conversation and reflect back on the choices that were made and whether or not they were the best for the team and situation. We use these debriefs as a chance to tie in the teachings to their everyday lives. We often ask the kids how what we are discussing can be used outside of Youth Odyssey programming and how it can be helpful to them in the future.
By turning the conversation from the game to real life it allows the youth to understand the importance of the lessons and how to make better choices, to communicate better at home and in school, and to realize that, if they can handle a difficult task in Youth Odyssey, they can handle a difficult task in the real world as well. It boosts confidence and helps to reinforce the concepts because the transition is so flawless that the kids forget they are learning and it still seems like a fun activity. Those realizations are the “meat” of what we want to convey to the kids in our programs and it’s why we do what we do.
We also use worksheets in our programs. These worksheets aren’t yes or no questions and there are no right or wrong answers; it’s focused solely on their personal thoughts, feelings and takeaways from the activities. These worksheets are another way for the kids to internalize the concepts. By giving the kids the chance to answer from their own reflections it is reinforcing the six life skills and, the more they really think about how they are affected and how they can affect others, the more likely it is to sink in and create a change in that kid. We also use these worksheets to see how the kids are understanding the discussions and can give us insight into areas of their lives that they may not talk about with the group, which helps us connect with the youth better.
Every program is different. The different needs and our curriculum allows us the flexibility to hone in on what that particular group needs. Some groups need more help with teamwork while other groups may get teamwork but struggle with problem solving. And as much as we focus on the main six life skills, sometimes we need to reevaluate the group and see what issues we really need to discuss. There are times when the kids may be having a bad day and we can pause from the curriculum to discuss the issues further. There are other days when you can notice some tension within the group and we can take a minute to see what’s going on. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone feeling left out while other times it’s that someone had been bullied or called a name and, in those moments, we take on those issues. We talk about bullying and being respectful to others, we can share personal stories of times we’ve been through similar issues, and how it’s important to include others. When we have these moments it lets the kids know that we are there for them and they can come to us and trust us. The connections we are able to make on the ‘off curriculum’ topics allow us to foster a deeper connection of trust (one of the six life skills) and openness that many of these kids may not have in their home lives, and it’s done on their terms so they may not even realize that they are letting their guard down because they are just talking.
Creating these connections is what keeps the kids engaged in Youth Odyssey for the long haul, which is another one of our goals. If they are focused on Youth Odyssey they aren’t focused on other risky behaviors. To keep them motivated and to change up the repetition of games at the programs we take the kids out of their normal environments and put the skills we’ve been discussing to the test. We do this by taking them to our ropes course, camping trips, canoeing and kayaking. This is usually the part where people think we are an outdoor recreation organization. Outdoor recreation or adventure education, is often the actual teaching of the adventure activities. Youth Odyssey uses the model of “Adventure Programming”, which refers to the use of the adventure activities for broader educational purposes, not just to teach about camping or canoeing, but to learn about themselves and the others in their group. On these trips and during these experiences, the kids are given a different level of responsibility than they are used to. We have the kids prepare and cook the meals as well as clean up after themselves (with our supervision and assistance of course). They learn how to start a fire (in order to cook food and provide warmth) and working together to set up shelter. By doing this with the kids it provides opportunities to learn valuable lessons that they can apply to their day-to-day lives. In wilderness settings the youth develop better interpersonal skills and practice setting appropriate boundaries. They learn the importance of taking personal responsibility, as the wilderness naturally provides both immediate consequences (i.e. getting rained on at night if a shelter isn’t constructed properly by the group) and rewards (i.e. having a nice fire and s’mores when wood is gathered). This type of practice is actually called “Wilderness Therapy,” and, as the name suggests, “it involves outdoor excursions like camping and backpacking trips that typically last anywhere from several days to a week. [We use] nature as a unique, therapeutic environment for healing, growth, personal discovery, and positive change (cited from addiction.com).” This line of thinking is confirmed when the youth vote on who will be the ‘leader’ and ‘navigator’ during our camps.
The leaders job is to keep the group focused and on task. The navigators job is to handle the map of the area and, with the leaders help, use it to guide us along the trails that they, together, have chosen for the group to go on. The leader and navigator are to stay in the front of the hiking group and keep track of water breaks, taking appropriate rests, informing the group to move aside for another hiking group if needed, taking votes on when and where to have lunch for the day, and most importantly making sure the group is staying together and are being safe. The leader and navigator tell the group when there may be a tricky spot coming up in the trail, “watch out for that rock, it’s lose,” “stay to the left because the right is slippery,” “watch your heads, that tree branch is low.” By allowing the youth to take on that leadership role it gives them confidence to speak up and the focus to take care of and make sure the group is safe. After lunch, we evaluate the leader and navigator by having each kid, including the leader and navigator, say something that they could have done differently to be more successful and then an area where they did well. At this point, we will elect a new leader and navigator to continue the rest of the day and make a plan for the group and assume the same tasks as the previous leader and navigator. This method is used because, when the kids have the power to make choices and lead a group to where they want, they are practicing leadership skills, communication, problem solving, goal setting, the other kids are putting their trust in them, and they are all working together as a team to accomplish the goal for the day. In essence, they are practicing and learning the six life skills that we wish to instill in our programs.
When we take the kids to the ropes course, canoeing and kayaking they are always practicing the six life skills. With canoeing and kayaking the kids are being challenged to try new things and work with and trust others (their canoe/kayaking partner) while maintaining a positive attitude and overcoming the struggles they may experience. Neither canoeing nor kayaking are easy, even for adults, to grasp quickly so in the period of trying to get the mechanics down they are utilizing the communication skills with their partner and trusting them to be helpful and supportive in accomplishing the task at hand. When it comes to the ropes course, communication is used in a much different way. The first half of the day they kids are working together to complete difficult activities that are nearly impossible to accomplish without the use of teamwork and communication. During the first half of the day the kids are growing together as a team and getting to know one another better. This step is important when we are combining two or more programs on the same ropes course because they may not have known one another before this experience and by building that foundation of teamwork and communication it allows the second half of the day to go more smoothly. The second half of the day is when we have the kids do the high elements (rock climbing, zip-lining, pamper pole, etc). In these situations communication is used as a form of motivation because the kids will encourage each other to step out of their comfort zones to complete the elements as best they can. It’s obvious to see the change in a kid who may be struggling with the element and then the others start encouraging them and supporting them. They gain more confidence from the support of their team and they always end up going further than they thought they would. It proves that with the right support system, these kids can accomplish and overcome anything, and that is what Youth Odyssey is to the kids that participate in our programs.
So, yes, we do work with at-risk youth and motivate them to do better by playing games and taking them on trips, but we do so much more than just that. We support the kids in our programs both emotionally and physically and we become a source of trust and opportunity to those who need it. We use the guise of games and fun as a means to connect the kids to each other, themselves, nature, and Youth Odyssey. By using adventure programming we are able to get these kids on a level playing field by giving them experiences and taking them places they’ve never been. This allows the kids to be vulnerable in a safe environment and to just be themselves, kids. Away from the stress of whatever they are going through personally, away from those they may feel the need to impress, and around those who are like minded and determined to do better and take advantage of all that Youth Odyssey offers.