Every year a group of 10-12 teens go on a life-changing experience deep in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park where they learn basic survival skills, go backpacking , and learn to rock climb, kayak, and climb summit peaks all while improving themselves personally and scholastically. These 40-day outings are provided by Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC) a leadership and literacy program.
Adventure Risk Challenge is a year-round program with two sites one in the Lake Tahoe area and one between Merced and Wawona, however, the 40-day summer immersion course is offered once a year at each site.
When students aren't out exploring the forest, they stay at Wawona Elementary School, which they refer to as "base camp." Students are only at base camp for 16 out of the 40 days, but while there they study seven hours a day. Subjects include English and writing, leadership, grammar, environmental science, and group reading. While they're out backpacking, students still study English and environmental science while learning wilderness skills such as how to read a map, use a compass, cook over a fire, and build a shelter.
Sarah Ottley, program director, said many of the students are non-native English speakers some from as far as El Salvador, China and Nepal. However, they are all now U.S. residents from mainly the Bay Area, Merced County and Tahoe.
The first thing students do when they arrive is set off on their first of three backpacking trips eight days in the forest with no shower.
"We start out with an eight day trip to get them out of their comfort zone right away, so they can work together and gain confidence right off the bat," Ottley said.
The second backpacking trip is five days that includes a 24-hour solo day where students rely only on themselves for everything they need. The last backpacking trip is four days and students travel together in a group independent of their instructors.
Dahlia Santiuste, 17, of Merced, who recently graduated from high school, wanted something to do over the summer. She thought ARC sounded like something fun to do this summer, but on her first day of orientation she thought otherwise. But that soon changed.
"In the back country, I felt I belonged," Santiuste said. "At first I didn't like it, but now I feel I've learned to respect it. I didn't realize what a beautiful place we have so close to us. I also connected to other people. As a group we evolved and learned about nature and ourselves."
Santiuste said the experience also taught her responsibility for her actions and a respect for nature. She also learned something else important about herself.
"I learned I'm not accepting of failure," she said. "Now I'm more open to it. Before I would stop and beat myself up, but now I know I can keep going and learn from myself."
Santiuste is going to take those lessons into the next phase of her life joining the U.S. Coast Guard.
Ling Zhu, 17, senior at Galileo High School in San Francisco, has only lived in the U.S. for five years. Zhu moved to the U.S. from Hunan, China, and decided to participate in ARC to improve her English.
"I'm proud of myself and feel satisfied now," she said. "Before I came here I was depressed because my English was so bad, but I came here and am happy because it's improved every day."
Zhu said she has also enjoyed her adventures in the wilderness, all the waterfalls, and even a bear sighting. Before coming to ARC, she said she wasted a lot of time on computers but this program has changed her life.
"Before I came here, I was afraid to do everything nothing risky like rock climbing But it's fun and it's changed me," she said.
Zhu said she's also made new friends and feels more comfortable expressing her feelings.
"They're like family here," she said. "Everyone treats each other from the heart. At school they're not like that, they just ignore you."
Sabin Thapa, 15, moved to the U.S. from Nepal two years ago. Now a junior at Santa Rosa High School, this summer was his first time in the wilderness. It was also his first time away from his parents.
"I was always shy of people before, but this course showed me to be open and learn new things," Thapa said. "It gave me more confidence and how to learn what's inside me."
Thapa said he's also enjoyed meeting new people and learning new things in the wilderness.
"They taught me how to read a map I'm learning leadership, my English is better It's teaching me how to be independent," he said.
Thapa's favorite courses this summer has been English and science, and he says he hopes to be a marine biologist someday. He said his life is much different since he immigrated here two years ago.
"It's a whole new different thing," he said. "I didn't see anything bad about it (Nepal) until I came here and saw good education that we didn't have. Also, more people are open and trying to help other people like ARC. There are more opportunities here."
Ottley said the changes that take place in all the young people's lives are long lasting and gives her a reason and purpose for her work.
"It's an incredible experience to run a program in which so much transformation takes place," Ottley said. "Every time I show up to support a summer course, I can see and hear and know that each participant has grown in confidence, character and academic ability, since the last time I was with them."