Kang Pu stood at the back of a boat in a narrow, winding canyon off Ross Lake. Before him, a group of adults waited to hear his story. Kang, 16, began by saying he had been in the United States for just a year, he was still working on his English, and that it was hard for him to speak in front of a group.
His story, his eagerness to learn and his poise blew his listeners away.
Kang is from Burma. His mother died when he was young. At 13, he went to work in Malaysia to help support his family. While working, he missed his family and he wasn’t able to attend school. Getting an education was a priority for Kang, but he knew it was going to be hard in Burma.
Kang moved to Washington with his uncle’s family. He misses his family and his country, but he is getting an education at Foster High School in Tukwila.
He was in the North Cascades for Youth Leadership Adventures, offered through the North Cascades Institute.
The program takes kids, most of whom have little experience with the outdoors, backpacking or canoeing in the North Cascades in hopes of instilling a love and appreciation for wild places.
The students are racially diverse; many come from low-income families and, if they choose to attend college, will be the first in their families to do so. None of them know each other when they start the program.
That doesn’t last long, said Nika Meyers, the lead instructor on the trip. The trip Kang attended was eight days long. There were nine students and three youth leadership field instructors.
The group hiked a total of more than 30 miles carrying heavy packs. They helped with trail maintenance and learned how to treat water and cook in the backcountry. Along the way, they learned leadership skills and lessons about the natural environment.
At the end of the program, the students gave a presentation about why they came on the trip and what the experience was like.
While each student had a unique take on the program, all of them mentioned the value of community. In a short time, the students had learned how to work together and how to be an effective leader among a group of people different from themselves.
“Community is important,” Kang said. “We cannot stand on our own. Teamwork is very powerful.”
Kristin Tregillus thinks that’s part of the value of the program. Tregillus is an English Language Learning teacher and she has helped Kang and other students apply for the program.
She said the YLA program helps students who are new to the United States make new friends quickly.
“It can take them a while to make American friends and form deep relationship to people who are so different to themselves,” she said. “There are so many barriers for them, and this program bridges them.”
Tregillus knew Kang would be a good fit for the program.
“He is someone who is just seeking; he is so aware of what he doesn’t know and he wants to go after it,” she said.
As the students spoke, they described what drew them to the program and what they’d learned.
Anna Gonzalez Cervantez, 16, is a student at Cascade High School and a self-described book worm. Until this month, she’d never been backpacking or done much hiking.
She’s a devoted writer who is up for a challenge, though.
“I wanted to have an adventure and get in touch with the wilderness,” she said.
Anna was surprised by how much fun it was to share a tent with two other students. There was a lot of laughing, she said.
She also enjoyed learning all the different jobs. Students take turns with different roles, including being the leader, camp cook or journalist. With her love for writing, Anna enjoyed being the journalist. She also found being the leader satisfying.
“As the leader, you tie the whole group together. You keep the pace, and I just really liked that,” she said.
Each evening, the students gathered and discussed how everything went. Meyers said that daily meeting is a powerful experience for the students.
“They see themselves in a different light,” she said.
The students share feedback with each other and gain confidence. They hear feedback about their skills that they might not hear often at home. Meyers hopes that experience helps students realize that they can enter into a different community and feel like their opinions matter.
Another powerful moment came at the end of an 11.6-mile day of hiking. Students started the day with nervousness and aches and pains. Toward the end of the day there was such excitement, Meyers said.
“We had a conversation as a group about how a big goal can be overwhelming,” she said. “They were blown away by their accomplishment.”
The visitor day at the end of the trip gives the students another chance to test the confidence they’ve gained by speaking in front of a group. It also shows that people care about their stories.
“It’s a powerful opportunity,” Meyers said. “They may feel like their voice hasn’t been heard in the past.”
Kate Rinder, youth leadership coordinator for NCI, says for many students, the program is a transformative experience.
“We know they won’t all be environmental educators, but we want them to have an ethic of caring for the environment,” she said.
The students echoed that theme in their talks. They talked about the value they felt in the natural environment after living so close to it.
Anna talked about having a deeper appreciation for water supplies. On a long hike, they ran out of water and, because so many of the creeks were already dry, it was a while before they could replenish their stocks.
Kang was inspired by being in a national park. He said he’d like to finish his education, then return to Burma and help create something similar there.
On the final day of the trip, Meyers said, the students were joyful and rowdy on the bus back.
Kang started singing a song in his native language. The song was about being together as a community.
“It helped put a really great conclusion on the trip,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment.”
Youth Leadership Adventures
North Cascades Institute offers 8- and 16-day summer expeditions. Students canoe and/or backpack. The students complete service projects and learn about outdoor leadership, field science, communication skills, North Cascades ecology and natural history. For the longer course, students return home and create a service project in their own community.
Students from a diverse background are encouraged to apply. About 70 percent of the students are minority and/or from low income families. Scholarships are available to assist students with the cost of the program. Ninety percent of students receive financial assistance. Gear and food are provided.
For more information, go to http://ncascades.org/signup/youth/YLA.