Chicago Youth Exchange Builds Trust in the Great Outdoors

By Jeanette Coleman
Chicago Peace Fellows

Six thirty a.m., Sunday morning, teens ages 15-21 wait in great anticipation for the bus that will take them away from the Windy City, Chicago, with the bright lights, loud noises to the serene shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin - the Outdoor Wisconsin Leadership School (OWLS) in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.


For many of the youths, this is going to be their first experience camping and the questions are non-stop, from “What type of bus will we ride on?” to the physical layout of the facility, all of which I can’t answer since this is my first experience camping as well.

During our initial encounter as Chicago Peace Fellows, several of the fellows talked about their work with young people during the summer and the possibility of hosting an overnight camping trip for youths from the various communities. As one of the eight funded summer projects, the cohorts from the New City, South Shore and Little Village communities collaborated on a Youth Exchange 3-day camping trip which would allow black and brown youths from the various communities to get to know one another, explore similar experiences, and create an ongoing bond which would facilitate additional collaborative activities.


The Outdoor Wisconsin Leadership School welcomed our group with open arms. They excitedly celebrated our arrival as they asked the youths to settle in and grab lunch because then it was activities planned from the moment we arrived until the time we left. Our first afternoon began with building trust activities. The youths were divided into three random groups, each decided on a name for themselves, and then continued on with activities accordingly. Activities included talking circles, trust exercises, high ropes, low ropes and general recreational activities. On Monday, the youths participated in rock climbing, archery, fishing, swimming, canoeing, nature walks and sports and recreation. All the activities were geared toward establishing a bond among the youth. And what's a camping experience without a night adventure walk and toasting marshmallows by the campfire?

In addition to the relaxation and fun, the youths were challenged to address life challenges and, in some cases, had emotional moments related to their personal fears and frustrations as well as mistrust. Some recounted criminal activity and family involvement with DCFS. The opportunity to address the youths in these situations proved to be a rewarding experience for both the youths as well as the Fellows, who assured the youths there were adults who were there for them to help them on their journey. In some cases, youths were purposefully invited due to the overburdensome responsibilities they faced as older siblings. The opportunity to be among their peers away from the city and a break from their home life was most rewarding.


Fellow Pamela Butts was the coordinator for the event, and she was exceptional in her leadership skills and generosity to make sure the youth had a pleasant experience, nothing lacking. Several of the OWL counselors expressed how their lives were changed by having someone take the time with them to show them a different path such as what we were doing, and applauded us for our efforts. The experience resonated with them so much that they returned to become counselors after having the experience as a youth participant. Before we left, several of our youths also expressed a desire to learn more and possibly apply to work with the camp next year.

Our thanks also goes to Burrell Poe, who made sure every youth had a backpack and flashlight for their journey. Collaborating with the Chicago Peace Fellows has opened so many doors for the residents of Chicago, and given these youths opportunities they would not have otherwise experienced. I would also like to thank Fellow Gloria Smith, who provided Chicago Sky tickets which we were able to offer some of our youths who were unable to attend the camping trip.

Overall, we will continue to “Change the culture and break the cycle of violence” in our communities by providing positive opportunities for youth to strive toward productive citizenship.


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