Students in the Grade 7 class at St. Martin of Tours Catholic School in Whitney in South Algonquin Township, and at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School in Bancroft participated in an exciting outdoor education program recently called Youth Explore Summer Series or YESS! Tara McEnery, the vice principal at both schools, says that the program’s focus was to encourage students to participate in challenge by choice and say “Yes!” to becoming the best version of themselves. McEnery says the students had a great time, learned a lot about themselves and the natural world and they’ll be continuing with it in the fall.
The YESS! program for the St. Martin of Tours Catholic School and Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School students was led by the ALCDSB special assignment teacher for outdoor and environmental education Mike Bibby. Encouraging the students to participate in challenge by choice and say “Yes!” to becoming the best version of themselves, the program included all Grade 7 students from both schools and McEnery says it was a big success for everyone involved.
McEnery says that the students’ goals in the YESS! program are; to identify personal barriers to fully becoming themselves, building self confidence while exploring their comfort zone through a series of adventure based outdoor exercises, developing a personal plan of action to be activated in the fall of 2021 and to be introduced to the natural environment as a place to go for inspiration and rest, recreation and development through hiking, canoeing, journaling, team building and the exploration of the natural world.
Bibby usually comes to the schools three times a year in the fall, winter and spring, to do outdoor programs with the students, according to McEnery. She had always encouraged him to do a summer program, and this year, he decided to do one for the first time with this pilot program.
“He created the program and he wrote the proposal to the board to run it. Part of it was because he had funding that he hadn’t used from not bussing students to outdoor education programs at the outdoor education centres during the school year [due to the restrictions of COVID-19]. So, part of that was the reason he was able to do it this year. We’re hoping it can continue as an ongoing annual program and expand,” she says.
McEnery gives a lot of credit to Bibby for being such a great leader and expert in the program.
“Everybody was successful because he knows how to make sure they are. He’s completely prepared and very certified and very qualified. Any kind of outdoor education or tripping activity, he makes everybody feel confident in engaging due to the fact that they’re with him,” she says.
Over the course of the week-long program, which ran from 9 am to 3:30 pm every day, the students were bussed to Silent Lake Provincial Park, where they partook in activities like building fires with flint and steel, building shelters using a variety of knots, hiking, learning to work with a compass, having fun in a heavy rain downpour, and finishing and designing their own wooden paddles, made by local woodworker Doug MacKenzie, who runs MacKenzie Wood Products. They also took home some canoe skills that included tipping canoes to learn canoe over canoe rescues.
The students also had some time to reflect on their adventures by taking some time to do some ‘sacred sit spot journaling.’ McEnery says that they would find a spot to sit down in nature and reflect, write or doodle about the challenges of the day and their goals going forward.
“They were encouraged to reflect on the following questions which we discussed each day like; How is your fire burning? How secure is your shelter? How have you prepared for your journey? How can you choose the right direction? Although each of these activities was linked to actual activities the students engaged in, they were all presented as analogies for reflecting on our lives and life directions,” she says.
McEnery says the first day they started with team building activities.
“It was nice to participate in activities like that after a year with so many limitations and also after being away from school for so long. People are really excited to be together,” she says.
At the end of the day, McEnery says that some of what the students were reflecting on when they were journaling was that their favourite part of it all was being able to socialize and be with their friends.
“Nobody missed a day. They all came every day, had smiles on their faces and were having a good time. I think they all had a lot of fun. I even had a lot of fun as a supervisor,” she says.
On another day, McEnery says the students prepared and designed their own paddles, courtesy of MacKenzie.
“We bought the paddles from him and he gave us some sandpaper as well and the kids finished sanding them. They used wood burning kits and paint to finish them, then Mike and I varnished them,” she says.
McEnery says that each student designed their paddle with symbols or signs that were meaningful to them, and once the varnish was dry, they used the newly decorated paddles on the last day out on the lake.
As far as the lake goes, McEnery says that Silent Lake was great for the students to canoe on and learn rescue techniques because it’s not a huge lake and it’s not too inundated with waves.
“It’s a good place to learn to paddle. It’s a peaceful lake. There are no motorboats. It was lovely. And there’s little islands, so we stopped at an island, had a little picnic lunch, they built a fire and made smores,” she says.
On the Thursday, local life guard and swim instructor Victoria McDowell came out to give the students a swim test, so they could be allowed to get out on the lake and use the canoes.
Board mental health lead Melanie Dunlop and social worker Selina Mackie came out to Silent Lake to participate with McEnery, Bibby and the students for a couple of days.
“So, they joined us on the paddle making day and on the first day, which were the team building activities,” she says.
Although not all the Grade 7 students participated in this summer’s program, McEnery hopes that they all do so in the fall. Although she’s not sure what activities they’ll be doing in the fall, she says that at Bibby’s suggestion, they will be doing them at Algonquin Park.
Overall, McEnery loved the experience doing the YESS! program and loved the way her students were mutually supportive and encouraging of each other during the week.
“Everybody did everything, nobody felt insecure in being encouraged to try. Everybody participated actually. Some were hesitant at first, but everyone chose to challenge themselves and do it. Everybody did it and everybody was successful,” she says. “I think it’s an awesome pilot project and I’m really excited about it.”
Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times