La Vida Staff Highlight: Alumni Working in Wilderness Therapy

By: Braedan McKee

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)

These words, written in the book of Isaiah about John the Baptist, remind me that our God rules over all the earth. No location is too remote for His notice, and no person who calls on His name can fall beyond the reaches of His great compassion! I had the privilege of spending the last two summers working as a guide for the La Vida program. During these months, I discovered the power of spending time in the wilderness. Simply being removed from distractions in the midst of God’s creation often helps me put my life back in perspective. I can think about my relationships with others and my relationship with my Creator with renewed clarity. The lessons that I learned in the Adirondacks have stayed with me and inspired me to seek out ways that I can share my experiences and passion for the outdoors with others.

After graduating college in May, my journey led me to southern Utah, where I took a job as a field guide for a wilderness therapy organization called Legacy Outdoor Adventures. This year-round program is set in the midst of the forbidding beauty of desert canyons and snow covered mountains. These locations allow the healing power of the wilderness to help clients who struggle with substance addiction and/or mental and emotional issues. As a guide, I spend five out of seven days outdoors, doing my best to make every adventure safe, fun and meaningful. Although this is not a Christian program, it is based on the 12 step model from AA which emphasizes the importance of calling upon “God as you understand him.” Because of this, I have been able to have many meaningful conversations with both clients and guides as we share our experiences and search for the truth.

It is incredible for me to reflect on how God has used my experiences with La Vida to prepare me for this type of work! As a Sherpa, I learned technical skills that equipped me for outdoor living, as well as soft skills that I am continuing to build upon as I mentor clients who are facing incredible struggles. More importantly than anything, my time at La Vida taught me to rely on Jesus for strength. When I am walking with my Savior, He provides the patience, hope and compassion which teaches me to love others unconditionally, the way that Christ loved me. Although this work is often difficult, the reward of seeing clients grow in a positive direction makes the challenge more than worthwhile! God never promised me that it would be easy but He did promise that He would never leave or forsake His children. Again and again, I have seen Him uphold this promise, even as I continue to explore the edges of my comfort zone!

 

Braedan worked for the La Vida Adirondack program as a Sherpa for two summers. Braedan received his degree in Environmental Science in 2017 from UMass Lowell .

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Joel Cox’s Trip to Nepal

By: Joel Cox ’16

I’ve watched countless YouTube videos of people going out into harsh mountain environments, but the sheer rock faces with snowy summits always seemed inaccessible. I had only experienced mountains in New Hampshire and New York that never went above 6,000ft and were more defined by the number of trees than the exposed climbing. I was understandably awed and in disbelief the first time seeing the Himalayan mountain range with peak after peak slicing through the sky and the exposed rock looked as unconquerable and challenging as I had hoped. It felt like being in those videos I would watch. Every day the pre-dawn view of the mountains was consistently breath-taking.

The Nepal Crew

Throughout the trip, the surrounding landscape progressed from rainforest to coniferous and then eventually to a more tundra-like vegetation as we entered the Sol Khumbu region. As the environment became less accommodating to our human needs, we followed suit and adapted our appearance to be less human as well. We’d cover our eyes with fully reflective “glacier glasses”, don heavy mittens as opposed to gloves, cover our mouths with buffs, and lace up our pointy crampons. After also putting on our heavy, misshapen parkas we appeared, like our environment, alien and aggressive.

Glacier travel to Island Peak

For a time, I could “handle” the consistent discomfort and even abstractly appreciate the inhospitable ambivalence of the landscape. I loved the feeling of awe of God’s creation and the perspective and humility that it forced upon me. We summited Imja Tse (Island Peak), and I was energized by the challenge and the prolonged exposure to both the weather and the landscape. Once we returned to our camp and began travelling to our next objective, however, the exhaustion began to set in. I had lost a good amount of weight from not being able to eat enough and I was also losing my comfortable, pensive, objective outlook on the situation.

Taking a break before the final push

A book I read recently described beauty as danger + distance. For example, I can appreciate a storm if I’m far away or safe inside a house. I also can go for walks on the beach and enjoy the beauty and power of the ocean as I stand on the shore. However, if I actually go out into the ocean, or step outside my house into a storm that “beauty” quickly becomes personal and costly. That raw experience often brings out equally raw emotions and character traits that stay hidden in more comfortable situations.

Joel finishing the last bit of Island Peak

As we slowly returned to lower elevations and went back into the rainforest, I was so grateful to see mud instead of dust, and older village women instead of hardened, hairy alpinists. The air honestly felt heavy with oxygen and toward the end of the trek our whole group ended up covering a consistent 4,800ft ascent with only a few scattered 5 minute breaks. Dropping elevation felt like walking through your front door after a long trip and you can feel stress and tiredness drop off of you. We shed layers, took off our glacier glasses, and started joking and hanging out again.

Ice Climbing on glacier

We finally made it back to Kathmandu, and after eating whole pizzas, ice cream, and sleeves of Oreos, I felt myself relax and let go of the “survival mode” mentality. It reminded me of a story in the La Vida journals about a man who tried to copy a couple that walked out into the rain and didn’t hunch their shoulders or try to avoid the rain. They just accepted it and walk calmly and relaxed. They were able to differentiate between the reality of discomfort and choice of suffering. I feel like I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over, but I’m grateful to learn it again in another context.

Crossing a crevasse

I am glad to have gone out into the mountains and that I had to face physical and personal challenges. Maybe next time I can relax some and remember to lean into gratitude and appreciation instead of just trying to minimize my own suffering. Hopefully someday I could embody that mentality: “It was simply rain falling as rain should, and I, another phenomenon of nature, was sharing the space in which it fell… I got no wetter than I would have otherwise, and if I did not actually enjoy the wetting, at least I was free of my own tension. I could even smile” (Tom Robbins, Book of Readings).

Contemplating Ama Dablam for next trip

La Vida Quad Break Trip

By: Blake Denman ’18, La Vida Intern

Quad break this year included a trip up to La Vida’s Base Camp in the Adirondacks. A group of students, staff and La Vida alumni headed to Lake Clear, NY to get the property ready for the coming winter. The first day, after (unintentionally) almost making a detour to Canada, the group arrived just in time for a yummy dinner prepared by Nate and Amber. The next morning, work began on the Algonquin building.

The cabin has been in disrepair for years and was used principally for storage. Gordon College and La Vida recently received a grant to fix up the building and use it to board students who are part of our new Summit program. As part of this work, the bowed foundation needed to be straightened, which meant new foundation footings needed to be dug below the structure. This is where the spry college students came in – several holes were dug below the building, with access gained through cuts in the floor. When the holes were deep enough, wooden forms were placed in and filled with concrete. At the same time, others were demolishing the outdoor staircase and digging postholes for a new handicap accessible entrance to the building.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday, work on these tasks continued along with splitting and stacking wood, Nate teaching some stumps a lesson with the stump grinder, and an outside group fixing the foundation on the Armstrong (Men’s) Cabin. Once the afternoon rolled around, students headed out for an excursion near Paul Smith’s College to climb St. Regis Mountain. Foliage and weather conditions were perfect and made for a great hike, with a beautiful view of the lakes region and the high peaks beyond, plus a 360-degree view from the fire tower on top!

Outside of working hours, the group ate rejuvenating meals together and hung out around the wood stove that heated Marcy (Main Cabin) at night. Mornings included a devo, worship, journaling and solo time. Evenings were for relaxing and games – if we didn’t choose to sleep instead! Students enjoyed unbelievably nice weather, had the opportunity to relax taxed minds, and learned to understand a little better the value of work and the identity of God as a worker. Everyone had a great time and appreciated the opportunity to spend a long weekend with godly friends, old and new, and to help give future students the ability to enjoy such a beautiful place.

La Vida Center Staffing Changes

There have been a lot of changes happening within the La Vida Center in the last year. Gordon College’s Vice President for Student Life, Jennifer Jukanovich, has been working with our team and with consultants from KME3 to assist us with a strategic plan and to help put new staffing structures in place. Please read the following update from her!

New Vision/Mission
As La Vida nears its 50th anniversary in 2020, we felt it was time to review where La Vida has been and what its vision should be for the future. Many people say La Vida is one of Gordon’s best kept secrets. In a time when studies show young people have increased anxiety and less resilience, we believe La Vida can speak into our culture in even greater ways. Below please find our new vision, motivation and mission statements.

Our VISION is to be the premier institute of outdoor experiential education that develops servant leaders who are equipped to transform their communities worldwide.

Our MOTIVATION; The gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to help individuals, groups, and organizations “take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)

Our MISSION is to catalyze character formation, cultivate community and develop servant-leadership skills in individuals, groups and organizations through outdoor experiential education.

Funding
As we have worked toward defining our vision, motivation and mission, we have been encouraged by several large gifts that will allow us to make some systemic changes in our staff structure, while also undergoing a strategic plan as we gear up for the 50th anniversary.

Staff Realignment
La Vida has been on very solid ground under Rich Obenschain’s leadership for over 40 years. La Vida has grown in its impact through the Adirondack and Discovery programs for our students, by adding the Adirondack Leadership Program, Adventure Pursuits, the Rock Gym and Adventure Camp, which serves 700 youth from our community each summer. In the last two years, we’ve also acquired the Compass Program from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received funding in partnership with the Chapel office from the Lilly Foundation to create a new program called Theology Matters. As part of our discernment, we are working on a strategic plan for La Vida, but a common refrain is that we cannot pursue growth without empowering our staff. Thanks to a generous donor, we’ve not had to tap into Gordon operational dollars to pursue this realignment.


Rich Obenschain, Founder
Rich’s new title reflects his role as the Founder of La Vida at Gordon. His leadership is being redirected toward securing La Vida’s foundation and empowering its future. Practically this means Rich will be moving toward educating and empowering new leadership, representing Gordon and La Vida to alumni and donors, recruiting new donors, writing the history of La Vida, and making preparations for a 50th celebration.

 


Abby Stroven, Senior Director
Abby has stepped into a senior leadership role as Senior Director, where she will be overseeing daily operations and the strategic plan. Leading Adventure Pursuits the last five years, Abby doubled its revenue and expanded its impact to working with groups from Boston College, Harvard University, Veritas Forum, numerous local schools, the ROTC program and business corporations. She came to La Vida after spending seven years working with an adventure education retreat center called El Refugio located near Quito, Ecuador.

 

Nate Hausman, Director of Education and Program Development
Nate’s role has been expanded to Director of Education and Program Development, overseeing Discovery, looking for new opportunities to expand our educational opportunities at Gordon and abroad, such as a new partnership with Young Life. He will also be overseeing the leadership of several of our educational programs like Theology Matters. Nate has been directing the Adirondack Programs for 18 years and will be looking to hire someone to assist in the daily operations of base camp.


Sarah Shannon, Director of Adventure Pursuits
Sarah Shannon will replace Abby Stroven as the new Director of Adventure Pursuits in January, after serving as a part-time assistant director of Adventure Pursuits the last two years.

 

 

 


Bryn Clark, Director of Theology Matters
Bryn came to Gordon from the Seminary where he was directing the Compass Program. He now oversees the Theology Matters summer programs, consisting of Compass and Summit, while also working with the Chaplain on Equip.

 

 

 


Michael Hill, Director of Adventure Camp
Michael has served as Director of Adventure Camp since 2013 and will continue in his leadership of our summer program.

 

 

 


Kate McMillan, Office and Finance Manager
Kate will continue to serve as our Office and Finance Manager. Kate has been instrumental in managing our budgets and overseeing all purchasing and billing needs for our various programs.

 

 

 


Amber Hausman, Outdoor Education CORE and Marketing Coordinator
Amber has a new title that reflects some of the new responsibilities that have been added over the years. She oversees registration for our La Vida and Discovery courses and has taken on more with our social media and marketing needs.

 

 

We are excited for all that is in store for La Vida!

La Vida Center Spirit Day

We recently ran the second annual La Vida Center Spirit day at Gordon College to promote our Outdoor Education CORE programs: La Vida and Discovery. This year we convinced Professor Dan Johnson to do the Giant Swing outside of Frost and afterwards we opened up the element to students and staff. We introduced “La Vida Trivia” this year which was a big success. Students pulled questions out of a helmet, and if they answered it correctly they got to spin to win a prize- hats, stickers, t-shirts, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream! There seemed to be an overall excitement for the La Vida Center on campus that day which is what we were aiming for!  

A Tribute to Scott Dimock

by Rich Obenschain

This past summer, La Vida lost one of its founders, Scott Dimock, a long time advisory council member and great friend and mentor to Rich Obenschain who brought La Vida to Gordon College. Scott was one of those friends like Jonathan was to King David, who was gifted at helping friends discover their calling and encouraging them to use their gifts to serve God faithfully. Scott helped start Young Life in Northern Virginia in the 60’s and was one of the primary initiators of La Vida in 1970 as a wilderness discipleship program. He later helped Young Life develop the ministry to urban youth in Washington DC and mentored many Young Life leaders. Then in 1995 he was one of two men who founded the Southeast White House and DC Dream Center, a ministry seeking to inspire youth and adults to dare to dream, equipping them to reach their God-given potential.

On July 28th Steve Oliver and Rich traveled to Fairfax Station, Virginia for a Celebration of Life service and what a celebration of life it was. There were many testimonies of how Scott had impacted and encouraged the lives of a great many people in his 50 years of ministry. It is estimated that Scott helped to officiate over 100 wedding ceremonies (including Rich and Katherine’s) of those he had befriended and actively encouraged. Scott was especially helpful to Rich in the early 1980’s when La Vida was being closed down and did not have a home for two years. Scott was on the original advisory board who helped facilitate the move to Gordon College in 1982 to give La Vida a year-round base of operations. Thanks to Scott’s ability to connect and support those called to ministry, many thousands of young people have been impacted over the last 47 years.

 

 

Book Report: Where You’ll Find Me

Where You’ll Find Me
By: Ty Gagne
Book Report by: Bryn Clark

Wilderness adventure (and misadventure) narratives are a dime a dozen. Since the massive success Into Thin Air and its step-sibling Into the Wild it seems to me that a new saga is published each week. Many of them wouldn’t be of great interest to anyone outside the outdoor industry. But Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne breaks from this camp.

Kate Matrosova was an exceptionally capable and experienced mountain climber who went missing in the northern Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in February of 2015. What followed was a rescue effort that involved dozens of experienced emergency responders, a Black Hawk helicopter and a GPS-tracking Cessna. But none of these efforts were enough to save her.

In Where You’ll Find Me, Gagne chronicles the decisions that led to Kate’s misadventure and the rescue efforts that followed. Gagne’s appraisal of Matrosova’s last climb is thorough and insightful. At the same time, the narrative is not weighed down with unnecessary detail. Even though I knew Matrosova’s story going into the book, I was still gripped by the struggle and tension of the narrative.

Gagne’s take on the story is unique in his perspective and approach. Gagne is, by trade, a risk management consultant. As he tells Matrosova’s story, he outlines numerous factors and tools in the risk management process that show itself in the story. In doing so, Gagne extracts lessons from the processes that are at play not only in this scenario but also show themselves in many day-to-day activities and lines of work. You don’t need to be planning a winter climb up Washington to learn from this book.

That said, one of the things Gagne does very well is withheld judgment. This happens on two levels: he neither accuses nor defends Matrosova’s actions. Although Gagne alludes to the fact that, in tragedies such as this, criticism and accusations fly, Gagne never gives ear to these voices let alone adds any of his own. His depiction of what took place is gentle and respectful while at the same time not withholding details or trying to pretend like there weren’t missteps. In doing so, Gagne allows us to engage with the story on its level and to draw personal lessons accordingly.

Kate’s Matrosova’s story is a sad one. And there are many like it. But, when guided by Gagne’s insight and professional wisdom, there are lessons all of us can learn from one climber’s journey into the mountains. The book is worth it’s time for anyone who hopes to learn, not only from others’, but also from their own mistakes.