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 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!

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.

 

 

La Vida Center Summer Update

Adventure Pursuits:

This summer was a busy one for Adventure Pursuits. From April through August, we welcomed over 30 groups to our challenge course on campus and over 2200 people! We had a few groups return for annual visits including the National Student Leadership Conference from Harvard University, Boston College’s Leadership Class, Boston College’s Summer Management Class, Boston Fellows and Christian Heritage School. We also welcomed some new groups this summer – On Belay, Ipswich Middle School, Elevate New England and Bethany Covenant Church. Many thanks to Brian Schonewald, McKenna Allen, Zach Hanna and the rest of our staff for helping us welcome these groups to La Vida during the summer months. We couldn’t have done it without you all!

Compass:

This summer, La Vida hosted the 17th Compass Program. During the month of July, students from across the country backpacked with La Vida’s Adirondack Program, studied theology with Gordon professors and journeyed to Iceland for a week of service and learning. This was the program’s second year in Iceland where we lived and worked in the capital city of Reykjavik. Compass partnered with the Salvation Army to host a day camp for low-income, immigrant and refugee children. The experience was ripe with challenges and rewards; multiple language barriers meant communication was limited, yet smiles and laughter abounded through even the rainiest, most Icelandic of days. It wasn’t just the children who were impacted. “Compass has truly been a life-changing experience,” one student reflected. We are already planning for our 2018 summer program, which will include a further ministry in Iceland.

Summit:

In August, La Vida hosted the inaugural cohort of the Summit Study Center. For three weeks, five students lived at the La Vida basecamp in Lake Clear, New York. During this time, students attended theology classes with Dr. Amy Hughes of Gordon’s Biblical Studies department. The class, titled “An Introduction to Theological Reflection,” challenged students to prepare for their upcoming college experiences through practical engagement with their Christian faith. Discussion topics ranged from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the theology of top-40 pop songs. Following the course completion, students embarked on a backpacking trip through the Adirondack wilderness. Their itinerary consisted of multiple tangible summits, while the small community continued to grow and support one another into their next chapter.

Adventure Camp:

Like many of you, we had a very hot summer here in Wenham, and instead of wilting, Adventure Camp managed to thrive this summer. We had 620 campers fill 675 spaces. That pushes us past 5,000 campers in the last 10 years! While the majority of our campers come from nearby towns, this year we had campers from Maine, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and even as far away as Puerto Rico and China!

While our campers were fantastic, none of this would be possible without our incredible staff and high school volunteers (CITs). Two-thirds of our 33 summer staff were experienced veterans of Adventure Camp, but our new staff came with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and really stepped up to the challenge. Just over half of our 16 CITs led for the first time this summer, but several came after spending years at Adventure Camp and they all brought a LOT to the table!

We had the opportunity to showcase staff and CITs as we put on skits, led activities, and had group discussions around the summer theme – Make A Difference. We hope campers continue to use the lessons they learned from Adventure Camp to Make A Difference in the lives of the people around them throughout the year.

Adirondack Expeditions:

The Adirondack program not only had a lot going on in the woods and along the ponds, but also kept very busy around the base camp property. For those who have either served on the ADK staff or have participated on a La Vida trip, you know how critical the staff members are for making trips run well, but also to ensure they have deep impact on a participant’s life. This past summer’s staff was a phenomenal example of what servant-leadership should look like and how communal living is one of the best ways to worship God and experience His Creation. There were over forty total staff members who served at some point during the summer months, many of them for the first time ever. We also experience a large contingent of staff who were not current Gordon students or alumni.

This was the first summer in several years that every Sherpa was able to head out onto a trip every session. A few of the many highlights associated with those who participated are: the Covenant Christian Academy junior class did a week-long backpacking expedition in May using the trip as a fundraiser for a local non-profit organization. This was the second time this class has visited the base camp (they came before the start of their freshmen year). Capital District Young Life (Albany, NY) brought two separate groups. This trip has marked the beginning of renewed efforts to get Young Life and La Vida partnered again. The trips were hugely successful and that area is already thinking about next summer’s plans to return. We were also able to expand our Adirondack Leadership Program trips into August. That program continues to grow and has become one of our primary focuses for enrollment growth.

After celebrating twenty years of ministry at the base camp in 1996, we entered the next twenty years with a continued focus on improving the property. The back of the office was gutted down to the studs and dirt floor in preparation for new floor joists and flooring as well as pine v-groove wall coverings. Our medical training was able to use that new space this past June and all visitors commented multiple times on how nice the space was. Many of the buildings received new entry stairs and porches and the Algonquin building received final permit approval for the planned remodel. Work is now underway to prep that space for the Summit program in 2018.

The base camp office was gutted in August 2016

The office can now be used for meetings and classroom space.

 

One of the Capital District YoungLife groups

La Vida in China Continues

La Vida has continued their partnership this year with The Hutong and Concordia International School of Shanghai by offering the second La Vida trip as part of Concordia’s educational travel component. This year the trip was led by Joel Cox ’16 who has served the La Vida Center in various capacities. He has led our summer Adirondack Expeditions, facilitated at the Challenge Course, taught Discovery, and given rock climbing lessons in our rock gym. We were very excited when he accepted the offer to lead this trip in China! He led alongside Simon and Jun who are trip guides with The Hutong.

Joel sent us a few quick thoughts as he wrapped up the trip. Here’s what he had to say:

“I’m back in Beijing after a week in the woods. There’s a ton to cover with the trip, but I’ll keep it to a few specific ideas. 

The haphazardness of China: The first morning here I explored the city with Jun and Simon. Almost everything I saw was so different than anything I’ve seen in Europe or the US. I would try to point it all out to Jun and Simon but they were used to it and didn’t seem that phased. I saw a guy with a spear and a cow bell walking down the road. The driving here makes Massachusetts look like a peaceful suburb. People pass you with just inches to spare. We rented bikes and cruised around, dodging huge buses, people, motobikes, rickshaw contraptions, and policemen. It felt like Frogger in real life. People in the park were playing a Chinese stringed instrument. One young girl wore a shirt that said, “Beneath this mustache lies a handsome man”. I loved just watching that somehow everything in the city works despite the seeming chaos. So cool!

This trip was challenging in that with typical La Vida trips, I’m able to have a good amount of control over the trip itinerary and the lessons as well. But this time, since I didn’t know the area, I had to defer to Simon and Jun’s judgment as to how best handle the actual trip logistics. I ended up settling in to a role of trying to have one-on-one interactions with all the students and also teach the La Vida curriculum lessons and devos as best I could. That was an awesome challenge and humbled me as well. I was pretty dependent on Simon and Jun’s knowledge and would have struggled without their guidance on the trail. There are no real trail maps of the mountains we were in, so I had to trust the other guides. With that being said, I loved being able to lead devo times with the students, especially with the beautiful backdrop of the Chinese mountains. The students were pretty responsive even though they came from a wide-range of religious backgrounds.

This trip really reinforced the idea that third culture kids are incredibly adaptable. All of these students were some type of TCK, and they seemed incredibly relaxed about anything that happened during the trip. Some wild donkeys visited while the kids were doing their solos, and they just would pet the donkeys and then move on. I never had to wake them up, they would just get up with the sun, start cooking breakfast and pack up camp without being told. They could push themselves on the hike, and I never heard any of them complain. Watching them, I was able to think more about being a missionary kid and how that has deeply shaped how I operate. I often want to ignore it and act as if I’m like any other American, but I think interacting with these students helped me accept more of how international experience is part of my identity.”

Joel is now off to Nepal to take part in a 40-day wilderness leader training. He will return to the North Shore after that, and we hope to see his continued involvement in the La Vida programs.

La Vida ADK Staff Give Back to the DEC

Story by: Amber Hausman
Photos by: Sara Golden

La Vida has developed a longstanding relationship with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) over the years. We are big users of the Adirondack State Park, so when the opportunity arises, we like to give back by partnering with the DEC to preserve the wilderness. In June, our summer staff visited Catamount Mountain in Black Brook, NY and helped to build a bridge in an area that needed trail maintenance.

The work crew started about half a mile from the trailhead where the work truck was and then carried multiple boards and logs from the truck to the bridge area, another half mile. They also had to move a few small boulders to help support the bridge.

This group worked hard and had a lot of fun in the process!

We are blessed to have a strong relationship with the Rangers. Shortly after this service project, we had the Rangers over to the the base camp for our annual Ranger Breakfast. This was a great opportunity for our Sherpas to interact with the Rangers in a smaller setting and ask questions about their role in the park. La Vida hopes to continue this friendship for years to come!