Enrico Saunders was already struggling academically at David Thompson secondary school when an injury and subsequent surgery took him out of the classroom for half a year.
After his family found school administrators to be unsympathetic to his plight, his sister told him about the Vancouver school board’s Take a Hike Program. He enrolled in the senior alternative-education program, located at John Oliver secondary school, and graduated in 2013.
“They helped me catch up,” Saunders, who is now 20 years old and a criminal-justice student at Langara College, told the Georgia Straight by phone from his South Vancouver home. “When I went to Take a Hike, that’s when my life started getting better again. They had so much support.”
Aimed at students who are 15 to 18 years old and in grades 10 to 12 who are having difficulty in the mainstream school system, the Take a Hike Program combines academics with outdoor activities, therapy, and community volunteering. Made possible by the support of the Vancouver-based Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation, the program started up in Vancouver in 2000, expanded to West Kootenay in 2013 and Burnaby in 2014, and is now looking to spread across Canada.
The Take a Hike Program at John Oliver features two classes of 18 students each. The school board employs its two teachers, two youth-and-family workers, and one adventure-based-learning specialist, while the foundation pays for two therapists.
Meghan McCann, the adventure-based-learning specialist, told the Straight there are many reasons why students are “falling through the cracks and getting left behind” at mainstream schools. The program accepts students—mostly from East Vancouver but also from as far away as Delta and North Vancouver—with academic, behavioural, legal, psychological, and social challenges and offers them a second chance, she noted.
According to McCann, some Take a Hike students suffer from depression and anxiety, and others have “tumultuous home lives” or have gotten kicked out of school. She asserted that the program is a “community of learning” that transforms students’ perceptions of themselves and their place in the education system.
“When students typically come to Take a Hike, they have a lot of resistance,” McCann said in her kayak-filled office within Take a Hike’s portable building at John Oliver. “There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of just negative associations with school, with other people, with authority, with teachers, and what I really like to see during their time at Take a Hike is those walls start to come down.”
Students spend three-and-a-half days a week in the classroom—receiving academic lessons, hearing from guest speakers, practising yoga, and working on assignments at their own pace. Two hours a week are devoted to volunteer work. Finally, one day a week is spent doing outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, trail running, and urban cycling.
As well, students and staff go on three multiday backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, or snowshoeing expeditions per year. In January, a hiking trip to Garibaldi Provincial Park saw students spend three nights at Elfin Lakes (one night in tents, another in snow shelters, and the last in a cabin).
On outings, students are taught academic lessons in an experiential manner, McCann noted. For instance, math is used in map-and-compass navigation. At Elfin Lakes, students were directed to look at the night sky with binoculars, identify Orion, and observe and explain the differences in colour among the stars in that constellation.
McCann holds a bachelor’s degree in outdoor, ecological, and experiential education from Lakehead University, and she’s working on a master’s degree in environmental education and communication at Royal Roads University. Having dealt with her own behavioural challenges growing up, she said she would like to see more outdoor education taking place in the school system. (The Streetfront junior alternative program at Britannia secondary school and the TREK Grade 10 enrichment program at Prince of Wales secondary school also incorporate outdoor activities into their curriculum.)
“I can recall how, for me, going into the wilderness was really healing and was really, really life-changing,” McCann said. “So, for me, being able to facilitate this process for other young people, it fills me with so much joy and so much inspiration to know that I’m making a difference in the lives of every single one of these students.”
According to Matthew Coyne, CEO of the Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation, the program has had more than 400 students since its inception and boasts an 80-percent graduation rate. The New Westminster resident told the Straight it costs the registered charity approximately $120,000 to support each class of up to 22 students. That money pays for a therapist, outdoor activities, equipment, transportation, and a meal program.
For the 2012–13 fiscal year, the foundation reported $549,711 in revenue and $430,361 in expenses. Seventy-six percent of expenses was for its charitable program, with 24 percent paid for management and administration. The foundation relies on private donations from individuals, corporations, and other foundations and is always looking for volunteers, Coyne said.
On February 26, the foundation will hold its ninth annual Moonlight Snowshoe at Mount Seymour. Coyne noted the fundraising event offers supporters a “snapshot into a student experience”.
“It’s a great way for our participants in the event to meet our students,” Coyne said by phone from the foundation’s office in downtown Vancouver. “Our students are there volunteering and help set up and run the event. While they’re there, they get to hear some of the personal success stories from our students that have been involved in the program.”
Pete Prediger, a therapist with Take a Hike in Vancouver, told the Straight the program helps students learn who they can trust and to build a strong work ethic. According to the South Surrey resident, the students work through their fears on the outdoor expeditions.
“I think they start to experience a part of themselves that they haven’t before—just as far as feeling a lot more alive when they’re out there,” Prediger said in Take a Hike’s portable building. “They’re able to step out of whatever the stress is and look in on it instead of always just being in it.”
Saunders credits the Take a Hike Program with helping him to become a “strong, independent” individual. After he earns a diploma in criminal justice, he hopes to become a parole or probation officer.
The Langara student said he misses going on Take a Hike outings. A multiday canoe circuit in Bowron Lake Provincial Park was one particularly memorable trip.
“We would canoe, then we would portage,” Saunders said. “It was, like, 10 days of sun. It was so beautiful. Holy, I remember that trip. We saw moose, eagles, everything.”
The Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation holds its Moonlight Snowshoe event at Mount Seymour on February 26. For more info, visit www.takeahikefoundation.org.