This is not your typical sit-back-and-relax counseling session.
With waves splashing up the sides of their yellow rafts, 10 youngsters wearing black wet suits and life jackets paddle down a swift and choppy Spokane River, laughing and smiling as they go.
For these young rafters, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, this is a day they’ll never forget. And Ryan Kerrigan, who helped organize this rafting trip, hopes it’s a day that will be a turning point in their lives.
This river adventure, lending brightness to an overcast day, is about learning life lessons, such as the importance of cooperation – and about simply having fun.
“Fun is a huge part of it,” says Mr. Kerrigan, founder of the nonprofit Peak 7 Adventures.
Eleven years ago, Kerrigan, drawing on his outdoor experiences from his childhood, got the idea of starting a life-changing, outdoor adventure ministry for youths in Washington State. Peak 7 was born.
Now, each year, the organization puts on about 70 rafting trips, at least that many overnight hikes through the woods, and one 53-day excursion through the Olympic Peninsula and Cascades. As they sit around the fire eating dinner, the conversations have an objective, a goal.
“How do you communicate to them that they’re worth something?” Kerrigan says. “That they’re valuable. That they have potential.”
Peak 7 aims to help youths grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The organization has a Christian footing, but it is open to youths regardless of their background, and there is not a “come to my church” expectation.
Skiler Hawk, who was one of the 10 youngsters rafting down the Spokane River recently, was excited about the trip. He couldn’t wait to get into the rafts and start paddling.
“It’s the exertion it gives,” Skiler says when asked what he likes about the experience. “Sometimes the water gives off an extra burst of speed. So it’s always fun.”
He calls himself an “adrenaline junkie.”
“I like doing the fun things that no one else will do,” Skiler says. “I like Peak 7. They’ve been very respectful and nice. They’re great.”
The adventure outreach has grown from serving 137 youths in 2006, when Peak 7 started, to 4,295 kids in 2016. Many of them are at-risk inner-city youths, ages 13 to 19.
‘I was just a weird kid’
Kerrigan can relate to the youngsters with problems.
“I was just a weird kid,” he says with a chuckle. “I remember thinking, ‘School is dumb. Why am I learning this?’ I didn’t apply myself.”
As the son of missionaries, Kerrigan lived in Kenya and Ecuador as a young child. He learned to love the great outdoors, climbing trees and chasing monkeys.
Then, 12 years ago, Kerrigan was working for a software company in Spokane, Wash. When the company moved to Seattle, he stayed in Spokane to pursue his outdoor vision.
“Some of these kids will never do this again,” Kerrigan says. “Like backpacking in the mountains. That one experience was huge for them.”
These physical challenges, whether belaying down a cliff or hiking, help youths come to an important realization: They discover “I can do this,” giving them confidence to face other challenges in their lives. Sometimes, in fact, other problems seem like nothing after what they overcame outdoors.
Kerrigan says he constantly hears from grateful parents, thanking him for the growth in their children.
And he recently ran into someone who went on a Peak 7 backpacking trip and had some good news to share. “He said, ‘I’m the first kid in my family to ever go to college,’ ” Kerrigan says. “That’s awesome.”
Alex Nycum joined Peak 7 in 2013 and is a program coordinator. As an experienced rock climber, he understands the importance of trust in the youths’ outdoor experiences.
“A big part of that trust aspect is what they’re learning through the different adventures,” Mr. Nycum says. “Through rafting, through rock climbing. Somebody is holding onto the other end of the rope. Trust is a very big part of it.”
Kevin Parker is a former state representative and teaches at Gonzaga University and Whitworth University, both in Spokane. He’s also a donor to Peak 7. “We have seen that lives are changed,” he says in a video testimonial. “We give to Peak 7 because this is an organization that changes lives in a unique way.”
For many of the participants, one of the biggest lessons they learn is about perseverance.
“The kids in this generation, when things get really tough, a lot of times their tendency is to give up,” says Austin Dannen, program manager for Peak 7. “For a lot of these kids, that’s been modeled to them by their parents.”
But out in the woods, there’s no easy escape.
“There’s no helicopter coming to take them out,” Mr. Dannen says. “There’s that sort of reality shift for them. There isn’t this easy way out. It’s just like in life.”
Dannen relates a story about a youth struggling on a coastal trail. The tide was out and they were walking on the beach.
“And one of the kids said he was done,” Dannen says. “He said this was more than he signed up for. It’s way harder. He wanted to quit.”
Dannen told him he couldn’t quit. The only escape was walking forward.
“I told him he couldn’t go backwards,” Dannen says. “The car has been driven to the front. He said he’ll just catch the bus. I said, ‘The bus is three miles through the rainforest that way.’ ”
When the teen realized there was no quitting, he blew up. “He had just been quitting his whole life,” Dannen says. “He just started to scream at the top of his lungs. And I said, ‘No, you have to continue.’ ”
A year later, Dannen says, he got an instant message from the teen.
“He said, ‘I wanted to quit, and you wouldn’t let me,’ ” Dannen says. “ ‘Thank you so much for that. I just graduated from high school today.’ Those kinds of things, those kinds of experiences make it special. We’re there with them – an adult who cares in this experience. Where they’re not allowed just to quit. I think that’s a huge part of it.”
• For more, visit peak7.org.
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