Lauren R. Stevens: From 53rd Street to Savoy Mountain and back, transformed

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour in this nation." Call the forests the most segregated place. Pretty much white. If you encounter a group of brown and black youth on a hike or in a canoe in these parts, chances are they're from the Manice Center.

They are inner city residents from New York, many from challenging, difficult environments, says Matt Scholl, program director at Manice. Christodora, the parent organization, works with the youth in the city schools in the winter. Spring and fall, students come to Florida in Western Mass. for three-day immersion programs, which have a three-year waiting list. In the summer they come for a week at a time.

Freedom to be kids

Although the dark woods of Savoy Mountain State Forest are a new experience to first year students, Scholl notes that Manice thinks through every moment from the time they get on a yellow school bus on 53rd Street until they return to their parents. After having come down the bumpy dirt drive in Florida they see the stars, often for the first time. It is eye-opening. They have the freedom to be kids and to explore.

Christodora began as a settlement house for immigrants in 1897, gradually focusing on providing city youth with a wilderness experience, first at a camp in northern New Jersey and, since 1981, at the 150 acres of the old Gamgemi camp in Florida, serving 850 students a year.

Manice teaches the three Rs: Respect, Responsibility and Risk — that is, the willingness to take positive risks, such as seven-day hiking trips on the Long Trail or canoeing on Somerset Reservoir.

"Our goal," says Scholl, "is to keep youth from sixth to 12th grade involved." Fifty to 70 percent of the students are with the program for four years. Students from the eight years Scholl has been there have gone on to Williams, Dartmouth and Amherst — and currently a graduate student in geology at RPI.

In camp they sleep in tents, with a solar shower nearby. Camp life revolves around the 1840s farm house, where they get three meals a day — unusual for many of them. They learn to tip over their canoes in the pond — and survive. Some of the older students work in the equipment room, converted from a horse barn, that outfits the trips.

"We strip away defensive behavior," Scholl says, providing tent mates with whom they bond; young adults assisting in the tents; and adults who are invested in them. Part of the stripping away is the lack of cellphone service and computers, which help teach their parents to let go.

The students are challenged and learn how to respond to challenges. "We say there's no such thing as bad weather," Scholl says, "only bad attitudes." They learn leadership skills beyond telling other people what to do. When they return to their schools they lead.

Conservation attitude

Manice reaches out to the Abbott Elementary School in Florida and works with area environmental groups. Part of its ecologically based program is community conservation work.

"We take trash bags with us in the woods and usually fill them," Scholl says. They help cut and maintain trails. When they return to New York, they take their conservation attitudes with them, working to clean up rivers and parks.

It turns out Berkshire woods are welcoming. Back in the city, "they count the minutes until they can return," according to Scholl.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.

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Stefan Lofven, Sweden's prime minister, after leaders from that nation, Germany and Slovenia decided to tighten borders and erect fences to address the influx of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. European Union leaders fear that the thousands of asylum-seekers will jeopardize the continent's cherished passport-free policy.


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