Finding Gratitude in the Wilderness

Each year during the holidays, our staffing teams strive to find unique ways to help our students accept their current time at Outback, mourn the loss of time with family and friends, honor themselves and those they cannot be with, and learn to still have a memorable and enjoyable holiday. The staff teams process and bond with the students while creating their own way of giving the students a holiday: scavenger hunts, snowball fights, snowman making, crafts, ceremonies, etc are all possibilities to help create a memory the students will never forget and one that they will even look back on fondly. The following is one story of how this has happened…

During my tenor as a Field Staff, I had the opportunity to work during the Thanksgiving holiday. As one can imagine, spending holidays away from family can be a challenging experience for the students and families. As students spend what, for most, is their first ever holiday away from home, how could we help to honor the Thanksgiving holiday, continue the clinical work, help the students accept not being with their families, and make a positive memory for the students? This was the challenge we had as we began the Thanksgiving week. To add to the challenge, at Outback, we want to surprise the students with the holiday feast.

We approached these challenges with a multitude of angles. The first part of the challenge was to help the students accept the holiday without their respective families while keeping the surprise. During the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we spent each day talking with the students individually and as a group.

We worked first on helping the students accept the simple truth: You will not be spending the holiday with your family. In essence, we worked with each student to grieve this unfortunate truth. As we spent the first part of the work giving space for the students to be angry, sad, and any other emotions they may be feeling. As the week went along, we had a group of students who, of course, would rather be home, yet had accepted that this Thanksgiving would be different. To be certain, this would be a Thanksgiving they would never forget.

Now that the students had reached a healthy point of acceptance, the next part was to get them to make this a good Thanksgiving. What could they do? What were they thankful for and how could they demonstrate that thanks. We spent the next day or two noting various things we were thankful for in each of our lives. Things such as “I am thankful I am here because I needed something” surprised us as a staff team. Other simple and core thanks such as “I am thankful for my family” or “I am thankful for my ability to work this program” poured from the students. Of course, fun and laughter is a part of the program and statements such as “I am thankful I can sing!” followed by a short song made everyone laugh and enjoy the small moments. Continuing along into things that they had lost and were gaining back came up such as “I am thankful I am good in math” or “I am thankful I can run fast and good at football” reminded them of skills many had walked away from before coming to Outback.

The evening before Thanksgiving, we talked by the campfire and studied the stars; we imagined our families looking at the same sky and discussed how our families must feel without us by their side.

By the time of Thanksgiving morning, we had a group of young men who could appreciate the simple gifts life offers and who appreciate their brothers, their sisters, and their parents. For some, this was the first time they had appreciated their parents and siblings in a long time. We did initiatives such as make simple crafts that represented their family and then put the crafts into the fire as a way to honor those relationships.

We had spent the week getting the students into a healthy mind-set and to the acceptance that Thanksgiving would be what we, as a group, made it. As we prepped for an epic Peak Hike (getting to the top of a mountain), our Field Director arrived with new winter boots and a surprise stack of donuts. As far as the students knew, this was all they would get. True appreciation for such a small gesture was magical to witness. Gratitude and grins, gratitude and grins was all we witnessed at this tiny gift. It was an honor to see the maturity in these young men.

Once we finished our breakfast donuts, it was time for the peak hike. Snow was on the ground as we hiked up the mountain and we reached the top in about three hours. At the top, we held a ceremony and reflected on our place in the world which seemed so much larger than us from the top of Red Pine Mountain. The entire group of students and staff slowed down our world for some solemn thoughts and discussions.

As we left the mountain, the only word to describe our experience was FUN, FUN, FUN. This mountain has a unique slope which allowed us to run, jump, and then sled down various portions of it in the snow. Our Thanksgiving had been full of REAL thanks and now sledding. We ran, we raced, we sled laughing throughout the descent.

We made it back to camp as the sun was setting and then it was time for the ultimate surprise. As we approached camp, we ensured the students happened to walk by the boxes. “What is that?” they asked. “I don’t know, take a look” we said. The students opened the boxes to find a large turkey, stuffing, corn, pumpkin pie, and whipped cream. Animals throughout the field must have run in fear at the loud screams and cheers coming from the students. The surprise had worked and the faces reminded us of how little five year old kids see the world; pure joy. Such joy, that one of the young men started to cry stating, “I really did not think we would have this, I really had accepted and been OK with this day, and I really cannot believe how awesome this is!”

We cooked up our feast and ate for a solid couple of hours. We laughed, we honored our family not with us, and we appreciated each other. We could not finish our food and had to save some for breakfast the next day; YES, we had Thanksgiving leftovers.

The holidays are always tough when we cannot be with our family and friends; that is a simple truth. When we cannot be with family and friends for the holidays, the holidays become what we make them. These young men made the most of their Thanksgiving holiday.

Eternal Sky Has Spoken and Been Heard

Aries M. McGinnis, MA, ACMHCAries McGinnis - Field director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions


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Outback Therapeutic Expeditions is continuing to support families through this unprecedented time. We are closely monitoring information related to COVID-19, adhering to recommendations set forth by CDC, and have implemented additional safety precautions to mitigate risks. To learn more, contact us at 800-817-1899.