I thrive on challenge. I seek it out. Celebrate it. And teach others to do the same. I firmly believe in the growth that can come from stepping outside the all too familiar boxes people operate within on a daily basis.

And my job jibes with that passion.

As the Telluride Academy’s program director, part of what I do is establish an arena in which young people are able to experience and experiment with actual and perceived comfort levels. That happens through their participation in a long list of activities that test physical and mental capabilities: a young person may challenge new heights rock climbing; pedal a mountain bike for more miles than he thought he could; or summit an intimidating mountain peak. Kids may conquer stage fright performing under the Big Top or spend their first night in a regular tent, but with new (and sometimes strange) friends. I believe in my work because it gives me the privilege to witness firsthand the growth young people achieve when they face adversity and find within themselves the strength to overcome something that at first seemed impossible or undesirable. They problem solve. They process. And more often than not, they conquer. Those are just some of the big reasons I do what I do.

Recently, however, the concept of “challenge” took on a new meaning. And it did not involve heights, rocks, rivers, or scary nights in a tent.

The Telluride Academy’s long-standing wilderness-based program is designed to give older Academy participants an opportunity to challenge themselves through a variety of outdoor activities, service-learning projects, and general adventure programming. The purpose of these initiatives is to encourage growth within individual participants, as well as within the culture of the group as a whole, accomplished in part by breaking down previously existing personal and group barriers.

This past summer, several local female Hispanics who had participated in that program in past years attended what was for them a “grand finale.” The idea was to get certified in First Aid and CPR, climb to intimidating heights on cliff faces, trek into the back-country, and kayak wild rivers. However, for this particular group, the greatest hurdle proved not to be physical. It was cultural.

As part of the initiative, at night instructors would gather everyone around the fire for reflection or “Intense Conversations” as the students came to call those chats. As it evolved, the opportunities for reflection those talks provided allowed the young women to safely and sincerely find their voices regarding the sensitive and emotionally-charged issue of the segregation they feel in the school environment.

Over the course of two intense weeks, the combination of physical challenges by day and those evening discussions, opened the door for these particular teens to begin to break down some of the preconceived barriers they had constructed over the years. Through honest dialogue, engaging the group as a whole, they were also able to sustain conversations about sensitive issues of race and culture. In a vast and wild setting, that geographically, culturally and economically diverse bunch enjoyed truly life-changing conversations. Soon everyone began eagerly requesting more reflective moments as they became increasingly comfortable with one another, eventually going so far as to describe themselves as a “family.”

While the Telluride Academy is known for our menu of unique outdoor adventures, this particular experience reminded me that sometimes the greatest challenges our students face (and ususally overcome) are not physical. Some challenges resonate in their world on a deeply personal and emotional level, providing opportunities for growth not just the individual, but for the entire world.

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