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When I entered my 7th grade year I was a Girl Scout, a dog-lover, and an unpopular “teacher’s pet”. As the year progressed I quit girl scouts because it wasn’t adventurous enough, one of my dogs died of cancer, and I still didn’t have any friends. In her search for something exciting for me to do during the summer, my concerned mother stumbled upon Northwaters. I attended a two-week all-girls program, fell almost instantly in love with the land, and promised myself I would work at Northwaters one day. I came home a much changed and happier person.

Adventurous and socially outcast at 13, the opportunity to step outside my insular Waldorf class and learn what I was capable of both socially and physically was a great gift. I made friends, one-match fires, and carried a canoe. My self-esteem shot up as I realized that the unhappiness I felt in my home life was only one version of how my life could be and I had the power to make it better.

Coming North for the summer gave me a sense of agency I didn’t feel at home, being on the land allowed me to gain confidence in my ability to survive, both physically and emotionally. I learned that I had more skills than I had previously known and that the land would ultimately take care of me. I adventured with leaders that showed their care by addressing social issues and conflicts in the group as well as spending time with each of us individually getting to know us and sharing who they were. Spending my summers with adults outside of my family who actively cared about me shaped my middle and high school experience into something more empowering than painful.

Each summer I grew more into the best version of myself: I remained a dog-lover, but the Girl Scout became a bold adventurer and the lonely teenager became a centered and confident young woman who made deep and lasting friendships. By the time I finished high school, I was looking forward to my first year working at Northwaters. I had come through on the promise I had made myself at 13.

That first year on staff I discovered that the supportive environment established by the leaders on my trips was no accident. Trip leaders and assistants are taught how to lead with the intention to support, challenge, and empower the youth in their care. I was asked to observe the students on my trips closely and make decisions with group development goals in mind.

Intentional leadership empowers youth to be responsible and autonomous; empowered participants learn from the natural consequences of their actions and think critically about how their behavior impacts the group. Many outdoor experiences positively impact young people but this highly engaged, authentic leadership is what sets Northwaters apart from other kinds of outdoor experiences and what has kept me involved for so long.

My Waldorf background has given me a different perspective throughout my career at Northwaters. As a participant I noticed a difference between my approach to learning and that of other participants. I would see some of my peers struggle to try new things, figuring that if they didn’t already know how to do something; they couldn’t learn or be good at it. I was often frustrated with others who wouldn’t try because I didn’t understand how anyone could be so defeated. Looking back, I see that I had a somewhat sheltered view of what education looks like outside of a Waldorf school.

From a leadership perspective, I observe that Waldorf students intuitively understand how their body’s work in the world and are therefore more comfortable making the leap of faith to try a new skill and to master it. They rarely feel defeated before trying something new and they are willing to persist. In our work with 8th grade classes from nearby Waldorf schools, I often see the students pick up skills and teach each other with an openness and enthusiasm that is truly beautiful.

During my eleven summers at Northwaters, I have experienced intentional leadership from both sides, I have been profoundly changed, and I have been given the gift of a deep connection with the land. The 13 year-old in me still looks in amazement to a clear starry sky reflected in a calm lake. The 18 year-old in me still feels honored to have been accepted for hire in such an amazing organization. I am still grateful to the leaders and peers on my trips for holding the mirror up to my behavior and allowing me the chance to grow and change. These days, as I work with young people in my groups, I appreciate the opportunity to create the space for them to grow and change in the wilderness I love.

Liz Levy, Participant 2003-07, Trip Leader 2008-2018, Portland Waldorf School Graduate