The Ed Centre students returned weekly to their moss-covered classroom in the Eastern Hillsides.
Guided by Outdoor Education teacher Caelah Merrick from the Chilliwack Education Centre, the teens were carving out the main trail in the newly opened Lewx Qwò:m Park off Hack-Brown Road.
“My students feel empowered and proud of all the hard work they have put in,” Merrick said.
The group of outdoor ed students have been hiking up gnarly mountainsides with gear for the past three years. They schlepped buckets of crushed rock, shovels, and rakes up and down the hill, all with an eye to creating a great new hiking and downhill biking trail for the community.
Now the pathways are clear and the gravel is down in their forested classroom.
This is “place-based” learning, the teacher explained, where the kids are learning by doing.
“The goal is to cultivate a love for the outdoors, offer wilderness place-based classes towards their graduation, and offer students a new activity to release stress,” Merrick said.
(Video by Jenna Hauck)
Developing the new loop trail, which links two old drinking-water structures at Nevin and Dunville creeks, and leads up to the Community Forest, has been a significant undertaking for the group. It has taken whole-hearted passion, physical exertion, and single-minded focus.
Merrick said the students have been on remote hikes, snow-showing trips, and other forest activities that required them in some instances to “read the terrain.” They had some basic avalanche training too, where they employed trigonometry skills, like calculating the sine or cosine of a triangle.
These are students who may have faced extraordinary challenges with academics when they had to attend classes in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom.
Overall, they have gained new skills, but also a sense of responsibility, and pride in a job well done.
“Hard work in the forest is good for developing both body and mind,” offered Marc Greidanus of the Chilliwack Park Society, who’s been coordinating the volunteer efforts in the linked network of trails.
Making the trail work part of their curriculum feeds the young people’s desire to take on responsibility and earn respect.
“Giving them the opportunity to make their own decisions around trail construction and drainage, and bringing them back week after week, allows them to feel dependable and to be viewed as such,” Greidanus noted.
“The fact that their exercise in the forest is facilitating an outdoor experience for others, adds a level of satisfaction to a physically difficult task.”
The young people were also a lot of fun to be around, Greidanus added. Some volunteers asked to put in shifts when the kids were trail-building.
Along with the new skills they acquired, there was also a “huge emphasis” on providing social and emotional support, Merrick underlined. The kids were encouraged to share their feelings while in the circle, or by recording details in the journals they’re writing.
Many students faced difficulties. Some struggled with drugs, skipping school or other behavioural issues. Others had to deal with homelessness and poverty.
“They shared some pretty heavy-duty stories at times,” Merrick noted.
The direct teaching method allowed Ed Centre staff to gauge the best way to support the students, as they learned.
“When they’re out in the wilderness carrying a bucket, learning real-life skills, they just open up on the trail,” he said.
Now the Ed Centre is embarking on a fundraising campaign to offer a scholarship, in cooperation with Mt. Waddington’s Outdoors.
“The store is donating $500 to the scholarship, and we are trying to raise another $500,” said Merrick. “We want to give two students that have shown leadership qualities throughout the year a scholarship.”
It’s not for classroom gear per se, since the Chilliwack School District has been very supportive of the Ed Centre program.
“The school is the only Outdoor Education program in the district that provides all the gear and clothing needed,” said Merrick. That’s key since many students may not be able to afford the gear when classes end. Many still want get back into the great outdoors after they graduate, but may lack the funds to make that happen.
To donate to the Outdoor Education scholarship, call the Ed Centre at 604-792-9277 and talk to Cathy, or leave a message in the general mailbox.