The sun is setting over Ninja Hill in the small town of Starksboro, the crickets are chirping their summertime symphony and the fireflies are dancing on top of the fresh Vermont grass. Eighteen anxious students scramble from their eco-friendly cabins with flash lights and journals in hand and march down the dusty rock path to the Hay Barn for the first official meeting of camp. The students enter the barn to find a blank white dry erase board surrounded by an inviting circle of purple yoga mats. The staff is huddled-up arm in arm, giggling on the side of the room with their matching mesh t-shirts. Anxiously the students situate themselves on the mats and wait for the meeting to begin. Silent questions such as “What are we going to do here?” “ Should I have brought an extra toothbrush?” “What if people don’t like me?” fill the room with a rigidity and stiffness.
Gently, the staff joins the students in the circle while one walks over to the dry erase board with a black marker and writes the question:
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
This is the essence of The Vermont Institute on Health and Wellness (VIHW), a unique two week camp that aims to help teenagers, from Vermont and beyond, to discover their authentic interests and support them in finding healthy ways to express themselves in the world. VIHW was founded in 2007, with its first summer program taking place in 2008 with a group of twelve students, and it has been growing steadily ever since. Participants learn about wellness, healing modalities, and self-health through workshops, experiential learning, group discussions, reflective journaling, and play. Student demand has not only led to the growth of the summer camp, but also to the creation of an autumn reunion for staff and students. A VIHW winter program is also in the works.
During the summer weeks spent at VIHW, campers contribute to the creation of a community – a space that fosters students’ transformation into their true, unique, and celebrated selves. Austen Erickson, one of VIHW’s graduates, writes of his experience as a member of the camp community:
Within this safe culture, I made close friends very fast, it was very special to connect with so many people in this way. I think that the most important thing that I learned while at VIHW is that being yourself is essential to being happy and healthy.
But how is this kind of transformational community created?
It begins with the staff. The staff is comprised of a diverse group of compassionate and committed individuals with training in fields such as yoga, conflict resolution and mediation, leadership, nutrition, life-coaching, massage therapy, theatre, and alternative medicine. This variety means students have all the more chances to step outside their comfort zones as they try new foods, new exercises, unfamiliar healing modalities, and novel activities for creative expression.
The staff creates a space, but the students are what shape it. The students practice breathing exercises, go on an herb-walk with a clinical herbalist, and learn how to find cooking ingredients in their own backyards. They practice Kripalu yoga, Acro-Yoga and Laughter Yoga – and they take dance and theatrical improvisation classes. They take a workshop on effective communication and conflict resolution and meditate with a Buddhist monk. They are pushed to their physical limit by a “Fit Rebel,” and then they take a workshop about healthy communities and community organizing! They share their unique gifts in a group talent show, and finish with a dance party.
Sound esoteric and weird? This incredibly diverse group of experiences create a fertile learning ground for the students to discover what they are truly interested and passionate about in the world. It opens the doors for the students to open their minds and hearts to create a life for themselves that aligns with their authentic passions and dreams.
Back in the chaos of school and life, I was able to be clear with myself as to what I wanted and what was best for me. I actually made some pretty big decisions for myself and have been more conscious as to how I treat other people, my body, and myself.
–Erickson, after returning home from VIHW.
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, sums it up nicely through his observation:
Once we have an experience, we are therefore unable to see the world as we did before.
The opportunity for this kind of experience is available for students at VIHW.
Authors: Dani Bois, Katie Sereika, Jen Taylor
Edited by Jeff Mandell, Director of the Vermont Institute on Health and Wellness