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Where the Wild Things Are Inspiring

Venture Trust communications officer Neil Ratley ventures into the wilderness with the Inspiring Young Futures programme.

“I want to move out of supported housing and live in a flat of my own.”

“I want to get more confident so I can get a job.”

"I want to be able to provide a future for my kids.”

These are the dreams and aspirations for some of the young people participating in Venture Trust’s Inspiring Young Futures programme.

For many of us fortunate enough to have enjoyed a safe and secure upbringing with support and guidance from our family and loved ones, these dreams don’t seem out of the ordinary or out of reach as we move into adulthood. But when you have grown up without security, stability and support, dreams can seem just that.

The young people (16-21) taking part in the Inspiring Young Futures programme are often dealing with one or more of the following: poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, poor family relationships, mental health issues, learning, housing issues and involvement with the criminal justice system. The majority also have had little or no work experience. However, this does not mean they don’t have the ability to make changes to their lives and achieve their goals and their dreams. They just need the support and opportunity and to be offered the chance to see themselves differently.

The programme - funded by The Big Lottery Fund, the Scottish Government, the European Social Fund and Inspiring Scotland - aims to help disengaged young people, to develop sustainable lifestyles and reach a point where they can apply and get a job, engage in education, training and volunteering. The programme consists of community-based support both prior to, and after, a wilderness journey, all aimed at helping participants to develop the skills necessary to work towards those positive destinations.

I have just spent a week camping, hiking and taking part in personal development activities in the wilds of Scotland with a group of participants and staff as part of the wilderness journey phase for the programme.

The “Beast from the East” – an artic weather bomb - has gripped Scotland in its frozen embrace of snow, ice and blizzards. But with a slight slackening of the icy grasp, five young people from the suburbs of Glasgow, are braving the elements and challenging themselves to gain the skills that will enable them to change their futures in the hills above Loch Rannoch.

The frozen ground, pine trees, and toilet shovel are a far cry from the suburbs they come from. It’s with a mix of wide-eyed bewilderment, fear and for some excitement when they are told the small snow-covered tents will be their home for the next few nights.

Earlier that morning the Venture Trust development team had gathered at Stirling railway station to meet the individuals arriving on the Glasgow train. It was a grey day, a constant drizzle was falling and five young people all with their hoodies drawn up shuffled along the platform. Confidence and self-esteem are often in short supply for those engaging with Venture Trust.

Phase 2 of the programme – the wilderness journey – starts with a group meeting at Venture Trust’s base on the outskirts of Stirling. It’s where introductions are made and the participants discuss and draw up conditions for the course with the aim to create a ‘safe space’ for themselves and staff. Things like a ‘social contract’ for the group and ‘conditions of attendance’ are reinforced and agreed upon. These ground rules come from the group, rather than being a set of rules forced upon them. Combined with the choice to remain or leave, an element of ownership is given to the group, encouraging responsibility and appropriate behaviour.

Initially it takes coaxing from the team to get responses and contributions from the members of the group while they continue to adapt to their new surroundings and the people they will spending the next week with.

The next task elicits a much more profound reaction. Each young person is asked to say goodbye to their mobile phones for the duration of the weeklong journey.

This is the start of the process to leave behind the distractions from home and the environment that makes it so hard to break out of their current cycle. The lack of familiar distractions (TV, computers, phones etc.) provides space to think and relax.

As night approaches at base camp, the first real task for survival is cooking food in the freezing conditions. On the first night, this involves boiling water and cooking pasta. The staff have pre-prepared the Spaghetti bolognaise but for the rest of the journey each person will have to carry and cook their own meals.

I’m given my trangia stove, cooking pots and a fistful of pasta. Helen, one of the development team members, takes us through the process of setting up and using our stoves. Tasks like this, along with setting up tents, effectively using the clothing and equipment we are issued are aligned to Experiential Learning.

The wilderness provides a great setting for experiential learning - ‘learning through reflection on doing’. After being shown how to do something, participants need to self-evaluate the effectiveness of their own actions in future. None of us starve and the “Beast’s” bite seems less intense with a belly full of hot pasta. Before crawling into the tents for the night, we go for a short walk and then return for a group session working on some personal development skills. There is also a call to fill various roles – camp leader, navigator, time-keeper, energizer, morning meeting and end of day review facilitators.

It’s sleeting and close to zero degrees when we are woken early the next morning by the expedition and development team. The smell of bacon is wafting on the fog. For some it’s been a tough initiation to sleeping in the outdoors. But after surviving their first night in the wilderness together, there is also the first real signs the group coming to accept and respect each other as individuals. These early morning calls will help prepare individuals for establishing a routine back home to get to work, college or training.

Each day starts with a group meeting and those with morning roles fulfil their obligations or lead the sessions. Themes for the day and goals are agreed and established. This is followed by a team building exercise before the participants engage in a one-to-one meeting or small group session with an allocated development worker.

As the sleet slowly turns to rain, the order comes to break camp. We are given a demonstration of how to take down our tent, roll away our sleeping bag and pack our backpack. There is a mix of silent stoicism from some participants under the strain, others bear a grimace of glum acceptance and from others there are complaints about the burden they are being asked to carry.

After several hours of trekking we take shelter under the creaking bows of the Caledonian pines. The soft green moss and pine needles are a comfortable seat to rest weary legs.

When it’s time to get moving, it’s difficult going. The snow lies thick on the ground, at times the path climbs steeply up among the trees and it’s cold. The worst of the “Beast from the East” may have passed but there is still a whip in its tail. The hardships these young people are facing now and the learning and development strategies they are being asked to complete in the wild will help them back in their communities and in the face of the challenges waiting back home.

Individuals work on skills such as establishing trust, personal boundaries, consequential thinking, problem solving, dealing with challenging situations, and responsibility and accountability. Each participant is supported to design an individual 'action plan' for their future, ensuring they can continue on their personal journey when they return to their community.

With the whiteout turning to a murky darkness and temperatures plummeting we find a clearing above a stream to set up camp. The deep snow means we need to dig out an area to pitch out tents. Armed with the skills we have already learnt we work fast to put up our shelters before cooking a warm meal and completing more activities.

It’s another frozen start to the day. But spirits in the camp seem buoyant. There is a sense of pride and determination among the young participants. They’ve survived an overnight blizzard and whatever creature left its strange footprints in the snow. In the morning meeting, new goals are set and there is encouragement and animated discussions between individuals. A far cry from the silence and reluctance to talk to each other on the first day.

On the banks of a small stream deep in the Black Wood of Rannoch our expedition stops for lunch. The wilderness journey is drawing to a close. The development team members gather the troops together and hand them each a sheet of paper. Armed with their parchments, they are sent off to read the sheet in private. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

There is a sparkle in the eyes each individual, a smile on their lips and a visible puff of pride in their stance and demeanour. For some the sparkle turns to tears and there is a slight quiver on their lips. These are tears and quivers of pride resulting from the positive praise they have just received. For many young people who participate in the programme this kind of praise, the receiving of compliments or encouragement has been very rare or non-existent in their lives.

Descending from the higher ground along a gorge towards the shore of Loch Rannoch, the sun escapes from clouds. The light dapples through the branches of ancient pines and reflects off the moss on the forest floor. The complaining heard from many at the start of the journey is gone. There is chatter in the air, laughing and words of support for each other.

The wilderness is a catalyst for change.

Each participant will be supported to design an 'action plan' for their future, ensuring they can continue on their personal journey when they return to their community. Here, they will continue to be supported through regular meetings with Venture Trust's outreach teams. The outreach teams help participants continue to develop and apply their new skills, access other specialist support services, and work towards employment, training, education or voluntary work. Each one of the young people I shared this journey with has a greater chance to make and sustain positive changes in their lives.

“I want to move out of supported housing and live in a flat of my own.”

“I want to get more confident so I can get a job.”

"I want to be able to provide a future for my kids.”

With hard work and support from Venture Trust and our partners, these dreams can become a reality for many young people who thought they were out of reach.

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