Outward Bound California (OBCA) summer students experienced a season like no other. Courses, once opened for 2021 enrollment, filled in record time. People were ready to get outside and be with others, and Outward Bound does both of these things very well. Those that made it off the waitlist met their crew, masked at the airport and with negative COVID tests. Students expressed worry of leaving their homes after quarantine in their applications and on the phone when they spoke to the OBCA Student Services team. An Outward Bound course is the exact opposite of isolation and quarantine, it is based on life in community, even on the shortest courses. Something that would take some getting used to again for many.
Gray, who attended a 14 day rock climbing and backpacking course this summer, attended school online for most of the school year, then returned masked in Spring 2021. They found a sense of community and acceptance in their OBCA group that had been hard to find during COVID. For many students, the constant digital communication was a coping mechanism and also a basic necessity to attend classes. Like Gray, their OBCA course was the first reintroduction to a group and a social environment with new peers in person.
Gray’s nervousness and excitement was amplified. “I hadn’t been in person with people for a while, I was excited to meet new people and have a normal outdoor experience with them, existing with people in a world separate from COVID. I was also anxious because it had been so long, so it was nerve wracking to go back to something normal.”
Gray’s course remained masked and socially distanced until the morning of day 7, when they all tested negative for COVID for the second time. “It was really nice to get to see people’s whole faces! I really enjoyed being able to be done with COVID precautions.” Each course was different, depending on vaccinations and comfort levels, but most courses had at least 5 days masked and socially distanced.
All summer long, Outward Bound courses have been a cure to the loneliness and disconnection of 18 months behind a screen. Highly trained educators work with students in small groups, 6 students to every instructor, establishing a sense of self, building confidence, communication and leadership skills with every step and every backcountry meal. For some students, it was the medicine needed for a lonely year, others struggled to find their way back from the uncertainty, anxiety and homesickness in this new and strange time. A New York Times article, titled: ‘Are the Kids All Right? Ask the Camp Directors’ sums it up poignantly: ‘Summer camp in the middle of a pandemic has been a tech-free, joyous balm for some. For others, though, it’s a pit of anxiety.’
On our summer courses, a pod of strangers live together, cook together, hike together, swim together, climb together. They even share a poop kit to dispose of waste in the backcountry that consists of a trowel, hand sani and tp. So even in an average year, the constant contact and lack of privacy can be challenging.
Cal McKnight, High Sierra Program Manager, noted how understandable that is when students who were with their families all year, now found themselves with folks they didn’t know at all. And the digital connection that had been so accessible was no longer available. With younger students, there were more pronounced differences than in years past. More eagerness and more homesickness.
Cal also said that the Instructor staff came into the season knowing that Outward Bound programs are needed as much as ever and they serve a purpose for potential change. Outward Bound courses can take a challenging and stressful situation and turn it into an impactful experience, and even sometimes a life changing one.
Nothing about this summer has been easy for our students or staff. Adapting to new safety practices, heightened student behavior challenges, course cancellations and all with the backdrop of climate change caused fire and a rise in the Delta Variant. But even with the shifts and struggles, Outward Bound courses can be the salve, and a sense of purpose and community connection.
We are more resolved than ever before. These experiences are so needed and access to them for all California youth is critical to our collective recovery. Help us continue to offer scholarships to 2 in 3 students by making a tax deductible donation today.