Ask teenagers what marks their coming of age into adulthood and they might say their first drinking party, a pricey birthday celebration, getting a driver’s license, or having sex.
Mainstream culture offers plenty of fun activities to mark a kid’s march to adulthood, but some parents—and youngsters as well—lament that there isn’t something of deeper meaning to usher them. Here in the Hudson Valley, as in a growing number of communities nationwide, parents are seeking a mentoring approach to enrich their kids’ lives and celebrate their maturation.
Mentoring creates a network of adults outside the immediate family who help nurture a young person by taking an active role in their lives, often by teaching skills or knowledge while also modeling integrity, responsibility, and caring. Certain workshops and programs, too, are designed to include different age groups and life stages, bringing intergenerational groups of men or women together—for the benefit of the young and adolescent, yes, but also for the benefit and growth of all.
In this article, we hear from some of the men in our region who are part of a mentoring community that is supporting their sons. In a future article, we’ll look at what a creative set of women is doing to nourish their coming-of-age girls.
About 10 years ago, Charles Purvis of Accord was looking for a summer camp for his son Liam, and found one that really impressed him. Run by Jon Young and Mark Morey (themselves mentored by wilderness leader and teacher Tom Brown, founder of the Children of the Earth Foundation), Purvis was astounded by the quality of the experiences being offered during a week-long program.
“From the very beginning Jon and Mark built an excitement and curiosity—with a passion that propels one to dive right in.” And dive in Charles did, signing Liam up, as well staying himself for parents’ programs held concurrently—not just that year, but for four. After attending Morey’s annual gathering, The Art of Mentoring, Purvis was ignited to develop a mentoring environment for both his sons back at home, and several times sponsored visits by Jon Young and Mark Morey to New Paltz.
In 2007 Purvis joined with a group of other fathers who had similar visions for their sons, and their “Track and Sign” took wing as a school-year program specifically for a set of boys who were nearing adulthood. Cocreated by Purvis, Larry Brown, Peter Ferland, and Rolando Negoita, Track and Sign is now in its third year and continues to evolve and enrich as the older boys become men, and younger boys and their fathers in the community take an interest.
“What we try to create is a mentoring ladder,” Purvis says. “So we have boys who are 9 to 13, and then some older teens who have already been mentored in nature awareness, survival skills, cultural awareness, and rites of passage. We also have young adult males, in their 20s to 30s, and then the elders. As we become grounded in each stage of our group development, we add another aspect of community.” In a manner typical of men who are part of this community, Purvis quickly credits others. “I do things within a whole matrix of support. Each of the men provides a different gift. And the adult man can learn from the 10-year-old. It goes in both directions. I have been mentored in this journey, too, for 10 years. I’m in the journey right now.”
Track and Sign is primarily a learning and bonding medium with lots of action, says Purvis, because boys and men really enjoy doing things. But it’s much more. “The activities of Track and Sign are really designed to experience fun and adventure as we build our connection to the earth, to each other, to our own inner world, and to what we call spirit. We are offering a healthy container in how we speak, and in our actions, creating a safe space for the boys to journey. We create opportunities for knowledge of self—like knowing your fears, and your gift, and we create connection with the elements of life like water, fire, the seasons, weather. We also work with skills of living in nature: building shelters, getting clean water, fire skills, food preparation. We promote sensory awareness—feeling the sun on your cheek and the wind at your back, to be fully alive. This creates inspiration, hard work, experiential learning—which does naturally prepare the boys for a rites-of-passage experience held by the community, during their thirteen or fourteenth year.”
Community of Uncles
One part of mentoring is creating a network of “uncles” who expand a youngsters group of male role models. “What I’m finding about fathering,” says David Brownstein, a father of three sons and part of the mentoring community, “is that doing this in a vacuum is really challenging. Once sons reach adolescence, they turn away from their fathers, and in some ways see them as one dimensional. I have three boys, and I’m intensely focused on providing opportunities for my sons to spend time with men who can teach them things I can’t, and who are good role models for what it means to be a man.” So he and other fathers empower “uncles,” as they are called—not biologically connected, but serving as caring role models.
“As fathers,” says Brownstein, “we are saying to other men, ‘I want you to be uncles to my son, because I can’t do it alone.’ The mentoring culture today is a group of men who are supporting their sons as they enter adolescence, staying compassionate and present as they face the trials and tribulations of being a teen. We are also creating for them meaningful rites of passage or initiation—where we acknowledge their passage into the beginning stages of adulthood, and how each one has proven himself, how each is different. You end up with kids who can really stand up straight, and they feel supported and loved. We’re renewing what has existed throughout time but what’s been lost in the last hundred years or so. President Obama is talking about this sort of thing—you have to start in your own community and work to create community again.”
Brownstein expresses his mentoring passion through camps and workshops at Wild Earth Wilderness School in New Paltz, of which he is director. This nonprofit provides a diversity of experiences in nature, for people of all ages in mixed-gender or single-gender activities. “We create a safe space for them journey and interact on the earth, in the earth—we call it ‘dirt time,’” says Brownstein. “Last summer’s Wild Earth camp hosted 140 kids, ages 3 to 13, with about 40 instructors aged 16 to 70. We send these kids out into nature in groups of other similarly aged boys and girls led by really good role models, including instructors that are just a bit older and have been through the program. The younger boys can see what the ones ahead of them can do—things like create a fire without matches or build a shelter that will keep them warm and dry, take care of themselves in the wild. Just think of a young man who can actually survive for a week or more in the wilderness. Imagine how those kids are going to do in their first job, or in a challenging situation at work.”
A fundamental concept behind all this, says Brownstein, is to relearn what it means to value everyone, and exchange our gifts with each other freely, among all age groups. “When a 20-year-old comes over to pick up my boys to do something with them, because he wants to, he’s caring for my boys,” says Brownstein. “In exchange I want him to stay for dinner, as a way of taking care of him. That’s the feeling we’re going for, that healthy community piece. We want to reclaim that blueprint.”
Multigenerational mentoring is Wild Earth Wilderness School’s foundation. “We try to make sure all the generations are represented,” says Brownstein. “Toddlers, adolescents, teens, new parents, older parents, elders, super-elders—when all of those are present, everyone can relax into what’s happening. Elders get to see the kids playing, and also get to tell stories and talk about things they’ve learned. A parent at 50 years old is watching from a parental standpoint, holding energy about protection. The 20-year-olds don’t think that way because they are not parents. And the young kids can relate more to the teenagers just ahead of them and see what’s coming next for them. So, as much as we can, we create those generations when we put programs together, like a model of a healthy community. Our community is the strongest when everyone is involved.”
Rites of passage
Peter Ferland got involved with Track and Sign as one of the fathers supporting last year’s rites of passage weekend, for the boys who were ready to be seen and celebrated as coming into adulthood. He was intrigued by the idea of the mentoring and the ceremony for his boys, now ages 7 and 11. Like many parents today, Ferland had no such thing during his adolescence. “No one was really there for me,” he sums up. “That’s something that’s missing in our culture. There is even this stigma that teenagers are horrible—and to be fair, they can be—but they are trying on a lot of different attitudes and personalities, and their brain chemistry is changing drastically. They are not supported through this by the cultural attitude—there is just this blank spot.”
So instead, Ferland is one of those men guiding the evolution of these young people, with deep caring. He and the other mentors meet regularly to share observations about how things seem to be going for the boys. “We don’t try to orchestrate change within them,” says Ferland, “but we pay attention, and see ways in which, for example, a boy might be habitually reluctant to try something new, or seem to have a hard time being fully present. We could then see if there was an activity that would be useful or challenging for that boy.”
Ferland was one among several men who, a few weeks ago, formed a circle of support honoring boys as they came down off their 24-hour solo in the mountains, as part of their weekend-long rites of passage. Ferland is making a film about it, but was clear he didn’t want to record boys on their solos. He will record the boy’s public presentations at a community sharing about what they have learned, but he is equally intrigued by the effect on the community.
“We were not just putting them through an experience,” says Ferland. “It’s also about the larger community paying attention. There were thirty men sitting in a circle for seven boys when they came off that mountain, including many men not related to them who are interested in their welfare and in the larger project. We even had a group of women who came to the site beforehand and did a 24-hour fire, who didn’t know the boys but felt moved to honor the spirit of the land in preparation for their process.”
Boy to Man
Liam Purvis, now 19, has fledged and is in California. Liam loved the summer camp his dad found for him so many years ago, and the journey since. “When I was little, we lived in the country and I didn’t have a TV or video games,” he says. “I was already running around the woods, sleeping in piles of leaves, making fire by friction, getting covered with mud.” So the summer camps in Vermont were great. “And when I turned 13, in addition to the summer camp, every autumn and spring I went to a weeklong rendezvous, camping out in the woods with instructors.”
Maybe not every kid would relish all that “dirt time,” but Liam did. “As a kid you feel fortunate to have these experiences. My best friends were doing it. It was very cool to have adventures in the woods, the instructors were authentic and awesome. They are super-skilled, knowledgeable, heavy hitters giving us this download.” Back in New Paltz, he says it was the “hard, hard work of my parents, meeting people and getting me out there into a good network of people committed to my growth as a person. I’ve met some of the most amazing people—people I’m very lucky and fortunate to know.”
Liam’s upbringing has set him on a passionate course to make a difference in the world, and enjoy doing so. Now thriving in the San Francisco Bay area at the Regenerative Design and Nature Awareness Program, which he says “teaches amazing skills you can use, and designed for people who are looking for something that’s life-changing.” With environmental problems looming larger than ever for his generation, Liam knows mentoring and nature experiences are a powerful preparation. “Mentoring in nature is the best way to create people totally invested in having a world that nature is still a part of. You get to know the species, and how to live off the land. It teaches a love for all things.”
For people who haven’t had his opportunity growing up, Liam urges them to heed these words of John Muir: “The wilderness is essential for the human soul. The degree to which one is aware is the degree to which they are alive. Life is a visceral experience. The more immersed we are, the more alive we are.”
8 Shields www.8shields.org
Institute for Natural Learning www.ifnaturallearning.com
Regenerative Design & Nature Awareness Program www.regenerativedesign.org
Peter Ferland www.tendingfires.org
Track and Sign www.trackandsign.wordpress.com
Wild Earth Wilderness School www.wildearthprograms.org