Surprised by Growth

Jhasmani and Josue helping with gear.  I had a whole army of volunteers at my disposal for set up and break down of camp.

Jhasmani and Josue helping with gear. I had a whole army of volunteers at my disposal for set up and break down of camp.

Our recent adventure trip to Toro Toro with 15 young men from the Bolivia Life Center was marked by multiple examples of boys stepping forward to accept responsibilities and confront fears in ways I had not anticipated.  Throughout our 3 day 33 mile trek through the backcountry, the boys proved time and again that they accept the challenges in their path and relish the opportunities to grow.

In the lead up to the trip, I was admittedly swamped by the logistics of a camp 6 hours from our home base for a total of 35 people, far and away the largest single camp that Fundacion Aventura has undertaken to date.  Boys and members from my church jumped at the chance to help me pack sleeping bags, transport gear via truck from storage to the orphanage, distribute gear into 35 piles to make sure everyone had what they needed, bake nearly 400 pieces of bread, and run errands to purchase the food and excess gear for camp.  I literally could not have pulled it off without this team of committed and enthusiastic volunteers.

The boys coming on the trip, aged 14 to 17, showed responsibility and intelligence in packing their gear, clothes and other needs in record time, allowing for an on-time departure.  Our visiting campers from National Community Church threw themselves behind the tasks of bagging TP and foodstuffs and relabeling gear.  As the bus pulled away from the orphanage, I could breathe a sigh of relief as everything was in place.

No trip is without its hiccups, and this time we rode out the waves of stopping for gas, unhelpful bus company staff, and arriving at midnight to encounter the entire campsite, usually devoid of people, full to the brim with 200 tents and drunken college students on break.  The serenade lasted until 5 am, and although we were tempted to buy an air horn to pay back the favor as we woke up and broke camp at 6, pesky teachings from Jesus flooded our minds and reigned us in.

Descent along canyon walls on day 1

Descent along canyon walls on day 1

The trek began with a descent from 11,900ft across an epic landscape of windswept bluffs with frozen peaks in the distance into the largest of Toro Toro’s 5 canyons.  Complications arose as we discovered that the mileage I had calculated via google earth was in fact in miles rather than kilometers, and nerves began to fray as people ran out of water and legs grew tired as we dropped toward the river.  It was at this point that the boys ceased to be the fun-loving and adventurous youth that everyone knew and became real men, encouraging fatigued hikers, sharing water, shouldering packs not their own and running ahead to set up tents and filter water for those farther behind.  The team visiting from NCC was amazed by the role reversal as the boys became caretakers and stepped out of the position of receiving assistance from others.  They were showing their true colors and demonstrating their capacity in the face of need.

The most impactful moment for me during the adventure trip was observing the boys working together and displaying a unique brotherhood that was simply awe-inspiring. The care and compassion they showed for one another was amazing to observe.” – Joey

Debrief and Devotional on the first night in the canyon.  Great spirit of comraderie and unity.

Debrief and Devotional on the first night in the canyon. Great spirit of comraderie and unity.

That first evening, sausages and testimonies were shared around the campfire and fireworks left over from our July 4 celebration were fired into the sky, the boom ricocheting off the canyon walls and causing all to scramble for safety, Luis fully convinced that he had lost a leg.  16-year-old Alex surprised us by volunteering to give his testimony in front of the group, wrapping up a powerful devotional and setting the tone for the camp.

Day two we woke and broke camp at 6am, shouldering packs for a long trek up out of the canyon and across the plateau, crossing three other canyons along the way.  After an hour of ascent up the vertical wall of the canyon we stopped for a devotional chat along the rim, putting into context the biblical account of Jonathan’s attack on the Philistines in 1 Samuel 14:1-23 and using the canyon as a visual aid to understand the courage Jonathan showed in his attack, a boldness we aspire to have as men of God.  Midday found us at a spectacular swimming hole in the last canyon, and the boys continued to impress as many jumped fearlessly off the falls into the pool below.

After waking up to tents covered in frost, the sun rose hot over the mountains on day three, perfect weather to accompany a day hike full of rock scrambling, rappelling, cliff jumping and swimming in the canyon closest to town.  This was the highlight of the trip for most, and offered further opportunities for the boys to challenge themselves and make breakthroughs in conquering fears.

Working together to get down to the pools for swimming and diving

Working together to get down to the pools for swimming and diving

Jose Armando led the way, obliterating his fear of heights by leaping into the first pool, at a height of 10 feet, and then blowing away all expectations by deciding to jump twice off the much larger cliff into the second pool father down canyon.  After letting his fear get the best of him at the swimming hole on day two, the look of euphoria on his face as he ran to tell me the news was a beautiful testament to the victory of courage over fear, and a valuable life lesson for facing future obstacles and past tragedies.

Brian followed suit after I denied his request to stay back and keep stragglers company, thereby embarking with the lead group to scramble down abrupt rock faces in a virtual sprint toward the lower pools without the aid of ropes.  Heights are not one of Brian’s favorites, and I was so proud of him for accepting the challenge and going from hesitant to bold once excuses and escapes were cut off.  Brian is one of the boys who has grown most throughout his nearly 5 years with Fundacion Aventura, giving himself the reputation of being responsible, caring, servant minded and bold.

This program is a great outlet for the boys and missions team. Each of us come in with job titles, I’m sure even the boys come in with a level of popularity or lack there of, but in the outdoors many of those social constructs and barriers come down and each person is put on a more or less equal playing field. People have to depend on each other, trust each other and give up their everyday comforts and I think that’s one of the best parts of outdoor challenges.” – Dustin

Nelson Platero surprised us by agreeing to finally confront his longstanding fear of moving water during this camp.  Two years ago while traversing a rock face along a raging river, he fell into the main current with a full pack on, and was swept 100 meters downriver until I was able to pull him out onto the shore.  The trauma of the event combined with an inability to swim had left him completely unwilling to go near natural bodies of water ever since.  But not today.  With zero hesitation, he joined me and Kelly in one of the pools in the canyon, waterfalls flowing into and out the other end of it, and dove out into the murky depths where he could not stand.  He repeated this act willingly 4 or 5 times, defeating the trauma and helping us to see that swim lessons in warmer water are deeply needed for him to fully break the bond of fear.  Nelson emerged from the pool all smiles and asking “is that it?”  Couldn’t be more proud of this guy.

Brian thoroughly enjoying the mud deposits on the canyon floor

Brian thoroughly enjoying the mud deposits on the canyon floor

During the return hike up and out of the canyon, I took up position on high rocks along the trail and watched as the boys thoroughly enjoyed a voluntary adventure through the most difficult parts of the canyon along the river.  At some points one would go ahead to scout the best route over an immense boulder, or would clear the brush away from an alternative route.  I watched them form a human chain to get up and over tough spots and then run in a pack, leaping from rock to rock.  At one point the boys told the girls to stop and wait while they carefully constructed a bridge of stepping stones across the river, gladly drenching their own shoes and laughing in the process.  They offered to hoist people up from the heights they had already scaled, and worked together to make sure everyone got through difficult spots.  These snapshots of teamwork and comraderie were some of the most potent examples yet of the group trust, confidence, empathy and shared responsibility that we have been working on as a program for years, and it was amazing to see it in spontaneous and uninstructed action.

The third day was collectively most impactful because the boys were a constant source of encouragement. Whether it was to run ahead to find the best way over some particularly large boulders, hanging back to make a crossing out of stepping stones, creating a human chain to pull me up out of a crevice, or simply staying with me to keep me company, they were always there. I never had to look far for a smile or a helping hand.” – Julie

If I had to sum up the achievements of this adventure trip I would say that this time we were able to simply witness the fruit of the work carried out in past trips.  We had very little time for debriefs this time around, but it was clear that the messages from other camp experiences had sunk in and that the boys were looking for opportunities to show their mettle and challenge themselves while encouraging others to do the same.  We have succeeded in creating a safe place for the boys to try new things and to possibly fail, but more often than not, to gain new victories over fears and barriers.  We can add this camp to the growing archive of shared experiences of fun, growth and victory that over time will fill their memories and shape the way they see themselves and the life they lead.

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One way you can support us is to get your very own Fundacion Aventura t-shirt!  Each shirt we sell enables us to give one to two boys and serves as a tangible reminder of the victories and good memories they have from camp.

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