When our Digital and Community Manager, Ellie, heard about Human Nature Adventure Therapy and the Recre8 Program, where at-risk teens are given the opportunity to head out on a ten-day hiking and whitewater canoeing expedition, we knew we couldn’t stop her going along to see the magic for herself. Here, she reflects on that experience…
“We’re sitting in a circle around the campfire, all sixteen of us and James yells as the smoke spins his way, stinging his eyes and making him cough. He swats the smoke in front of his face dramatically, like he’s doing some kind of interpretive dance… but to no effect.
Above us, those benevolent celestial gatherings are twinkling at us. Our eyes move from the firelight and adjust to the darkness of the sky, to absorb the unperturbed stillness. A couple of the guys see a shooting star and share their excitement with the group, pointing ‘there, it was there!’. But the rest of us missed it. Nature’s raw like that.
We can faintly hear the bubbling Clarence River in the background yet we’re only really aware of it sometimes; its calming presence a reminder of our solidarity. By no other means than our energy, combined with that of the river’s, we had travelled through the bush for 9 days and tomorrow, we were going home.
Home. A broken home… is that home? Home, where your mum is in the psych ward every other week and you’re in charge of caring for your little sister and yourself, and you’re only 15; home, where you get so angry sometimes that you just lash out and hurt people before you know where you are; home, where you’re bullied at school for being different and the only place you can go for relief is inside a video game; home, where you’re high most of the time just to silence that numbness that swallows your whole body. Home… where things are more complicated than here in the bush.”
We Are Explorers joins Human Nature Adventure Therapy
In December last year, I was given the amazing opportunity to volunteer on The Recre8 Program, a ten day wilderness-based expedition for ‘at-risk’ teenage boys. It was a hilarious and emotional experience; a real rollercoaster.
Run by a not-for-profit organisation based out of the uber-chill hub of Mullumbimby, Human Nature Adventure Therapy (HNAT), programs are available to both males and females, aged 14 to 19 from the Northern Rivers and Gold Coast Regions.
Andy Hamilton, the Program Manager and Lead Psychologist for the organisation, has been running programs like these for almost a decade; he’s a pro. After co-founding the program in 2009, Recre8 has changed the lives of hundreds of teenagers over the years.
I had an absolute blast. The guys, whilst dealing with a whole range of family, school, drug and mental issues, were perfect gentlemen (apart from the steady stream of ‘fucks’, the occasional fart symphonies and an awesome textbook teenage boy complaint script when asked to wash the dishes after mealtimes).
I was one of only two women on the whole trip, but they treated me with respect and were genuinely curious to engage with me as both a mentor and a friend. In a relatively short amount of time, I felt like I really knew some of these guys. I trusted them and they trusted me. In fact, there was a special kind of trust needed to allow an excitable (and often very easily distracted), pubescent young man to sit in the back of a canoe and steer me down a grade 3 rapid.
But ultimately, these were the moments that allowed bonds of trust to form and injected the boys with a much-needed dose of self-efficacy. By placing our trust in them, we were saying ‘you are capable and smart, you’re in control and you have agency’, a message they might not be getting anywhere else. It was a pretty powerful experience.
It takes a village…
I was honestly blown away by the level of expertise, responsiveness and wisdom in the program staff and volunteers.
The team consisted of:
- two experienced psychologists from HNAT – Andy and Cherie
- one fully qualified Outdoor Recreation instructor and River Guide from Outward Bound – John
- one intern psychologist and past volunteer – Pete
- one Clarence River Guide – Steve
- three volunteer mentors – myself, Cary and Jamie
- one teenage mentor
- the HNAT admin team taking care of business back in Mullum – Selase and Dani
Each individual had their own unique skillsets and strengths and every strength was needed. A beautiful partnership existed between HNAT and Outward Bound; each of their specialities complemented each other perfectly.
John, our lanky and excitable outdoor instructor had the most impressive ability to keep this positive, cartoon animation smile across his face, even during the most mega barrage of repetitive (and often unanswerable) questions from some of the guys.
Within the therapeutic framework, John’s job was to deliver the ‘adventurous’ aspect. He guided us on an adventure activity like none of the guys had ever experienced before. He taught them the wilderness skills they needed to survive out in the bush: map reading, camp cooking and how to set up a tent. He was sensitive and intuitive; he knew just when to push and when he should pull back.
On the other hand, Andy, Cherie and Pete were able to bring into the mix a skilful and subtle therapeutic component. Without letting the guys know, they were in full-blown ‘counselling’ mode for hours a day – I honestly don’t know how they maintained the energy for it. Many of the guys had negative experiences of ‘counselling’, so a chilled chat whilst hiking through the bush broke through those barriers.
In the most sensitive way, they helped them to redirect their personal narrative – essentially to rewrite their stories; past, present and future. The guys learnt that despite their tough situations at home or at school, they had the inner resources to achieve more than they might have thought possible.
It was actually an incredible process to witness. These sometimes extremely tough conversations were taking place in broad daylight – not confined to four walls or shrouded in secrecy or seriousness. There was Andy, Cherie and Pete, and they were getting into territory that undoubtedly few other adults would have been able to visit in ‘normal’ circumstances.
What exactly did we get up to on the program?
Recre8 is an ‘early-intervention’ program. The aim is to identify at-risk symptoms and behaviours and, through guidance and support, assist the participants to makes changes before shit gets too real.
Prior to the program, HNAT had screened and interviewed referrals to ensure their suitability for the program. Each participant was at their own personal and unique stage; for some of the guys, shit was already pretty damn real.
The entire program included a range of little puzzle pieces that were carefully orchestrated and very intentionally designed to help every participant at their unique stage. There were adventurous activities to push comfort zones, like hiking the highest mountain in the region or canoeing down Grade 3 rapids, but there were also activities designed to encourage self-reflection.
Nightly campfire chats were about reflecting on the challenges and the triumphs of the day, as well as their own personal emotions and insights from those experiences. The guys also each had to take a turn at ‘leadership duty’, where they were in charge of the day’s operations. It pushed them to step up, take responsibility and for some, had dramatic positive effects on their self-confidence and self-efficacy.
A really special part of the trip I thought, was the ‘boy to man’ guidance session on the second last evening, which helped the guys to unpack that confusing and sometimes awkward transition that many of them were going through. It was amazing to see some of them saying that the trip had helped them to understand responsibility and also that a man didn’t have to be a macho machine, but rather that their friends really valued their sensitive sides. This was a significant revelation for some of them to have, given their backgrounds, and was really special to witness.
The really grimy, visceral, ‘this is special’ experiences though, tended to happen when I probably didn’t expect it; during the hour after hour of plodding along bush tracks; or during the campfire jam sessions with a guitar, a djembe and a didgeridoo harmonising freely with each other. These were the ‘unplanned’ moments that being out bush can give you and essentially, what we wanted to give the guys.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Over the years, Recre8 has produced some pretty exceptional results. Participants have shown reductions in substance abuse and suicidal ideation, as well as other problematic behaviours that have isolated them from supportive structures in the past.
They re-engage with school and start to develop a stronger sense of self and greater resilience. Self-esteem often increases, social skills and awareness become more attuned and with a renewed sense of direction, they’re able to begin healthy transitions from childhood to adulthood.
It was an absolute honour to work with Andy Hamilton. Despite nursing a broken toe the entire program, he was incredibly switched on, intuitive and always available to provide support for every member of the group; teenagers and adults alike. He somehow trod the perfect line between powerfully masculine and inherently sensitive. The boys looked up to him as a father/uncle figure and hung on his every word.
His passion for the program is palpable. He strongly believes that the program has the power to tangibly alter participants’ life trajectories. He told me,
“The young people we work with often come from extremely challenging circumstances, walking perilous paths towards destructive destinations, or are wandering aimlessly without direction.
We provide them with a metaphorical map and compass, and help them to work out where they want to go and how they are going to get there safely. We aim to give them the opportunity to ‘find themselves’ whilst transforming life from a dead-end quagmire to an exhilarating adventure.”
One Participant’s Experience
When asked to reflect on the experience, one participant said:
“I wasn’t interested in going on the program at first, then I met Andy and he made me feel excited about it. He said it could change my life and I believed him and it happened. I felt comfortable with him, and he made me feel like I was a good person… I learned to value myself…
I wanted to be known as a better person and not be so shy. I couldn’t hang out with other people or play basketball. The program helped me feel confident in myself and helped me feel like I could be a leader. I play basketball now, do ‘Deadly Dancing’ with an Aboriginal group, do art, and can hang out with anyone without feeling like rubbish.”
… and from his foster carer:
“ He doesn’t run away from life or problems anymore. Even though as a fourteen-year-old he occasionally does silly things, he will stay there and acknowledge what he has done, say sorry, and move on like a mature person. You can’t understand how different this is from how he was before. It’s incredible.”
All photography by Cary Leabeater, Andy Hamilton and Ellie Keft.
So how can you get involved with Human Nature Adventure Therapy?
HNAT runs on limited funding, so relies on volunteers, and both monetary and gear donations. If you’re interested in volunteering with them (both on expeditions and in admin), head here and fill out the form.