Paving Paradise

Traditional methods didn't work for the troubled students at the Pan Terra Alternative High School, so counselor Larry Davies turned to nature to help teach and heal them.

In a small woodland in Vancouver, Washington, a group of teenagers are cleaning the area of weeds and debris. A passerby might not realize that the students are doing more than restoring a neglected, littered lot; as they heal the land, they heal themselves.

Larry Davies, a counselor at Pan Terra Alternative High School, works with students who are considered at-risk. Here are the statistics: they are between the ages of 14 and 19 and live significantly below poverty level. Some have been sexually or physically abused or have struggled with chemical dependency. To help his students recover, Davies developed a program that uses nature to help teach and heal.

Based on the book Reconnecting with Nature by Michael Cohen, the program stems from the belief that our separation from the natural world stresses us while also setting the stage for the abuse of nature. Davies hoped that the program's focus on nature-centered activities would reawaken the dormant natural senses in the troubled teens. "Our NatureConnect recovery program is based on the belief that we evolved from nature and are essentially nature ourselves," he said.

The teenagers Davies worked with all had negative experiences with traditional therapy methods. It was his challenge to find effective and meaningful ways to reach them. Together with Cohen, Davies developed Project NatureConnect in several stages.

The first part used play therapy. For many of the teens who had experienced painful, abusive childhoods, this was a time to let loose and be creative in a safe and supportive environment.

As a sense of community, safety, and trust took root, Davies began the second stage:simple nature activities to introduce the kids to nature's nurturing abilities. One activity involved sitting underneath a tree in a wilderness area for 45 minutes. Afterwards, the students wrote down what they felt, saw, and heard. Davies was astounded by the powerful responses he received. One boy, who had spent much time at the hospital with his dying uncle, said, "Nature honors death as much as it honors life."

Another student said the sounds she heard were "like a symphony." A Native American girl who had been severely abused as a child wrote a poem about the calming effects of the tree and how she had been "rocked to sleep by Mother Earth." All of the teens said they felt more peaceful and less stressed after their encounter with nature.

The third part of the project involved five days on a challenging "rope course" where the students learned teamwork and problem-solving skills. One activity involved a "trust fall." Each student climbed a five-foot platform, focused away from the group, and fell backwards into the arms of her teammates. The teens were able to overcome feelings of fear and betrayal as they fell into the support of their community.

The last part of the project involved a three-day wilderness outing in which the students were forced to rely on their new connections with nature and each other for survival.

Healing nature, healing themselves

The positive effects of the activities were seen in the students' improved performance. The teens who participated quit using drugs, and their test scores showed significant improvement in areas of self-esteem, depression, stress, and sleeplessness. "Every student's attendance and academic progress has also improved," Davies said. "I've seen incredible transformations take place."

He recalled one student who had been abandoned by his mother. The boy took part in the NatureConnect project and eventually became valedictorian of his Pan Terra High class. He credited Davies for helping him succeed.

However, as the group found out, there were more challenges ahead. In 1996, the kids found a little woodland, approximately 180 feet square, near their new school. The area was home to native plants, trees, vegetation, and small animals. It was also covered with garbage, ivy, and blackberry bushes that were suffocating the trees. The students were immediately drawn to the spot. They applied for and received a $1000 grant to restore the woodland to its natural health.

In the grant, the students wrote: "This wilderness community is being choked by alien plants and stressed by pollution, abandonment, and major loss. We, too, are being choked by drugs and alien stories that pollute our natural self. We feel abandoned by our society, treated like garbage, and cut off from nature. By protecting and nurturing this ecosystem, we find the strength to open our minds, hearts and souls for survival of our Mother Earth and ourselves."

They began exploring their own abuse issues and reprogramming their old ways of thinking. Instead of accepting the negative feelings they had for themselves, they repeated affirmations such as "I'm powerful and deserve success" as they pulled out blackberry bushes. They learned that they were part of the beauty of nature.

Unfortunately, there were other plans in the works for the site. The Vancouver School Board wanted to turn the area into a 32-space parking lot. Despite the bad news, the students felt committed to the woodland and could not be dissuaded from continuing their project.

Looking past fear

Davies and the students fought for four months to overturn the school board's decision. They made a video that expressed their feelings about the value of the little plot of land. They came up with alternative sites for a parking lot and showed how this would save the school district money. They enlisted and received support from community members, other students, and educators. However, their efforts proved fruitless. Citing safety and liability reasons, the school board decided to go ahead with plans to turn the outdoor classroom into a stretch of blacktop.

The students were hit hard by the decision but realized they had done everything possible to save the land. Joe Giles, a 16 year-old Pan Terra student involved in the woodland restoration felt the school board had been blinded by fear: "They are afraid," Giles said. "Their idea of 'safe' is walls surrounding them and a desk in front. They look at the area and see garbage. If you just look past your fears you can see a beautiful area." Giles felt the soul of the woodland would remain after the bulldozers came. "This area will be ours, even if it is a parking lot," he said.

The students lost the land, but they were able to relocate many of the native plants from the woodlot. This experience taught them about the importance of collecting native plants from other areas slated for development and replanting them in places that will benefit the existing wildlife. They've applied for a grant to build a greenhouse to store the plants until they can be properly placed, and they even hope to encourage families to landscape their backyards with some of the rescued vegetation.

Before the bulldozers arrived, Davies and his group formed a circle in the woodland and voiced their feelings to each other and to nature about how much the land meant to them. Although Davies was sad to lose the woodland, he has since begun a new project in a wetland where he continues to help kids connect with nature.

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