SOAR Wilderness Camp's Lessons Without Lectures
By Fernando Pages Ruiz
For many kids, two words summarize the sweetest childhood memories: Summer camp. Not so for my son Alex. Until recently, all he remembered about camp was getting in trouble. Though we carefully primed his counselors with strategies for working with our son's subtle disability, parental tips did not prevent the disappointments that marred his camp experience. Alex was ready to give up, and so were we.
Then Mom heard about SOAR (Success Oriented Achievement Realized), a wilderness adventure program designed for kids with attention deficits and learning disabilities. Staffed by counselors trained in both wilderness skills and psychology, SOAR camp is a hybrid of Outward Bound and inward bound; kids face external challenges while learning more about their innerselves.
SOAR founder Jonathan Jones struggled with his own learning disabilities as a child. The camp was born of his personal backwoods experience: Nature challenged him without keeping score, he says, and the wilderness provided enduring "lessons without lectures." As a teacher, he dreamt of using that experience to help others.
Nestled in a 12-acre thicket of balsam and tulip poplars near the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, a cluster of wooden cabins now serves as base camp for many others' childhood - dreams - come - true: Dreams of backpacking, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting and, perhaps most important, the dream of "fitting in." That's the dream that eluded my son. Alex has a bold, colorful personality and requires a little extra guidance, but not coddling. As Mom read the SOAR brochure aloud, the part about a fortnight of mountaineering accompanied by a South American llama that suddenly got Alex's attention. But the part about "helping children develop self confidence, social skills and problem-solving techniques" is what appealed to Mom and Dad.
John Willson runs learning disabilities and AD/HD services at SOAR. He's an enthusiastic outdoorsman with a degree in experiential education who speaks with the passion of a man set to change the world. Willson, who has AD/HD himself, has observed the power of the nature in nurturing equation. To educate kids, Willson explains, you have to get their attention first.
" I've never seen a kid unfocused rappelling off a cliff," Willson says, referring to the progressive rock climbing course offered at SOAR. "Our kids stay focused because wilderness activities are always exciting and novel." Once he's got a kid's attention, he uses strategies for working constructively with their ADD behaviors. Activities such as rock climbing teach kids about advanced planning, problem solving and goal setting skills as useful in school as they are in the woods.
During the two weeks that Alex went to SOAR, he didn't take his medication. Even so, the behaviors that had put off counselors at other camps did not surprise the trained staff at SOAR. They know how to work with ADD behaviors intelligently. "We never punish these kids for being impulsive," explains Willson. "It serves no purpose; it's like punishing a kid with a speech impairment every time he stutters. There are only two approaches we use with impulsive behavior: Ignore it or redirect it."
SOAR's 20-year success story demonstrates that outdoor adventures combined with social skills training works. The program has grown from serving eight children to a facility catering to nearly 500, with 33 different courses from backpacking the Appalachian Trail to SCUBA diving off the Florida Keys.
Adventure programs stretch from North Carolina to Costa Rica and from Colorado to Wyoming. Their mailbox overflows with letters of appreciation.
NC Base Camp (828) 456-3435
P.O. Box 388, Balsam, NC 28707
Philosophy: SOAR believes all individuals identified with learning disabilities (LD) and attention deficit disorder (AD/HD) possess inherent talents and gifts. These abilities can mean incredible success in adulthood once these students negotiate the challenging obstacles of childhood, adolescence, and a traditional education system, usually unable to respond to individual learning styles.
Therefore, the SOAR model is based on two fundamental principles. First, youth with LD and AD/HD flourish when they are encouraged to focus on their strengths in an experiential setting. The second principle acknowledges that success can be generalized by encouraging our students to develop and utilize strategies, enabling them to compensate for those challenging characteristics of LD and AD/HD. To this end, SOAR staff strive to ensure success for each student across a wide range of experiences. Such success, in turn, builds essential self-esteem and self-confidence.
Based on these two foundations, SOAR participants develop problem solving skills, effective communication strategies, increased self-awareness, and social skills. Program activities include a broad base of wilderness adventure experiences that empower students to make healthy choices, learn more about themselves, overcome challenges, and establish relevance from these experiences to other aspects of their life.
SOAR's Specialty Courses are open to SOAR alumni and students with the maturity and experience level to be successful on the course. Acceptance is conditional on the approval of the course director. Most specialty courses are led by one of SOAR's year-round staff including Richard Peters, John Willson and Joe Geier.
SOAR’s programs are designed to allow students the opportunity to increase their independence while away from home. Independence is gained through self-motivation and life skills instruction. With this in mind, we involve our students in many decision making processes, such as setting individual goals, developing group guidelines, as well as trip and meal planning. This also comes into consideration when developing SOAR’s communication policy, detailed in our Parent Handbook.
SOAR is dedicated to serving the needs of individuals with learning disabilities (LD) and attention deficit disorder (AD/HD) and is proud to be the finest: