Philly students test themselves in great outdoors
By The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:41 p.m.
DELAWARE WATER GAP — Cierra Schell, an incoming junior at Philadelphia's High School of the Future, finished her ninth day of backpacking limping down the Appalachian Trail.
She was in misery but so proud of it.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I feel dirty. My feet got blisters all over. But it was worth it. I reached my breaking point yesterday. I fell. I didn't want to get up, but I did it for my team so we could reach camp and get some sleep. ... I felt I couldn't go on, but I pushed myself past that, and I made it.”
This West Philadelphian had never seen a mountain, much less climbed one.
She hobbled into the Kittatinny Visitors Center here at the Delaware Water Gap, where she would begin the canoeing phase of her two-week adventure.
Cierra and 19 other city juniors, in two groups, were sent into the wilderness two weeks ago by a nonprofit group, Summer Search. The trip was the first big step in a five-year effort to push the teens to envision and achieve lives they never imagined possible.
Cierra and her group of 10 circled their packs, put hands to the middle and in unison shouted, “Savages!”
“I live in a really bad neighborhood,” said Frank King, 15, from Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, who named the group, “and before, I didn't really care for other people. But seeing people cry, and seeing the girls struggle, I like helping them.”
Frank was what the instructors called a “rock star,” saying he emerged as a leader, a motivator, who worked hard to keep the group together.
Mickai Mercer, 15, melted down.
“Sleeping under a tarp with four people I don't even know, it was hard for me,” he said. “I cried. I lashed out. I screamed at everyone. I broke sticks and rocks. People would pick on me and make it worse.
Sarah Kone's hands were pocked with mosquito bites. A Muslim, she wore a scarf around her head and neck.
“Even where I'm covered, they still get me!”
At home, Sarah carried around her baggage inside. She held in how she felt, simmering and building rage.
But in camp, at night, her feelings spilled out.
“For the first time, I feel like I can talk,” she said. “I think this trip is going to change me forever.”
Summer Search serves 2,000 teens annually, 35 a year in Philadelphia. Its mission is to break the cycle of poverty and dependency among urban poor, to launch them on a path toward college and success.
It is based on a philosophy that character — self-control, conscientiousness and tenacity — is a better predictor of success than grades and tests, particularly among low-income students.
“Summer Search says we can't undo the 10 years of academic deficiency these kids are coming to us with,” said Amanda Jefferson, executive director of Philadelphia's program, “but we can teach them how to push through life.”
Guidance counselors and teachers look for a spark of grit or resilience and recommend students, who are chosen sophomore year. Their first big adventure is a trip like this one, run by Outward Bound.
The second summer, they often go abroad on more challenging trips. They have weekly conversations with mentors and receive support until they graduate from college.
Nationally, more than 90 percent go to college, and 85 percent are on track to graduate, Jefferson said. In Philadelphia, 50 percent of the first class in 2006 graduated from college, but now, 75 percent are on track to finish, she said.
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