It’s late Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in a lounge at the UUC church on Union Street in Manchester, NH. The room is eclectic, decorated with congregational signage, rainbow flag pennants, a string of silver owls on twine, mismatched pottery on shelves. There’s a shiny black witch hat on a corner table.
Into this scene, Jake King and a handful of teens lay out Nerf guns across the table. As more teens filter in, more Nerf weaponry is added to the mix. This evening’s lesson is on Tactical Movement. Last week, I’m told, they learned knitting.
Though I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a couple hikes with Thrive Outdoors and their young adult program, Teen Adventure Group (TAG, for short), this is my first time attending their weekly meeting.
What makes TAG different, isn’t only that it’s based on the unique curriculum that Thrive Outdoors has created over decades of experience in wilderness and survival training, but it’s in Jake, himself. He isn’t teaching the teens and young adults, he’s relating to them. He doesn’t talk at people, he talks with people, creating a loose and comfortable environment where communication and socializing comes with a casual sense of ease (something that can be difficult and awkward, if you can remember what it was like to navigate your own teen years).
As the group begins to munch on popcorn and homemade snacks, brought by a participants, Jake stands at the head of the table and, drawing from his experience as an army ranger, and later, a police officer, he explains how to clear a room like a SWAT team.
There are chuckles, when he tells the teens that the signal for “go” is to pinch the upper thigh of the person in front of you. Quips and comments bounce around the table as the teens giggle and get slightly off topic. But, rather than quell the room, Jake takes the time join the conversation, and ultimately, he explains how this is all an exercise in communication.
“Before it was the leg pinch,” he tells the TAG members, “SWAT teams used a tap on the shoulder as their GO signal, but then, there was a time when someone tapped the person in front of them, only hoping to get their attention, but the signal was misinterpreted as GO…and things did not end well. And so, thus, a leg pinch.”
It comes down to the ways we communicate with one another, and how effective they are. It comes down to learning how, in every relationship and situation, we’re communicating, in our body movements, in our gestures, in the language we use or don’t use. Learning how to be effective communicators is important.
But, this is all preamble to the evening of Nerf guns and room clearing drills, where no legs are pinched, but much laughter is had.
While groups of six go out to hide and be found by the the room clearers, I’m left to sit and chat with TAG members about their experiences with the program. Most reply that they love it, because it’s fun, but that they also enjoy learning new and useful skills.
However, the overarching theme among the participants is that TAG is, at it’s core, a place where they can come, just as they are, and be accepted and encouraged. And in a fast-paced, competitive world, where bullying has been on the rise and social media magnifies every life drama or teenage angst in a flurry of tweets or snark – TAG is a haven.
(Did I mention that in this room of a dozen or so teens, there was nary a cell phone in sight? When was the last time that happened? 1997?)
As the drills come to an end and the teens all return to the table, we debrief. Jake hands around paper and tells each participant to write down two things that they’d like to learn about at TAG in the coming months.
This isn’t because Thrive doesn’t have enough curriculum or that Jake, himself, doesn’t have hundreds of ideas percolating in his own brain – it’s because he wants the participants to be involved, to have a sense of ownership over the group. And again, I get the sense that he’s careful to not be teaching at the teens, but to be learning alongside them, too.
I actually met with Jake, two hours before TAG began, out in the bitter January afternoon. When we arrived at the address he directed us to, he was out on a frozen pond…following after a wounded-winged goose. Two of his former students, from the Londonderry Explorers, had contacted him, when they noticed that a goose in their neighborhood had been abandoned by his flock and was, essentially, trapped in their frozen backyard, due to a hurt wing. The goose had been huddling beside their door to warm itself during the freezing winter nights.
Thrive partner, Vinnie Haney, was alongside Jake for the afternoon, because when catching a wild bird, two sets of arms and legs are better than one. (And the cheering section Vinnie brought with his family, who watched eagerly from the pond’s edge, helped keep morale high, even as they slid and slipped about.)
They carefully took to the icy pond and began a rescue mission, complete with wings flapping, goose hissing, and bodies flailing about, chasing after the frightened bird, like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. When they succeeded, Jake gently carried the goose and said, with a grin, “Okay, who’s hungry?”
It was a joke that, in many ways, sums up the lightheartedness that Jake brings to every room he enters, every class he teaches, every relationship he partners with. It’s part of the positive mindset that Thrive strives to instill in those who participate in their programming. Life is not predictable, in fact, it’s hardly ever what you’d expect, but it can be maneuvered successfully, safely, and with a smile…if your mindset is fixed on the good, on the positive, on the hopeful and in the humor, even in a (literal) wild goose chase.
On the ride from the goose chase to TAG, Jake told me me about the former student who had called him to help in the icy pond rescue mission. He was beaming, but I got the sense that it wasn’t only because he knows that he has made an impact (however large or small) on her life, but that he is happy, knowing that there are young people like her in the world – young people who take the time to do good and care for those who need help the most.
You see, sometimes, survival isn’t only about food or water or knowing how to build the sturdiest shelter in a storm. Sometimes, or arguably, all of the time, it’s about remaining positive in the face of adversity, or embarrassment, or disappointment. It’s about knowing that the power to change your situation is always, ever, in your own hands.
And sometimes, survival is about friendship and relationships, in the teen and young adult years, and beyond. It’s about communicating well, encouraging others to be their best, and striving to do and be your best for yourself and for those around you.
And, with TAG, with Jake and Vinnie and with everything Thrive Outdoors, it’s all of the above.
The featured image in this post is from a brush burning evening with TAG members and their families, at the Massabesic Audubon Society, that took place in the fall. The Audubon is just one of the many organizations that Thrive Outdoors partners with. If you would like to collaborate or be part of the change they’re attempting to make in their community (and beyond), please reach out to Jake or Vinnie via their website.
The Manchester TAG group is just one of the teen groups run by Thrive Outdoors, but it’s currently the most active. There are other opportunities in New Hampshire and the TAG program and curriculum itself can be taught by Thrive Outdoors instructors, anywhere there is an interest. Ultimately, the hope is to see TAG programming and Thrive Outdoors curriculum, utilized nationwide.
And, if the enthusiasm from the teens I met with around the table, in that eclectic upper room of the UUC church is any indication, there is a lot of interest.
If you would like more information on participating in a TAG group, or if you’re interested in leading one, please contact Thrive Outdoors.
They would be happy to have you.