2023 Annual Report
Fifteen year-old Amelie stood amazed, at the end of the 47 km Juan de Fuca trail. She gazed across the majestic ocean that welcomed her. Beads of sweat ran down her face as she waded into the freezing water. Then it hit her. She had just completed the most challenging adventure of her life so far. “I really just did that,” she said, beaming. “And if I can do this, I can do so much more.”
Providing challenging opportunities in nature is one of the many ways Youth Unlimited provides vulnerable youth with opportunities for growth, healing and practical help. For the past 20 years, Youth Worker Graham Goertzen has been supporting students and staff in a Vancouver alternative adventure-based school program called Take a Hike. It was created for students at risk of dropping out, or who have dropped out. The curriculum takes students like Amelie out of the four walls of the classroom and into the great outdoors. Graham also spearheads YU’s “Mountain Life”, a program that connects youth to God’s creation through mountain adventures like mountain biking and downhill snow sports.
Spending time in creation is extremely beneficial for helping youth heal, grow and flourish. Research by BC Park’s Foundation shows that
youth who do so have significantly lower risk of developing mental health illness as adults. It demonstrates that being in nature boosts self-esteem, stimulates confidence, encourages teamwork and decreases aggressive behavior. It also improves resilience against stress.
For Amelie, connecting with the great outdoors always came naturally.
YU youth exploring one of Vancouver’s beautfiul trails
Graham (top) taking youth mountain biking as part of Mountain Life
In that time, Amelie met Graham and other trauma-informed staff with the Take a Hike Foundation. Since then, she’s been able to find healing in nature and community, which has helped her regain trust in others—and herself.
“Nature was and still is what grounds me,” she says. “For a while I forgot that, but these experiences have reminded me. Graham gives me so many opportunities, it’s crazy. I’m so happy I met him this year. He’s such a supportive person and teaches me a lot about life.”
According to the Attention Restoration Theory, nature captures our attention effortlessly, which positively impacts our mental health by activating “fascination” and allowing “directed attention” to
rest, which is the state of actively focusing on our tasks. This element of recovery reduces mental fatigue and improves concentration. When we provide opportunities for youth to get outside, their minds can enter a recovery state and they are better equipped to handle the challenges of life, and to experience healing from trauma.
Graham explains that during hikes, phones are put away. “Our brains need silence to process things,” he explains. “On hikes, youth are challenged to embrace their surroundings instead of using a phone to escape discomfort.”
Amelie concurs with the technological disengagement benefit. “I think what feels so great is being present,” she says. “I’m growing up with screens and social media and I’m addicted to my phone. But when I’m out on our trips, I only have what’s in front of me—and it’s beautiful.”
Whether on land or water, mountain top or valley, Youth Unlimited provides a wealth of opportunity to connect restoratively with nature and with its Creator. “If you have an important experience with someone you care about, that relationship blossoms.” says Graham. “Through these trips we can lean into the gift of creation to help us to meet our youth where they’re at and guide them towards flourishing.”
38,800. 2,401. These are not huge numbers, but considering the context, my son and I were feeling nervous.
The next eight hours would be spent climbing Mt. Frosty in search of the golden larches. This tree is rare to the West Coast, but if you put in the work, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful sights.
As Sylas and I prepared our packs, bouts of anxiety began to surface. Thankfully, our friends were quick with wisdom and encouragement having done the hike before. A few hours later we were sitting amongst the larches and marveling at the beauty of creation. We decided to push on to the summit. What a feeling of accomplishment to reach the 2,408 meter sign at the top.
Hiking down was a two out of ten on the fun meter. My prairie-boy flat feet were hurting and Sylas was reaching his physical limit. Being passed by folks who easily qualify for senior’s discounts gave us the energy to power through. It was 38,800 steps later and we were back at the trailhead. What a day!
I realize this hardly compares to a Mt. Everest story, but upon reflection I sensed God speaking to me about my own resilience. I often have this experience when in creation. God’s Spirit whispers in the wind and the trees in a way that heals and draws me closer to God’s self.
“By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of God’s divine being.”
At Youth Unlimited, our mentors give our youth these same opportunities to experience God in creation. Young people like Amelie, are being drawn to nature and a new experience of living life to the full.
Thank you for giving our youth these life changing opportunities.
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