Team Wilderness: Bringing Jersey City Teens into the Woods

For some reason (for lots of reasons) this city has absorbed us and we can’t move past it. We can’t help it. We love it here.

But I hate the lack of green, the abundance of concrete, and the absence of an environment that lends itself to backpacking, campfires, and Poohsticks.

And I guess I’m not the only one.

Steve Cunningham founded Team Wilderness last year – and I felt nothing short of relief when I learned about the program.

“This is our second year,” Cunningham told me. “We’re a 501c3 non-profit.”

Last year, Cunningham and fellow Snyder High School teacher Elizabeth Lawson brought close to 30 Jersey City high school students into the woods, visiting nearby parks and national state parks including the Delaware Water Gap, Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain.

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“We’re not trying to get them to be lifelong campers and backpackers,” Cunningham told me. “While that certainly could happen, our real goals are to get them outside and thinking about improving themselves and their communities. We take them out of their element, out of their comfort zones to really bond and focus on what it means to be their best selves.”

Accomplishing that, for Cunningham and Lawson, centers around an acronym: E.T.H.I.C.A.L. Its letters stand for: Empathy, Teamwork, Health, Inclusive of all people, Caring about the Community, Adversity: overcoming it, and Leadership. “Everything we do revolves around those tenets,” Cunningham said.

“Our goals extend beyond simply keeping them safe. We run two separate programs – and in each program we only take a small amount of kids because we’re trying to reach them more deeply.

“Because we take kids from all over Jersey City, adversity can be different for each one of them. But when you’re out on the trail, hiking five miles in 95 degree heat, adversity all starts to look pretty similar. Working through it extends beyond the trail. These aren’t just skills you use on a mountain, they’re life skills,” Cunningham explained.

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all photos provided by Steve Cunningham

To participate, students have to be in high school in the fall. They can be any age from graduating 8th graders (so freshman in the fall) up to juniors (which means they’ll be seniors come September).

Each session is two weeks long; payment varies on income. A minimum of 51% of kids must be free or reduced lunch. There’s a $50 registration fee for all participants. After that, the program costs $699 for each two week session, which includes everything from food to supplies to the overnight trip. With proof of income, students can qualify for a scholarship or half scholarship.

“We’re also hiring junior leaders,” Cunningham told me. “These are college students who have experience with us and who can also be role models. They’re getting a fulfilling job that they have to work hard at; it’s better than just being a cashier. We pay them well to do that.

“Elizabeth Lawson and I may not be taking an average wage, but we believe in paying the kids who come back really well. We want them to come back. Finding a kid who grew up in similar circumstances, who knows Jersey City, who can be a role model – they’re worth it to us.”

Programs run from 8:30-1:30, Monday – Thursday in July (7/10 – 7/13 & 7/17 – 7/20) and August (8/14 – 8/17 & 8/21 – 8/24) To apply, visit the Team Wilderness website.

Posted by

Mel Kozakiewicz a professor, editor, writer, and mother of two.

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