Reconnecting isn’t always easy to do

I’ve always been a firm believer in the positive benefits of spending time in nature. During my college years, I developed a masters thesis that was focused on developing outdoor challenge programs for troubled youth.

I implemented the program while working at a New York Division for Youth Center for troubled teens, wayward youth and delinquents. It was a secure facility, but most of the residents were there for minor offenses, such as shoplifting, delinquency or petty theft.

Many of the teens were under PINS petitions, which was often a reflection of poor parenting, rather than an actual “person in need of supervision.”

The majority of residents were from urban areas including Rochester, Albany, Utica and Syracuse. They were the self-proclaimed “street smart crew.” There were a few kids from the northern tier counties, and as expected, there was one particular boy who was always the target.

The urban crew referred to him as the Head Hillbilly. He happened to be a big, likeable fellow, sort of a gentle giant. Due to a severe hearing problem, he always wore hearing aids, and spoke with a notable speech impediment.

However, whenever I took the group on an outing, which was often, Pierce was the one everybody looked up to. He knew his way around the woods, and he was comfortable and confident in his element. He was a true leader.

Yet despite his advantage of size and bulk, he was always a pushover on the basketball court or the softball field. He was awkward and slow, and the hearing problems compounded his difficulty in achieving any type of athletic prowess. He couldn’t hear when a teammate called for the ball or when they were passing it to him. He was beaned often, and embarrassed always. As a result, he was usually the last guy picked, and the first to be picked on.

His name was Pierce, but due to his hearing problem, he pronounced it as Beeerce, in sort of a long, low nasal moan. They mocked him often.

Throughout the fall semester, I took a select group of youth on regular outings. They earned a spot on a trip due to a combination of disciplinary accomplishment and scholastic achievement.

They hiked, fished, paddled and eventually they even got together to plan, organize and participate in an overnight camping experience. The overnight expedition was based at a private lean-to, which was located a few miles back from the nearest road.

For most of the group, it was the first time they had ever slept outdoors, and they were seriously frightened. No one would admit to it, but it was evident. Flashlights proved to be the most valuable commodity.

In a woodland setting, Pierce was at home. He was the star center of the team, as well as the coach. His leadership capabilities were evident. He never barked orders, he simply lead by example. He showed the others how to gather firewood, and how to kindle the evening’s fire.

Following the overnight camping trip, he was more confident, and more popular than ever. The others looked up to him, rather than down on him. It was an immediate and unexpected juxtaposition of roles. He was now the leader.

Before my internship came to an end, I was fortunate to hook him up with a mentor, a local trapper who maintained a trap line along a small stream across the road from the facility. It took a lot of paperwork, and some serious arm-twisting on my part, but I was finally able to convince the facility director to allow Pierce to work the trapline, alone and unescourted.

Over the next few months, I would stop by the facility to visit with him regularly. He had new clothes and new sneakers, which were considered status symbols by the downstate gang.

He earned money as a trapper, and he learned responsibility. He was good in the woods, and the woods were good for him. He was the only resident allowed to leave campus unsupervised, and as far as anyone knew, he was the only resident to do so in the entire New York Division for Youth network.

When we eventually parted ways, I was convinced Pierce was well on his way. His time in the woods had changed him dramatically, and it had allowed him to achieve both the confidence and competence necessary to succeed.

His schoolwork improved too, as did his social skills. When I last visited the facility, he was truly the big man on campus.

As the years went by, I often wondered what became of him. I knew when juveniles returned home, the environment changed as drastically as their behavior and recidivism rates reflected that problem. However, I was confident Pierce was finally on the right course, he had finally hit his stride.

The years passed quickly, and yet I was never far removed from troubled youth. Although my college internship was just a faded memory, as a private guide I was regularly involved in providing character-building opportunities for young men.

I soon discovered, it was often more difficult to shape the character of privileged children than it was with the underprivileged.

In the mid 1980s, I took a position as a recreation program leader with the state Department of Corrections at Camp Gabriels.

Due to the nature of the facility, which had inmate crews working in the local communities, I was able to establish traveling athletic teams. I required the traveling “state team” players to maintain spotless disciplinary records since we often traveled to facilities with much higher security standards.

In addition, local college and community basketball teams would often come to play at the facility’s gymnasium. Eventually, I established a state softball team, which competed in the local Black Fly Softball League. Of course, all of the Black Fly softball league games were played at the facility’s ballfield.

In the spring of 1996, I brought the state softball team to play a game at a nearby medium security facility. Inter-facility competitions were always tough, as athletic pride runs deep, whether on the street or behind bars.

The teams played a close game, and as the game neared completion, a big, hulking figure approached our bench. His head was down as he leaned on the chain link fence separating the ball field from the prison yard.

From under the hood of his tattered old sweatshirt, a voice bellowed, “What’s the matter Mr. H. Don’t you say hello to your friends?”

The voice was a distant memory, but I couldn’t place from where.

I replied sternly, “I usually say hello when I know who I’m speaking to.”

The inmate lifted his hood and asked, almost pleadingly, “Don’t you remember me? It’s Pierce! You know me, Pierce. Pierce from the youth shelter! How you doing Mr. H? How you been?”

He was really excited to see me, but I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic.

I was crushed and saddened. For nearly 20 years, Pierce had been the gold standard for many of the troubled kids I worked with. I talked often about his accomplishments, and how he had worked his way up from the bottom of the pack to become a shining example of what could be accomplished.

In my talks, he was legend. Now, he was just another dirtbag inmate, on the opposite side of a security fence, and I couldn’t even shake his hand.

Got game

The Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb will host another lecture in their popular Sportsman’s Series – which highlight the role sportsmen and women play in conservation and game management – this weekend.

The speaker for Saturday’s event will be Dr. Russ Rider, a local physician from Long Lake. Dr. Rider, a native of Elizabethtown who grew up is an outdoor-oriented family will offer a presentation on trapping and furbearers at the Huntington Lodge in Newcomb.

Hunters and trappers were among our nation’s initial preservationists, and they continue to offer a strong voice and important contributions as one of the Adirondack Park’s major stakeholders.

Participants are welcome to share their stories, insights and experiences at fireside in the historic Huntington Lodge trophy room. The event is free and open to the public. There will be hot and cold beverages, chili and cornbread available at no charge.