Students face fears at annual retreat
Earlier this semester, sixth-grade students at Forestview Middle School participated in a school tradition dating back more than a decade. From Feb. 7-10, students participated in the Youth Frontiers Courage Retreat at Heritage Church in Baxter. ...
Earlier this semester, sixth-grade students at Forestview Middle School participated in a school tradition dating back more than a decade.
From Feb. 7-10, students participated in the Youth Frontiers Courage Retreat at Heritage Church in Baxter. It's the 11th year for the retreats, which focus on teaching students to think about how they treat each other, said guidance counselor and organizer Trudi Storbakken.
"Being a little bit more thoughtful of how they interact with each other," Storbakken said. "Not being as judgmental of each other and taking a stand if someone isn't being nice to someone else."
The goal of the retreat is to show students how to use their courage, for whatever they need to use it for, Storbakken said. Students are challenged to look at their fears and how they interact with each other, in order to help develop a more positive culture at school.
"Sometimes you make a big impact with small things," Storbakken said.
The retreats show students it's important to follow their hearts, said counselor Alison Medeck, and to be true to themselves.
"We try to give kids that courage to just be who you are," Medeck said. "Like what you like and it's OK that that's you."
The retreat is structured around talks led by the Youth Frontiers staff, Storbakken said. One talk centers around fear, she said, specifically the fear of being yourself. Another talk centers around showing courage and following your heart. Youth Frontiers also lead the students through a series of games to help them get comfortable and ready to open up to their classmates.
The goal for the day is for each student to write an act of courage, Storbakken said. The end of the day features all 125 students sitting in a circle, where they're given the chance to share their act of courage.
"They talk about how all of our actions have a ripple impact on the universe," Storbakken said. "When you share your act of courage, and you decide you're going to do something a little differently, to be a little better, it has an impact on the people around you."
In a reflection written after the retreat, sixth-grader Cadence Porisch said not being accepted was a big fear among students at the retreat.
"But knowing other kids have the same fear, we can conclude that we would accept a lot of people," Porisch wrote. "Because you would think, 'Well, if it was up to me, I would accept you.'"
Sixth-grader Kylie Skaaland, in a reflection written after the retreat, said some of the fears she brings to school relate to her personal appearance or how people perceive her.
"Do I look okay? Are people saying things behind my back?" Skaaland wrote. "Do I fit in? Am I going to fail the math test?"
Parent and high school volunteers help lead small group discussions and many of the high school volunteers went through the Courage Retreats when they were in sixth grade, Medeck said. Those students remember the great experience, she said, and love leading another group of sixth-graders through it.
"For them to come back and volunteer, I think, is a pretty powerful statement," Medeck said.
Brainerd High School senior Christine Sanganoo attended her first Courage Retreat as a sixth-grader at Forestview. She has since returned three times as a BHS student as a volunteer through the BHS Key Club.
During Sanganoo's first Courage Retreat in sixth grade, she and many of her classmates didn't think much would change because of the retreat, she said. Some didn't take it seriously but ended up surprised by its impact.
"By the end of the day, so many people were forced to reconsider the feelings of others," Sanganoo said. "And even what they themselves were going through."
The BHS Key Club members talk about their Courage Retreat experiences when the time comes each year to volunteer, Sanganoo said.
"It still comes up from time to time," Sanganoo said. "Like, 'Oh, remember when we learned this at the Courage Retreat.'"
One of the big lessons of the Courage Retreat is remembering small, everyday acts of courage make a big impact, Sanganoo said. Little changes people make in thinking about their words can make a world of difference to a classmate, she said.
"A lot of kids coming back from there, they didn't feel as worthless as they did," Sanganoo said. "A lot of them felt like they were making a difference."
Sanganoo returns to the Courage Retreats as a volunteer because of how powerful the day makes everyone feel. Everyone was empowered to make a difference, she said, and learned everything they do matters.
"As a volunteer, you realize there are so many different things going on," Sanganoo said. "And that the Courage Retreat helps kids in so many different ways."
Storbakken attended her first Courage Retreat years ago in another district and thought it was an amazing experience, she said. She worked with Youth Frontiers to try to bring it to Forestview, but funding was an issue. About 11 years ago, someone with Youth Frontiers called her and told her a local foundation wanted to fund the retreats, the school just had to organize it. The foundation which funds the retreats has asked to remain anonymous, she said. About 5,500 students have participated in a Courage Retreat since the program came to Forestview.
For the students, it's a once in a lifetime experience, she said. Over the course of six hours, students learn things about themselves they don't experience in a classroom.
"For some students, I think it can be a mountaintop experience," Storbakken said. "For some students, I think the Courage Retreats really just plant seeds."