Some kids finished off their last week of summer vacation toasting s'mores and chain-eating hot dogs.
Joshua Kier met a West African medicine man and went on a quest for his inner warrior.
"I rediscovered something that was lost for a long time," says the 17-year-old.
"Passion, ideas, creativity. I found it again. It revealed itself."
Mr. Kier is one of 40 teens who spent their last week before school diving into something deeper than the local swimming pool: a series of intense emotional and physical rituals designed to empower them through greater self-knowledge and confidence before they head back to school tomorrow.
Teen Journey, a new weeklong camp held at the high-end Zajac Ranch in Mission, B.C., incorporates indigenous wisdom, elders, ceremony and rites of passage as a pathway for teenagers to get their bearings as they cross into adulthood.
Led by 15 elders, shamans and mentors from a variety of cultures and traditions, the camp is intended, facilitators say, to guide teens to discovering their own unique gifts that can then be brought back to the "tribe."
It's the brainchild of Vancouver businessman and broadcaster Andrew Rezmer, who was inspired by his 15-year-old son's experience last year at a camp in California that had some indigenous elements.
"At first he didn't want to go to this camp," Mr. Rezmer recalls.
"He said, 'No way - you can't make me.' We had to make a compromise. His passion is music, so our deal was, he would go to the camp and we'd get him a drum kit. Before the camp ended, he told us he didn't want to come back. He said it was the most profound experience of his life."
Mr. Rezmer drew on many of the people he works with and interviews on his health- and personal-development-themed radio show. "In order to make this camp program, we needed to make a village," he says.
In a society that has lost touch with ritual, meaning, metaphor and story, Mr. Rezmer argues, youth will naturally seek out individuation - sometimes in dangerous ways. "Our goal is to provide them with safe, guided and empowering alternatives."
The camp is open to kids 13 to 18 across Canada; for this session, most were from greater Vancouver, with a handful from Washington and Alberta. Each day of the camp involves a different quest, starting with a first nations ceremony on the first day. They drummed, danced, meditated, chose tribes - the boys went in search of their inner warriors, the girls their inner goddesses. They climbed ropes, walked through fire and faced their demons and dark emotions under the guidance of the camp's elders.
"Everyone is being pushed emotionally here," says 15-year-old Serafina Appel.
One of the camp's elders is Malidoma Somé, a West African medicine man who is a member of the Dagara tribe from a small village in Burkina Faso, and the holder of two doctorates in psychology and philosophy from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. On Monday, Mr. Somé led the teens to create their own village, assigning them to one of five groups - Earth, Fire, Water, Minerals and Nature. The teens made shrines to each element, showing how each life-giving aspect was crucial to every other member of the village.
Mr. Somé's task was to first convince a group of urban North American youth that everyone has a gift that makes them unique. "Everyone is gifted. Everyone is a genius," he says.
Despite the fact that advertising was limited to the camp's website, flyers and word-of-mouth, sign-up for the $1,200 program was brisk, Mr. Rezmer says.
But it was a harder sell for some of the teens attending.
For Mr. Kier, it initially set off alarm bells.
"I was like 'Hippie alert! Avoid … avoid … avoid!'" he says.
Ms. Appel also admits to being less than thrilled about attending at first, nudged into it by self-development-loving parents. But she's glad she went. "In one acting exercise we had to act out love, neediness and anger - really intensely," she says. "I was shocked to find anger came so easily for me. I realize I normally don't let that come out. Now, I know when I'm feeling something - not to cover it up."
The approach, says camp facilitator and therapist Tasha Simms, is to invite teens to seek their own self-definition, "not by doing what we tell them - but by offering these experiences, so they can discover who they are."
Ms. Simms, who works with adults in her private practice, says she's seen the repercussions of not having this kind of full-circle initiation in adolescence. "It's the kind of classic arrested development I see constantly in adults, with the mid-life crisis."
Still, each camper's participation in the activities is optional, she says. "They're free to say 'no' to anything that they don't want to do."
And according to Ms. Appel, some did decline. "Some kids don't want to get emotional," she says. "They don't want to break down."
Plans are already being made for next year's camp, to be set in mid-August to accommodate differing return-to-school dates for kids. In the meantime, there are monthly follow-up workshops and events over the next 12 months for the current cohort.
"Our hope," says Mr. Rezmer, "is to inspire similar programs in different communities."
As for Mr. Kier, his 'hippie alert' bells were silenced by the end of the week. He hopes the experience will give him the confidence to pursue a future in film direction and voice acting. "I turn 18 next month. I become a man," he says. "This experience has exceeded my expectations."
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