Gayle Hanson photo
Mentor Gerry Holmes and Angella Gibbons enjoy a moment during EarthWalk.
PLAINFIELD — Angella Gibbons walks the talk. Literally. And almost always in bare feet. The founder of EarthWalk Vermont wilderness education program has made it her life’s mission to create a way for kids of all ages to use the experience of the ground beneath their feet as a path towards a life of purpose, community and compassion.
Right now she’s walking on air, with the news the Canaday Foundation has awarded EarthWalk a three-year $120,000 grant to strengthen her efforts to train educators and mentors. This year’s Summer Institute for Educators will take place on Aug. 13-15 and Gibbons is thrilled at the idea of being able to expand the program even further with the monies from the new grant.
“It is a milestone for EarthWalk,” said Gibbons.
Poised to begin its second decade, EarthWalk, which is located in Hawthorn Meadow and forest adjacent to Goddard College, has become a model of innovative mentor-based education. Like a milkweed pod in a stiff breeze, it has begun to seed the state with a growing number of educators, college students and parents who find the EarthWalk model resonates in and out of the classroom. Beginning with five students, Angella and her team of mentors now work with 300 families annually.
EarthWalk began as a school-year program that took kids out of the classroom one day a week from September through June. Today, in addition, there are summer camps, afterschool programs, a Teen Land Project and mentorship programs for adults. This fall Gibbons will teach an 11-week undergraduate course in nature mentoring at Sterling College, all the better to train future educators in how to teach children to love and protect their environment. Three years ago Gibbons started a summer EarthWalk Institute which provides continuing education credits for teachers through Goddard, and has attracted educators from as far away as Africa.
But you don’t have to look farther than Luke Foley, Vermont’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, to find an articulate supporter for the program. “I did the summer institute which is geared towards nature mentoring,” Foley explained. “Much of what I learned is considered to be best practices in the traditional classroom.”
Foley, who worked in two wilderness-based therapy programs in Utah and Vermont before beginning the innovative STAR (Students Taking Alternate Routes) program at Northfield’s middle and high school, believes strongly in the EarthWalk educational model that puts mentoring at the center of the experience.
EarthWalk grew out of the work of Jon Young, founder of the renowned Wilderness Awareness School. It is part of network of more than 100 schools on seven continents, that also includes Brattleboro’s Oyase Community School (Lakota for “burning desire to learn”), where Gibbons was a lead mentor.
Together these schools stand as an example of community richness. Each school may have its own way of doing things, but all include practices Young identified as the “elements that embody, sustain and enliven the richness of village life.”
If there is improvisation throughout the day, that day is structured around certain key elements: the presence of elders; sit spots — a time for each participant to go to their own chosen place in the woods to observe and reflect; telling stories — which can be traditional or tales of experience; and honoring each other through appreciation.
At EarthWalk this means beginning the day with a silent walk through the woods to Hawthorn Meadow where most of the day’s activities occur. Posted at the path entrance is a traditional wisdom wheel, which identifies the four cardinal directions, and their characteristics and inspirations. Each day begins in the East, the direction of the rising sun, with an intention to welcome, encourage, and inspire participants. “Child’s passion is what we do here,” says Gibbons. Early morning activities focus on celebrating the senses and the ordinary magic of outdoor play.
During late morning the South is evoked through skill development through observing, questioning and crafting. On Friday some students are working at finishing their bow-drill, an essential implement for fire starting sans matches. Kids build everything from baskets to shelters, guided by mentors.
“Working as a mentor at EarthWalk is developing relationships with kids, and finding places where we can work cooperatively and learn together. I learn something every day,” says Gerry Holmes, a summer camp mentor and Sterling College student.
Early afternoon points West. It’s time for gathering, celebrating and sharing. Shared stories can be drawn from traditional sources or the day’s experiences. With as many as 50 persons on the land ranging in age from 6 to over 70, there’s always a good tale.
Close of day brings participants to the North point on the wisdom wheel where the notion of stewardship, support and caring occurs. It’s a time for the big picture of reflecting on the life and health of the self-contained village. And as at the beginning of the day, it occurs in a circle.
Educator and retired Montpelier Union Elementary School principal Duncan Tingle is a well-loved EarthWalk elder, a title the active senior first bristled at but now embraces. Being an elder means not only sharing ideas and skills but also receiving acknowledgment from participants, who are trained to honor their elders, a stance not always found in society at large. Summing up his own EarthWalk experience, Tingle pauses before his face erupts with a ready smile. “All kids have gifts and multiple intelligences that are honored at EarthWalk. If everyone is covered with mud I know it’s been a good day,” he laughs.
On this day parents have joined their children to celebrate the conclusion of a week of camp. Drums provide the rhythm. Songs are sung, skits performed. Each person in the circle is given the chance to say what they are thankful for: parents, trees, oxygen, worms, smiles, friends and the forest floor get shout-outs.
Randolph parent Sarah Silbert’s two children, Grace and Drew, love EarthWalk. “When my kids are finished with the day they are totally relaxed and they are more connected to the family and each other,” she said. “There’s a lot of hope here.”
In the closing ritual everyone turns in unison away from the circle and simply takes in the richness of the environment before turning again to face each other. After a burst of laughter and cheers, the woods are still as the campers each leave to walk silently out of the woods and into the world.MORE IN Central Vermont
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