This year I had the fantastic opportunity of working at Explore Austin, a nonprofit that serves teenagers in East Austin through Leadership, Mentoring, and Adventure. For four months I was their office manager, and during that time I was sent on one of their Summer Wilderness Trips in the Hill Country. When I got back, I wrote a short essay for them to include on their blog, and they published it here: A Birthday Gift To Remember. I am including my essay below.
*Names have been changed
After spending seven days in the wilderness with fourteen 12-year-old girls, I was reminded of the one thing it seems all young girls need: opportunities to build self-confidence. I could tell they needed it and craved it. Some of the girls were painfully shy – to the point of freezing and being unable to speak when it was their turn to play a game.
Thus, I believe the mentors chose an excellent “gift” to give the girls on their birthdays during our Summer Wilderness Trip. Yes, the birthdays of two girls occurred while we were in the wilderness. They did not get cake. Cookies would have to wait until the last day when we arrived back at main camp. Instead, they got a “compliment circle.”
During the daily evening reflection time, while sitting in a circle on the ground, one of the mentors said that as a birthday gift to Sara* we would all take a turn in the circle and say something nice about her. I was amazed at the girls’ eagerness and kindness. They did not hesitate. In a few sentences each expressed their favorite thing about Sara. These girls have built friendships from being in school together as well as going on Saturday Challenges with Explore Austin during the past nine months. Even though they have this foundation, I knew the girls were not all extremely close friends: subgroups exist within the larger group. Still, I could not tell who were the “closer” friends because each girl expressed appreciation for Sara. Everyone knew something positive to say.
I was touched by the way each girl complimented Sara. It seemed like their friendships were growing and solidifying as the compliments were given. Even more importantly, I could see Sara’s self-confidence blossom after getting her birthday “gift.” I truly believe she acted with more certainty and boldness as she faced the challenges during the rest of the trip because of that experience.
She loved it so much and was willing to share: when the mentors asked her if they should give the same gift to Danielle* – whose birthday was the following day – Sara said yes. Definitely.
The girls learned self-confidence and how to believe in themselves in several ways throughout the trip. If asked about their experience with Explore Austin this summer, I’m sure they will tell you about the long hikes with heavy backpacking gear, their fear when facing the 3,000-foot zipline as well as rappelling down an 80-foot cliff, or the way they conquered rock climbing and sitting outside in the midst of a hailing thunderstorm. What I will remember best, though, is the birthday compliment circle: the mentors’ wisdom in presenting that opportunity to the group, the girls’ willingness to uplift their friends, and the birthday girls’ pleasure to be the recipient and then live into the positive characteristics attributed to them.