By Mike Dunn 

Staddle up

Brush Creek’s Staddle summer camp provides more than fun for Chicago youths

 

Mike Dunn

Cortez Holmes, left, receives a Band-aid from camp counselor Stephanie Woodruff after he cut his hand during activities. As a quiet honor-roll student from Chicago's west-side, Holmes came out of his shell as he spent time at Staddle Camp.

The campers at Staddle Camp looked at a tangled mess of ropes and wires high up in the trees of Brush Creek Ranch. Wood planks were suspended only by ropes, 30 feet above the ground; which dangled back and forth from the gentle breeze off the Medicine Bow Mountains.

"What? There is no way we are climbing that," one of the campers said.

"What if we fall?" asked another.

They are going to climb that-­ this is the high-ropes course, one of the camp counselors explained. The harnesses would catch them if they slipped.

Even after it was explained the carabiner could hold the weight of a small car, it did little to calm the nerves of the campers, who could not take their eyes off the towering high-ropes course.

The campers had gone through an extremely selective program and traveled more than 1,100 miles from Chicago to be at Staddle Camp. They are some of Chicago's best and brightest – living in the Windy City's toughest neighborhoods. And even for them, the ropes course put fear and anxiety into the hearts of the middle school students.


Among campers nervously awaiting their turn up the high ropes course was Cortez Holmes.

Cortez is a soft-spoken pre-teen with high ambitions. He's a soon-to-be seventh-grade student at Visitation Catholic School in Chicago.

When Cortez grows up, he wants to be a photographer. But his dream is to play in the NBA - after all, basketball is his favorite sport, referring to himself as an avid Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls fan.

Making it to the NBA takes practice, and Cortez knows this. But he doesn't get to go outside and shoot hoops as much as he wants to. Why not? Cortez, paused and looked down at the ground, responded with a simple answer.

"We live in a bad area," he said.

Cortez lives in West Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago's west side. West Englewood is an area plagued with drugs, gang-violence and a dwindling economy.

West Englewood has a 34.7 percent unemployment rate, 32.3 percent of households live below the poverty level and 30.3 percent of residents do not have a high school diploma. It has the seventh highest rate for violent crimes in Chicago neighborhoods, with 65.7 murders per 1,000 people.

But Cortez refuses to let his surroundings hurt his academics.

He's been an honor-roll student since fifth grade. He is at Visitation on several academic scholarships.

Cortez almost had the highest grades in his class last year. But to his disappointment, he finished with "only a 3.8 GPA".

"Next year, I'm going to try to get a 4.0," he said. "It will take a lot of work, but I think I can do it."

Into the wild

They come from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds, but Cortez's story is not unique to the campers at Staddle Camp. Growing up in Chicago's most treacherous neighborhoods, the campers are the most elite students and young leaders in Chicago.

The goal of Staddle camp is to help these kids reach their highest leadership and academic potential by stepping out of their comfort zone.

Beth White, and her husband Bruce, are the owners of White Lodging, a lodging management company which is expected to manage 186 hotels by the end of 2015. When the White's first purchased Brush Creek Ranch, their vision was to do something charitable with the ranch. Four years ago, the Whites decided to team up with the Big Shoulders Fund, a Catholic non-profit organization which provides assistance to Chicago's neediest areas.

"We thought coming from Chicago ... this would be a great place to combine with Big Shoulders to do some academic things, science oriented things and some of the leadership things," Bruce said.

Since the first Staddle Camp, attendance at each camp, and the number of camps held every summer have increased annually.

Because the entire experience is paid for by donors, only the top applicants are selected to go to Staddle Camp at Brush Creek. The process is extensive; it includes an application process and a lengthy essay. After review, applicants are chosen by the Big Shoulders Fund based upon academic excellence and leadership potential.

No more than five kids from each eligible school are selected into the program.

"It was really hard," Cortez said about the process of getting into Staddle Camp. "It was a lot of writing."

The students who make it to Staddle Camp have undergone a very tough selection process.

"All of them are just really great kids," Beth said. "And that's what we want here, just good kids."

Before they make the trip to the Rocky Mountain West, the campers go through four manditory science-based field trips in Chicago. They visit the planetarium and study star constellations. They take water samples and test for water quality. They learn about wild animals they may encounter in the forest.

But a trip to a museum is nothing compared to seeing the real thing.

Campers are introduced to ranching life by Brush Creek staff, they study plants found in Wyoming. As they take courses at Staddle Camp, they relate them back to their home-town. They are asked, "is this something that can be found in Chicago?"

When he first arrived at Staddle Camp, Cortez said it was like a new world. At first, he couldn't sleep because he was "scared of the bears". But Wyoming is beautiful, he said. There were no noises from a bustling city. Cortez saw pronghorn, which populate the Platte Valley, for the first time.

And the water at Brush Creek? "Way cleaner than the water [in Chicago]," Cortez said. "That's for sure."

Learning the ropes

One by one, the campers slowly made their way across the high ropes course. Some of the campers breezed through the many obstacles - laughing and smiling their way towards the final zip-line.

Others struggled, eyes filled with tears and sweat, they took more than one hour to get through the course.

Nonetheless, wherever one turned, there was a camp counselor cheering them on, encouraging them not to quit.

"Just a little bit further, you are doing great," a counselor told a camper struggling across the course.

Of all the counselors at Staddle Camp, one stands out from the rest.

Literally.

Wearing a large vibrant pink and yellow floral over-shirt, large aviators sunglasses and a backwards hat, lead Staddle Camp counselor Stephanie Woodruff's voice carries through the woods, assuring them the ropes course is not as scary as it looks.

Why the vibrant shirt?

"It's ropes course day," she said. "I always wear this shirt on ropes course day."

Woodruff is a recent graduate of University of Colorado Boulder, and has her degree in education. She loves working with kids. She loves the outdoors-growing up camping in the mountains of Colorado.

Naturally, spending her summer as a Brush Creek counselor was a perfect fit.

Though this is her first year as a counselor at Staddle Camp, her favorite part of the week is the day they get into camp.Woodruff has been to Chicago before, her parents are originally from there. She said it is no secret that life in the Rocky Mountains is different than the streets of Chicago.

"The way of life that people here live, it just comes natural to us," she said. "But you have some of these kids just have no idea."

The first days, the counselors had to explain to the campers the proper way to use a sleeping bag to stay warm and the importance of keeping food out of the tent.

And, no, "the germs from the marshmallow stick won't make you sick," Woodruff recalled explaining to one of the campers.

But as the week progresses, so do the campers. Woodruff said takes enjoyment watching the campers come out of their shell.

Like Cortez, most of the campers are the quiet kids in otherwise rowdy classes. Being around kids like him made Cortez open up and try new things.

Cortez's defining moment in camp came at the beginning of the week. He was quietly kicking around the soccer ball by himself. He only had a few classmates with him at Staddle Camp, but other than that, he knew no one at the camp.

"So I went up to him and asked him if he wanted to play," Woodruff said.

Cortez said no. He plays basketball, not soccer.

But a funny thing happened as the week continued. Kicking the soccer ball by himself turned into kicking the ball around with other campers.

Eventually, he was playing goalie in a full soccer match, when a fellow camper kicked a ball towards the goal.

"My face got in a fight with a soccer ball-the soccer ball won," Cortez said while laughing.

Though he left with a self-described "nasty" bloody nose, Cortez said he loves playing soccer.

"Now, we can't get him off the field," Woodruff said.

For Woodruff, there are few things more rewarding then watching the campers progress.

"You just see these kids open up so much," Woodruff said.

They come in shy, distant, even a little scared. But when they leave the camp, they go from the quiet, smart kid in the back of the class, to a potential leader in the community.

"It just puts in perspective of what we are doing out here," Woodruff said. "Because for me, it's kids' camp. It's fun. I get excited over it and it's awesome. But to them, it's a lot more than that."

Making the leap

As they passed the swinging planks, walked the high-wire and jumped from board to board, the high-ropes course ended with a zip-line, approximately 50-yards long. All the campers have to do is jump off the platform, and they would slide down swifts speeds into the woods.

But even those who braved the first parts of the high ropes course could not shrugg off the fear of seeing the ground 30 feet below.

The counselors told them to count to three and just jump, but that is easier said than done.

"No, just push me, ok?" a frightened camper asked his camp counselor. But this was something they had to do for themselves. They would have to overcome their fears to reach the ground again.

After a deep breath, the camper jumped as he let out a loud yell that echoed throughout the forest.

As the camper reached the end of the zip-line, he ran back to the group nervously waiting for their turn on the high-ropes course, his once frightened face beamed with pure joy.

"How was it," the scared camper was asked.

Without hesitation, he yelled back "So much fun!" He then looked at a fellow camper above him, ready to take the leap off into platform and on to the zip-line.

"Just jump. Don't think about it, just do it!"

At the end of the week, the campers and counselors sit down by the fire. Instead of campfire songs and roasting marshmallows as they usually do, they talk. What fears did they overcome? What will they take back with them?

Mid-way through the week, Cortez already knew the answers to those questions.

Cortez learned a lot while in Wyoming. He learned how to be a leader and an abundance of science facts. He learned about wildlife and not to "leave food out for the bears".

Most importantly, he learned to leap out of his comfort zone.

These campers have the smarts. They have overcome adversity and beat the odds. They have seen a new way of life; seen the world through a fresh lens.

And they will take the leadership and academic skills they learned at Staddle Camp back home, to make a better world for themselves and their communities.

Who knows? Years from now, Cortez may be leading the Chicago Bulls to an NBA championship. Maybe he will be a world-renowned photographer.

But there is little doubt the soften-spoken boy from West Englewood, Chicago, along with all the other campers at Staddle Camp, are going to be leaders for postive change in this world.

 

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