ARKWRIGHT – A program which aims to help students develop meaningful relationships and skills in an unconventional way returned to northern Chautauqua County this spring.
In this era, with the explosion of smartphones, it’s become second nature to see teenagers scrolling through social media feeds, spending their hours looking at screens. If there’s one place you wouldn’t expect the next generation of students to flock to, it’s the Chautauqua County hiking trails. But that’s just where we found a group of eighth graders.
They’re here as a part of the Quest backpacking program, which, by getting kids outside, seeks to bring them together in a way not possible inside a classroom.
The program has become a tradition, dating back to well over three decades ago. Students from three local schools–Fredonia, Cassadaga, and Silver Creek–are given a major challenge. Walk from the dropoff point, over the river, and through the woods, about 30 miles back to civilization.
The expedition spans across four days, and students camp at several locations along the route. Here, the young hikers learn to cook, clean up after themselves, and perhaps most importantly, have a laugh with one another. And, while it’s usually not easy to get kids to agree, the vast majority of the students had nothing but positive feelings regarding the experience.
“Spending time with friends outside of school, especially in the outdoors, is pretty great,” Cooper Stenger, an eighth grader participating in the hike, stated. “Everything that we do here; cooking, setting up tents, even hiking, you have to work together with everyone. If you don’t get along, it just doesn’t work out.”
It’s not just the most youthful of participants who learn valuable skills. High school students who help to supervise and mentor the young teens say they also learn a thing or two by stepping into a position of leadership. Gabriel Hellwig, one of these student leaders, talked to us about what he has learned from the experience.
“With Quest, you’ve just got to keep moving, and as long as you can encourage someone to keep moving, I think that’s the best part about this,” Hellwig told us. “You can encourage people to kind of surpass their limits, or just surprise themselves with how much they can actually do.”
Perhaps the ones most responsible for this opportunity are Steve and Sue Cobb. The Fredonia husband and wife have led the Quest program since the ‘80s. But when you ask them, they say it wouldn’t be possible without the dozens of other volunteers who help out.
“The student leaders are high school students who, other than this year, have done Quest. They come back to learn leadership skills. And then we have generally between 20 and 25 adults with us.” Steve Cobb explained. “They come out, they give up jobs, many of them are self-employed. They keep coming back and back and back.”
It seems that almost every day we hear about the next controversy which the young people of America are responsible for. So often, kids dream about getting away from the desolate parts of the country, and moving to the concrete jungles of modern society. But, with programs like Quest, and people like Steve and Sue Cobb, maybe the nation’s youth will be able to cherish the things which don’t require a screen after all.