Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Community in wilderness: The EMH Sand Dunes Course

Getting food ready for the course.
True community cannot be forced or manufactured. At Ekklesia Mountain High, it starts when the students themselves decide to believe and invest in their community together. Sure, the instructors do their best to create an environment where community is encouraged, but it doesn’t really happen until the students themselves make it happen.

That was the thinking behind the Sand Dunes Course, the first EMH course of the year, which took place August 18-28 in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, about 80 miles southeast of Buena Vista. 

Director Ben Little wanted to take the students out before school started, to give them an opportunity to set the tone of the school year before they even set foot in the classroom. “We wanted to begin the process of building the community, as well as of developing the wilderness skills the students will need for the year.”

First, the group simply needed to get to know each other. With two new instructors - Jordan Euler and Deanna Jamison - along with ten EMH students and three guests from a school in Texas interested in partnering with the EMH program, the dynamic of the group had changed considerably from last year.

“A highlight of the course for me was getting to know the students and interacting with them in an outdoor environment,” said Mr. Euler. “It was good to get to know them before the start of classes, in a more relaxed setting.”

Challenging terrain; beautiful scenery!
Over the ten days, the students hiked over 25 miles. They spent one day climbing 13,200’ Mt. Herard and spent a few days off-trail, exploring difficult terrain with downed trees, thick brush, and steep inclines. They also visited two beautiful mountain lakes.

Within this setting, the instructors set the expectations for the course and presented the students with opportunities to lead.  Each day the instructors chose two “leaders of the day,” students who were responsible to find the route as they learned to read and follow the map, tell the group how far they were traveling and how much elevation they were gaining and losing, and use the map to get the group to the next campsite.

According to Mr. Little, “The leaders of the day have to set the pace, keep the group together, and decide the schedule for the day, like when we hike, when we do TAG (Time Alone with God) time, and so forth. They also decide how they will frame the day spiritually, presenting the group with a thought or verse they want the group to think about while they are hiking.”

Each successive course will present the students with more leadership opportunities, but the Sand Dunes Course is important because it lays the groundwork for what is expected from the students throughout the year. Mr. Little was encouraged by the response of the group.

“We had a particularly strong group of leaders this time. The students really embraced the idea of community. They got excited about it and took it seriously. We introduced our theme: The Mission of God’s People. We started to ask, ‘What is the mission of God’s people? What are we called to do?’”

As God’s people who are currently the upperclassmen of DPCA, the students discussed what their role would be in the upcoming school year. As leaders in the school, what kind of culture did they want to create? What would they do to cultivate that culture, as well as to lead in setting the example?

The students began by creating a list of goals for the year. They wrote out the list, and then each student signed it as an agreement to work together toward achieving those goals. Their list included the following expectations:

·         To keep a positive attitude, not creating a culture of complaining, even when expectations are not met.
·         To have real relationships. If people are struggling, be honest and share with each other. Even though we want a positive atmosphere, we don’t want fake faces. Talk out problems instead of masking them.
·         To create a culture of respect for each other, not putting down or talking bad about each other.
·         To enjoy each other. To find the fun moments and create memories within the school day and outside of school as well.

EMH student Becca said, “I’m super glad we did this list, because that is where my thoughts were going for this year. It’s cool to have a goal of going for it together. So far everyone is being really encouraging.”

Another student, Levi, also embraced the idea of community. “Last year I had a more pessimistic attitude at times,” he said. “Looking back, I decided I could be a better person. This year, I stayed optimistic the whole time. I chose a better attitude.”

Some solo time...
“The students really enjoyed each other on this course,” Mr. Little confirmed. “It was fun to see them coming together in such a positive way.”

At the end of the course, the students did a 24-hour monitored solo where they spent the night by themselves. It was a good time of journaling and reflecting on the course. A couple of students in particular really grew emotionally and spiritually through that experience, and the group had a good discussion afterward about how God spoke to them.

Overall, the course accomplished what the instructors were hoping for and more, setting the tone for a year of encouraging and growing together as a community. The students leave October 2 for their next challenge, the Moab Climbing Course.

"I'm ready," said Becca. "I can't wait to get outside and climb some rocks."

Related Articles: The Mission of God's People

Ekklesia Mountain High is a boarding and day-student program for high school juniors and seniors at Darren Patterson Christian Academy, in which approximately forty days of wilderness experience and leadership training is integrated with rigorous academics in DPCA's Biblically-centered environment.  To learn more, please visit the school's website at, and the EMH program's website at

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