August 3, 2007

Rocky Mountain High: Summer Field Study in Colorado helps students discover life's gifts

Summer Field Study staff members Chris Belch, Marcy Schoettle and Lucas Schroeder at the base of hte 2,500-foot sheer granite face of Long's Peak known as The Diamond. (Submitted photo)

Summer Field Study staff members Chris Belch, Marcy Schoettle and Lucas Schroeder at the base of hte 2,500-foot sheer granite face of Long's Peak known as The Diamond. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

As she looked out the window of one of the 12 large passenger vans headed from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, 18-year-old Liz Goad couldn’t yet comprehend all the potentially life-changing adventures that Joseph Hollowell had planned for her and the other 81 high schools students on this trip.

She didn’t yet know there would come a moment in the two-week-long journey when she would be tested in a way she had never been before, a challenge in climbing a mountain that would force her to look at herself, her faith and her life.

Hollowell knew that moment was coming for Liz and the other youths. It always does.

For the past 25 summers, as a teacher and now the president of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, the 52-year-old Hollowell has been leading these two-week-long journeys that include hiking, rock climbing and white-water rafting in the largest mountain range in the United States.

From a mere physical standpoint, the adventures are demanding, draining and exhilarating all at once. But for Hollowell—who looks a little like singer John Denver—the physical challenges also have a grander goal. There has always been a definite spiritual plan in developing and directing a program that he simply calls Summer Field Study:

Take a group of youths to one of the most breathtaking places in the world. Let them wake up in the crisp mountain air. Send them hiking and climbing mountains that stretch toward the heavens and stretch their limits. Put them in rafts that rush through white-water rapids, the cold river water soaking through their clothes and the thrill soaking into their skin. Gather them around crackling campfires at night to share their experiences from the day and from their lives. Then have them sleep beneath skies where stars shoot across the blackness, where stars shine with their intended brilliance.

And when the beauty and wonder of “God’s country” surround them, deliver this message to the youths:

“If you look at the effort that God has put into this physical beauty, how much more beautiful is his intention for his people?” Hollowell says. “My goal is for the students to come back with a sense of their own wonderful gifts and the gifts all people have. Ultimately, we’re trying to get them to realize they’re an even more important part of God’s creation.”

Finding strength in weakness

The 24-hour, 1,100-mile trip from Indiana to Colorado had ended. The campsite had been set up in Rocky Mountain National Park. Liz Goad now had time to think about the first climb her group would be making the next morning: a climb to the top of Flattop Mountain, 12,500 feet high.

Just thinking about the climb had Liz “freaking out,” to use her words. She describes her usual plan of exercising as “working out my arms a lot with the remote.” Making the 8.8-mile trip up and down the mountain would be a major challenge for the soon-to-be-senior at Roncalli.

As the climb began, Liz couldn’t believe how gorgeous the day was: sunshine, perfect blue sky. Halfway through the climb, she couldn’t believe how hard it was. Her legs ached. Her lungs burned. The excitement of starting the climb had faded. Still, she kept getting encouragement from the adult leaders and her fellow students from Roncalli, Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis and Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.

She pushed on, overcoming a self-described tendency to lose interest halfway through challenges. She kept reaching for more and finally reached the top with her group.

“It was gorgeous at the top,” she says. “This was a big boost for me. You get more confidence in your abilities.”

The climb was still etched in her mind a few days later when an adult leader spoke at one of the campfire “reflection” sessions, talking about the theme, “When you’re weak, you’re strong.”

“I had a false sense of what being strong was,” Liz says. “In the midst of your weaknesses, the strength you find to pull through is what makes a difference. It really had a big impact on me. It gives you a new outlook on life. When you understand your life a little more, you understand God. At least that’s the way it works for me.”

‘Natural soul-searchers’

Nearly 2,000 youths have experienced the Summer Field Study program since Hollowell started it as a young science teacher at Roncalli. He has developed the trip for juniors and seniors in high school.

“They’re natural soul searchers at that age,” says Hollowell, a father of 11. “They’re poised to reflect on what the next part of their lives will be like.”

In 1982, the first year of the journey, five students and two adult leaders traveled to Colorado, where Hollowell had once been a graduate student who fell in love with the beauty of the mountains. This year, 37 adults volunteered to help Hollowell lead the program, many of them taking vacation time to help.

“He’s an amazing, humble and outstanding leader,” says Tara Land, a teacher at St. Luke School in Indianapolis who has volunteered to help Hollowell for the past two years. “His faith is clearly shown. He does it because he loves making a difference in the children’s lives.”

Land led one of the reflection sessions, basing her theme upon this sentiment, “Live in such a way that those who know you but don’t know God will come to know God because they know you.”

She saw that quote come alive in the youths during the two weeks of the journey this June.

“It’s so neat to have all these kids who don’t know each other come together,” she says. “They help each other when they think they can’t go on. The neatest thing is watching them grow and distinguish those moments in the day when they realize something about themselves, their friends and their families. People come in not knowing about their faith or recognizing the blessings in their lives. They come away from the experience seeing the presence of God in their lives.

“It’s magical.”

A view from God’s altar

Magical and terrifying.

Put those two adjectives together and you get a sense of the experience that Luke Allard’s group had as they climbed toward Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park.

“At the very beginning of the hike, it says if you have a fear of heights, you shouldn’t be doing this,” says Luke, 18, a graduate of Roncalli’s Class of 2007. “I used to have a very serious fear of heights. It’s a very serious hike.”

As one of the young people who were making the journey to Colorado for a second year, Luke was among a group who was allowed to take an alternate side trip to Utah with adult leaders for a few days. Angel’s Landing became their goal.

The trek toward the landing is steep, rising to 1,500 feet above the Virgin River in Zion Canyon. Near the top, the path narrows and there are fixed chains in the sandstone to help hikers reach the landing that one writer described as “an altar, 1,500 feet in the air.”

“When you get up to the top, it’s the most rewarding trip you’ve ever done,” Luke says. “You get a sense of God from the beauty of nature and the people around you—the people who support you and who you help. God is all around you.”

Reaching to new heights

On the last evening in Colorado, the 82 youths and 38 adults attended Mass at Mother Cabrini Shrine, a shrine in honor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen to become a saint.

“The sun was setting behind the shrine,” recalls Katie Ciresi, 17, a senior-to-be at Bishop Chatard High School. “We went inside for Mass, and we reflected on the whole week. For me, it brought me closer to God and gave me a stronger faith.”

As part of that last evening’s reflection, each member of the group was asked to share a moment from the trip when they were thankful for something that happened or sorry for something they wished they hadn’t done.

“I stood up and said I’m thankful people gave me a chance to be open,” Liz Goad says. “It helped me strengthen bonds with friends I’ve lost. It really made me close with myself, God and the friends who were there.”

For Hollowell, the trip offered a reason to be thankful beyond the hiking, backpacking and rock climbing he loves to do. It’s his chance to get close again to students, the reason he first became interested in education.

“This is the only thing I do with students anymore,” he says. “We had two or three people at the closing Mass say that these were the best two weeks of their lives. I hear that over and over again each year. Knowing that the students are benefiting keeps me coming back. It’s very edifying to hear their stories. It continues to build my faith.”

He pauses and says, “God just seems to bless all of this.” †


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