My Summer with The Mountaineers

In this story, originally featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Mountaineer magazine, read about a high school intern's experience with Mountain Workshops.
Dana Berejka Dana Berejka
Mountaineers Summer Intern
March 21, 2021
My Summer with The Mountaineers

This summer, I interned with The Mountaineers Mountain Workshop youth program. It taught me a lot about what it means to help a community. Getting people outdoors — especially those who don’t usually have the opportunity — can make all the difference in their day, week and even life.

While I am still trying to figure out what I want to do with my own life, one thing I know for certain is that I want to help others. Luckily, I’m just entering my junior year of high school and have two summers to choose a college and major.

From first through seventh grade, my deepest passion was rock climbing. My devoted parents would drive me through an hour of grueling traffic out to Vertical World three times a week to climb with their youth program. My dinners often consisted of Vertical World snack offerings (where I found the best vegan cookies). I remember the tiresome car rides home, doing my homework in the passenger seat by flashlight, with hands barely functioning — sore from climbing and covered in rough calluses. But my strongest memories are of the feelings of peace and joy. On several occasions I would make my dad stay longer with me so I could complete a bouldering route I had been working on all week, and then not being able to stop talking about it until my head hit the pillow that night. The joy of completing a challenging climbing route was like nothing else I have ever experienced.

The mental and physical challenge that climbing provides is extremely rewarding. I set very high standards for myself both in and out of school; unfortunately, this leads to me feeling stressed about 75 percent of the time. However, for the other 25 percent of the time, I was climbing. When you climb, all you worry about is the next hold, not the next math test or history paper; this aspect of climbing was huge for me. Climbing was for me like yoga is to a lot of people — a great way to relax while still feeling the burn.

I was very excited that this summer I was able to share my passion for climbing with other kids. But not just any kids. These kids have been through more than most their age, let alone any age.

The kids I belayed, hiked with, and got to know this summer were from Brettler Family Place, an organization that provides housing and support for families that have been without a home. By just looking at the campers you would never be able to tell. They were filled with so much joy and energy — even a little too much energy at times! When I talked to some of the kids individually, the way they described their home life seemed pretty normal — they might as well have been my next door neighbor.

I was able to relate to their stories, from enjoying playing sports, spending time with family and friends, to the occasional unwanted chores. The fact that I did not hear any tales that pulled at my heartstrings comes as a huge positive, but I was still moved by my time spent with the campers. The lengths to which Brettler Family Place goes to bring these kids as typical a childhood as possible is outstanding. I’m so glad I got to contribute to their joy and adventures this summer. I hope that at least some of the kids were able to get the same rewards out of climbing that I treasure — to forget about the troubles in life and build confidence when succeeding at a climb.

While on a hike to Rattlesnake Ridge with the group, I got to have more personal conversations with some of the Brettler kids. I had my camera with me because I was filming a short video about Leave No Trace and wanted the campers to be the leading actors and actresses. This started many conversations with kids wanting to see the film and learning more about Leave No Trace. At the top of the hike, while enjoying snacks and overcast but still very pleasant views, I quizzed participants about how long it takes for different items you might take with you while hiking to degrade. At first the kids were hesitant to be filmed but as soon as one of their friends could not figure out the correct answer, many more joined in. Very quickly a competitive, fun environment was formed around protecting the outdoors.

In particular I had a great conversation with a camper named Mekedes. She’s just one year younger than I am, and we bonded over our interest in algebra and our dislike of geometry. She studied Spanish and I studied French, and we both agreed languages are very hard. I could just tell if we went to the same school, we would have been great friends.

Back at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, the campers organized races up the climbing walls. They competed with one another until each of them had gotten to the top at least once. In the beginning, many were scared to climb all the way up the wall, but as the weeks went on, more and more of them were reaching the summit. Even those who were extremely uncomfortable with heights learned to climb to the top.

Dana belaying a climber from Brettler Place at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center. Photo by Suzanne Gerber

Everyone was eager to learn the different aspects of climbing, and most learned how to belay. Soon there were more belayers than climbers. Many were excited to belay their friends, but understandably their fellow climbers were much more hesitant at first. As more time passed, their trust in one another grew, and campers had little to no hesitation to be belayed by a friend. Many kids were terrified to be lowered, but by the end they felt and looked like Spider Man. One boy only climbed the same route every time, but each time he got better and better. On the first day, one girl refused to climb the wall and strictly stuck to bouldering. But on my last day, she had completed more climbs than anyone else in the group.

Reflecting back on my summer, not only did these kids’ climbing skills improve, but their confidence, attitude and perseverance took massive leaps in the right direction. And most important of all, they learned to trust in each other: to be there and support each other in challenging situations. It’s so important for these kids to learn that they can count on friends. It became very clear to me that climbing had helped them grow, just how I hoped it would. Climbing was their distraction from life’s troubles and a natural confidence booster, just like it was and is for me. Even though I have had a very different life than these kids, we can relate to each other through climbing. I might not have all the answers to life’s curve balls, but if I am belaying you, you can be sure I will have advice on where to go next.

Interested in working with youth as a Summer Camp Counselor or Summer Camp Coordinator with The Mountaineers? We're hiring for 2021 Summer Camps! Learn more about our open positions on our Employment page.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2016 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

LEAD IMAGE OF Dana showing Mekedes her videos on the hike to Rattlesnake Ledge. PHOTO COURTESY OF Suzanne gerber.

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