top of page

See Beyond

Updated: May 29, 2023

Supporting New Discoveries

Among Refugee Youth Explorers

What does it mean to see beyond what we look at?

How can we transform our perception of the world and ourselves through a deeper understanding of our experiences?

As an organization that strives to help refugee youth develop a sense of self-efficacy, agency, and belonging, these are questions that inspire us as we move further into 2023.

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.

- Henry David Thoreau

At REACH, we’ve begun to address these queries through more creative, place-based programming for refugee and asylum-seeking youth in the Chicagoland area. During the last four months, REACH youth participants have been engaged in numerous learning adventures and projects, which have helped them to develop critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness skills that are essential for their well-being and success in today’s world.


Weekend Adventure Camps 2023

More than 50 refugee and asylum-seeking youth were introduced to the diverse world of animals and plant life in the region and challenged to compare their habitats to those in other parts of the world, including their home countries. They practiced identifying landmarks in the distance and working as a team to navigate overland using a map and compass to reach their destinations. They explored various habitats using their senses and shared the importance of various senses to animals and humans. Throughout these experiences, our enthusiastic youth participants were asked to think critically about the ecosystems they visited and understand their importance to our overall health. They even engaged in restoration activities to protect these natural areas.

The above activities took place within the context of our Weekend Adventure Camps, where in addition to learning to appreciate the complexity and diversity of nature, youth were encouraged to be curious and open-minded and challenge themselves to hike longer distances on more difficult terrain, improve their aim and posture through archery practice, and implement creative ascent strategies through rock climbing lessons. By seeing beyond what they look at, REACH youth are becoming more engaged, responsible and compassionate citizens who will make a positive difference in their communities and beyond.

REACH Weekend Adventure Camp Sessions, January - April 2023


Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century American philosopher and naturalist, famously said: "The question is not what you look at, but what you see." He believed that we can discover new truths and meanings by observing nature with an open mind and a sense of wonder.

Thoreau's observation of nature was not just a passive or aesthetic activity. He saw nature as a living and dynamic system, full of complexity and diversity. He also saw nature as a teacher and a guide, revealing the laws and principles that govern the universe and human existence. He challenged himself and his readers to look beyond the surface of things, to question their assumptions and prejudices, and to seek deeper connections and meanings.


Peer Mentor Leadership Program

It’s been pretty remarkable to observe this type of transformative learning here at REACH, particularly among the refugee youth leaders who are part of our Peer Mentor Leadership Program.

Since the start of the new year, REACH Peer Mentors have honed their technical abilities in rock climbing, kayaking, long hiking, skiing, and archery. Several of the youth leaders expressed a shift in their interest and motivation to learn more as they practiced these sports more regularly. For example, Nur Aga, age 17, described how he found himself thinking about climbing while he slept: “I never really took my other climbing experiences with REACH very seriously [during the summer], but as I practiced more frequently, I started to get excited about thinking through my strategy for climbing more efficiently the next time. I even dreamed about my hand and foot work.” Our Peer Mentors also spent many hours working together to plan their upcoming summer wilderness expeditions and this spring’s service-learning projects, including a workshop on the importance of reducing pollution levels in the Chicago River and other waterways. They proudly presented to their peers and also participated in other creative youth-driven workshops at the Friends of the Chicago River’s Annual Student Congress in late February. Additionally, these rising leaders met with several of their local public officials to share more about their positive experiences with REACH and to promote the inclusion of a $5M appropriations bill in the State of Illinois budget to support Sport for Good Youth Development programs like REACH's through Laureus USA.

The above skills are important because they enhance the safety and enjoyment of all REACH youth participants by reducing the risk of accidents and injuries. They foster personal growth and development by challenging the physical and mental limits of each youth leader. And they promote environmental and civic awareness and responsibility.

REACH Peer Mentor Leadership Training Sessions, January - April 2023


What does it mean to transform our perception of the world and ourselves through a deeper understanding of our experiences?

For the Peer Mentors, it means being able to recognize our emotions, thoughts and values, and how they influence our actions and decisions. This is why they decided to improve and expand a service-learning project they started last year. The youth leaders collectively determined that the 2023 Youth Action Campaign’s theme was far too important to neglect. As part of The American Red Cross’ annual initiative to inform the U.S. civilian population about the importance of understanding International Humanitarian Law (IHL), REACH Peer Mentors learn about, explore, and share IHL topics through a grassroots peer-to-peer campaign. This year, the American Red Cross asked youth to focus on how the environment can be damaged by armed conflict and how IHL protects it. In short, it’s been quite remarkable to watch and learn from our youth leaders as they intentionally mapped out a creative obstacle course with checkpoints that, as the youths put it: “explain the values that we believe best represent us and what REACH stands for.

This will be an educational event that puts you in the scenario of war if it were to come to the U.S. What natural environment would we hope was protected by international law? It’s a message about the beauty around us and the privilege we have to access these places and appreciate the plants, wildlife, and people in our own backyard. We invite you to attend this youth-led public event on May 21st, at Caldwell Woods.

As you can see, we’ve had a pretty active winter and spring already. We’re thankful for the grants provided by Laureus USA, National Park Trust, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Colonel Stanley McNeil Foundation, and the Carylon, Julius, and Marcie Hemmelstein Foundation as well as the many private donations received from our individual sponsors, all of which helped make our Weekend Adventure Camps and Peer Mentor Leadership Trainings so successful.

Each of your generous contributions help us to provide our youth participants with safe spaces, educational opportunities, psychosocial support, and life and leadership skills. By investing in their well-being and potential, you are helping them heal and thrive in their new communities.

It’s not too late to invest in our future! This May, you can play an active role in introducing refugee and asylum-seeking youth to transformative experiences by donating to our Spring Fundraiser. We’re excited to report that we are starting off strong with a Lead Gift in the total amount of $5,000 that will be matched dollar-for-dollar when you donate to REACH today!

Our goal is to raise a total of $10,000 by May 21st.

In the coming weeks, we hope to share more about how your donations will support our summer agenda, including two Peer Mentor Wilderness Exploration Trips to Daniel Boone National Forest, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Badlands National Park, and Black Hills National Forest as well as a fun-packed, FREE Summer Adventure Camp for newcomer youths, including four full weeks of outdoor learning and three overnight camping trips.


But how can we each apply these ideas to our own lives?

How can we have new eyes and see things differently?

Here are some suggestions that we’ve found helpful:

- Be curious and open-minded. Don't judge things by their appearance or by your preconceived notions. Try to learn something new every day and explore different perspectives and opinions.

- Be grateful and appreciative. Don't take things for granted or complain about what you don't have. Express your gratitude for what you have and acknowledge the people who support you and enrich your life.

- Be creative and playful. Don't be afraid to express yourself and try new things. Experiment with different forms of art and outdoor activities and have fun with your imagination.

- Be mindful and present. Don't dwell on the past or worry about the future. Focus on the here and now and enjoy the moment. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that surround you.

- Be compassionate and kind. Don't be indifferent or selfish. Care for yourself and others and do something good for someone every day. Smile, compliment, help, listen, hug, or donate to REACH!

Remember, life is a journey of discovery, and you are the explorer. You don't need to go far to find adventure and wonder. You just need to look around you with new eyes.

With gratitude,

Shana Wills

Executive Director and Founder

74 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page