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Standing on the Highest Mountain: Summer 2023 Recap

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

"I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw.” – Black Elk

I've always loved this quote by Black Elk, a famous Ogalala Sioux leader who witnessed the clash of cultures and the loss of his people's way of life. Black Elk described a mystical experience he had at the top of a mountain when he was only nine years old. He saw the beauty and the sacredness of the land, and he felt a deep connection with it. He also saw the challenges and the opportunities that came with change and adaptation.

REACH Peer Mentor Wilderness Learning Expedition: Standing at the top of Black Elk Peak, South Dakota, July 2023.

His quote captures the essence of what we at REACH aim to achieve with our wilderness learning programs: to inspire our youth to see beyond their immediate challenges and to discover new perspectives and possibilities. This summer, we had the privilege of witnessing this transformation in our Peer Mentors, who embarked on a series of epic adventures across the country, following the footsteps of Black Elk and other historical figures. They learned not only about the natural beauty and diversity of America, but also about the rich and complex history and culture of its people.

But our summer fun didn't stop there. We also ran four weeks of summer adventure camps for our newer refugee youth participants, who are just starting their journey with REACH. We introduced them to a variety of outdoor activities and places that will help them feel more at home in their new community. We practiced archery, kayaking, hiking, and more in our local parks, forests, and waterways. We also took them on camping trips to national and state parks where they learned how to cook over a fire, set up camp, and complete solo night hikes in the woods. They had a blast exploring new environments and making new friends.

I invite you to continue reading to learn more about the extraordinary experiences that you helped to make happen among our youth participants this summer!


Peer Mentor Leadership Corps 2023 (PMLC23)

Wilderness Learning Expeditions

As you know, at REACH, we believe that life is full of surprises and challenges, especially when we interact with nature. We are passionate about helping young people discover their potential and overcome obstacles through outdoor adventures that expose them to nature's wonders and teach them valuable skills. Our youth participants (and adults) face various situations that test their limits, such as weather changes, injuries, fears, and more. A few quotes taken from our Peer Mentors’ Summer 2023 Field Notes, which showcase some discouraging moments, are highlighted below.

Youth Author #1

“Really long car ride. We got to Red River Gorge and tried making a fire. It failed. I fell down the stairs twice.”

Youth Author #2

Youth Author #3

Youth Author #4

Youth Author #5

Youth Author #6

Youth Author #7

Sounds miserable, right? The cool thing is that, ultimately, all of these young people learned to adapt to different scenarios, to cope with disappointment, and to find joy in the journey. Our Peer Mentors have been preparing for this summer since last fall, planning the routes, activities, and budgets for their trips. They also participated in regular trainings on wilderness aptitudes, safety, and group dynamics. They were ready to take on any challenge that came their way, whether it was hiking up steep mountains, practicing new skills, camping in stormy weather, or encountering wildlife. They also learned to support each other and celebrate their achievements. Each of the quotes above correspond to the following statements from the same youth authors:

Youth Author #1

“Went on another hike – this time through a cave. Today was awesome. Some stuff was so pretty, it didn’t look real. We had a successful fire and made campfire pizza.”

Youth Author #2

Youth Author #3

Youth Author #4

Youth Author #5

Youth Author #6

Youth Author #7

This summer, fourteen Peer Mentors and staff embarked on two incredible Wilderness Learning Expeditions, first across the states of Illinois and Indiana into the lush, rugged terrain of Daniel Boone National Forest, and the floodplain woodlands along the Missouri River, and then across the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota into the dry white clay mountains of Badlands National Park, and the sweet-smelling ponderosa pines and rolling grassland prairies of Black Hills National Forest. The young people learned the basics of primitive camping near rivers and in the mountains, hiking in with all of their gear, setting up tents, and packing out, and they even had a chance to sleep in a treehouse atop a steep canyon in the forest. They practiced wet exits and rescues while kayaking in gorgeous lakes, hiked miles through caves and caverns or up to sacred peaks and vistas, biked from town to town on the scenic Katy Trail, and rode horseback through creeks and hills in South Dakota.

Peer Mentor Wilderness Learning Expedition: Kentucky and Missouri, June 2023

They also learned to appreciate the stories and struggles of those who came before them, such as the indigenous people like Black Elk who lived in harmony with the land, and the European pioneers like Lewis and Clark who explored the "unknown" territory. Near the end of our second trip, we had a cozy and reflective moment round the campfire, accompanied by gentle guitar music played by one of the youths, under a mysterious moon. We talked about our favorite moments together and what we learned from our two journeys. It was clear from their comments that they gained a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Several of the youth leaders remarked on how grateful they were for the brave efforts of the indigenous communities who fought long and hard to protect these sacred places so that people like us could enjoy the tranquility, beauty and connection they offer.


“I learned that I need to listen more so that I don’t miss the opportunity to understand history, what the indigenous people sacrificed, and why I should care about protecting this land,” explained Peer Mentor Wagdi, age 14, while sitting around the campfire.


Peer Mentor Wilderness Learning Expedition: Minnesota and South Dakota, July 2023.

Summer Adventure Camp 2023 (SAC23)

Day Camp & Overnight Camping Adventures

Our newest refugee youth participants also had a blast this summer! Thanks to our generous donors and supporters, we offered more opportunities and experiences for our refugee and asylum-seeking youth than ever before. This summer, we welcomed more than 65 refugee and asylum-seeking youth from 13 different countries to our day camp programs, where they enjoyed a variety of outdoor learning and adventure sports, such as archery, disc golf, fishing, kayaking, and more. They also visited local parks and forest preserves, where they explored diverse ecosystems and learned about the animals and plants that inhabit them. They made new friends, practiced their English skills, and had a lot of fun along the way. Many of these youth also joined us for their first or second overnight camping trip this summer. REACH organized three overnight camping trips, one at Indiana Dunes National Park and two at Chain O Lakes State Park, all of which were designed to introduce new campers to the joys of camping. It was a big deal for many to sleep in a tent away from home, brave a dark trail by themselves, and paddle on a big river.

REACH Summer Adventure Camp 2023: Chicagoland Area, June - August 2023

We are so grateful to our staff and partners who helped to make this summer unforgettable for these kids. REACH hired three camp coaches and an intern this summer to work with me to bring this summer to life for these children. Thank you to Abdul Al Ibrahim, Elena Harcken, Sami Rezae, and Rachel Lawanson, for your hard work and dedication this summer. Thanks also to Backyard Nature Center, Chicago Archery Club, Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Gills on the Chain, Maggie Daley Park, Northside Archery Club, and Waveland Bowl, as well as SAIC’s Sarah Rosengard and her students.

Other Proud Moments of Summer 2023

Small & Huge Achievements

I wanted to follow up with you on a story that began as a result of REACH’s Rules of War Simulation Exercise last May. As you may recall, Payman Rajaie was selected by his fellow Peer Mentors to represent REACH at the American Red Cross’ Annual International Humanitarian Law Youth Action Summit in Washington, D.C. this summer. Payman spent several days in virtual trainings before heading to ARC headquarters to share REACH’s campaign with other youth advocates from across the country. One thing you should know about Payman is that he is very serious about becoming a pilot within the U.S. military, so you can imagine how thrilled he was to spend time at the Pentagon among many of his heroes. Keep dreaming, Payman!

Peer Mentor Payman Rajaie during his trip to Washington, D.C. in August 2023.

Payman’s brother Maisam, who participated in the ARC Annual Youth Summit last year, also had a cool experience outside of REACH this summer. In fact, Maisam was personally invited by Illinois State Representative Hoan Huynh (our state’s first former refugee delegate) to apply for a summer fellowship at his local office after Maisam presented at a REACH advocacy meeting with Representative Huynh and his staff. Maisam got the job and learned the ropes from his respected mentor. Given what’s up next for Maisam, I can assure you that this was a pretty significant addition to his summer experiences!

On a sad, but proud, note. We bid farewell to three of our Peer Mentor graduates who left for college late this summer. All three of these young men received scholarships to cover their tuitions as a result of their academic and personal achievements. Muntadher Al Maeeni, who joined REACH in 2017, will be studying Computer Engineering with a minor in Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Maisam Rajaie, who became a part of the REACH family in 2021, will be studying Political Science at Columbia University; and Nur Aga Rajaie, who also joined REACH in 2021, will be studying Pre-Med at Bates College.


"REACH is where I found a piece of me that makes me, me. It reminds me where I come from and how my experiences can help me become a better person,” wrote Maisam Rajaie in his final Field Note entry this summer.


These are just some of the stories that REACH has created. There are many more to tell and many more to come. REACH is not just an organization, it's a community. A community that welcomes newcomer youth with open arms and open hearts. A community that helps them stand atop mountains, and see the whole hoop of the world.

In closing, I am personally so proud of all our youth participants for their courage, resilience, and curiosity and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to share these amazing experiences with them. I am also grateful for you, our supporters, who make our programs possible. Thank you for your generosity, your encouragement, your feedback, and your partnership. Together, we can all hope that the youth we engage will continue to grow and learn from their adventures, and that they will always remember the words of Black Elk: "The power of a thing or an act is in the meaning and the understanding."

As we look forward to the fall season, we are excited to continue our mission. We have many plans and opportunities for you to get involved, so stay tuned for more updates.


Shana Wills

REACH Executive Director & Founder

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