Former foster youth cope, connect on the trail 

  • Thrive Outdoors co-founder Jake King preps some hikers at Pawtuckaway State Park Saturday. King, Keep Sound Minds co-founder Ken Lambert and several chaperones led seven young adults aging out of the New Hampshire foster care system or court-ordered stays at residential facilities on a hike to foster connections and coping skills. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Damien, an 18-year-old resident at Wediko School in Windsor, tosses rocks into a pond at the end of a hike at Pawtuckaway State Park Saturday.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Corey Salisbury stands at the top of the Pawtuckaway State Park fire tower in Raymond, the summit and halfway point of a hike hosted by Thrive Outdoors and Keep Sound Minds Saturday. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Seven young adults aging out of the New Hampshire foster care system or court-ordered stays at residential facilities joined in a hike at Pawtuckaway State Park in Raymond Saturday to foster connections and coping skills. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Ken Lambert, a co-founder of the seacoast mental health organization Keep Sound Minds, speaks to youth aging out of the foster care system and out of court-ordered behaviorial services at Pawtuckaway State Park Saturday.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Salisbury puts his water bottle in the backpack of Josh, an 18-year-old resident of Becket House at Campton, a state-licensed facility for adolescents struggling with anti-social behaviors.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Corey Salisbury, a 21-year-old Concord resident, climbs a tree at Pawtuckaway State Park in Raymond on Saturday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2016 11:21:52 PM

Before climbing up a narrow trunk along Pawtuckaway State Park’s Mountain Trail, Corey Salisbury remarked to a fellow hiker, “It helps my anxiety a bit, to be up in the trees.”

A dozen feet up, Salisbury was anchored as he swung the rest of his body out into the open air.

The 21-year-old Concord resident was fearless, perhaps, because he knows what it feels like to be unanchored. Salisbury spent 10 years in New Hampshire’s foster care system before being reunited with his mother at 17.

There have been times, he said, when he felt disconnected from others, and without a place to turn. “They were some of the worst times in my life,” Salisbury said.

Which is why two New Hampshire organizations – wilderness survival school Thrive Outdoors and mental health awareness group Keep Sound Minds – partnered for a hike recently. They invited young adults like Salisbury who have aged out of foster care, teenagers who have gone through the adoption process, and adolescents close to graduating from court-ordered residential behavior treatment programs.

“It’s a community that no one really thinks about,” said Ken Lambert, one of the co-founders of Keep Sound Minds. Especially those formerly in foster care, “they don’t really have that fall-back position.”

The goal of the hike, Thrive Outdoors co-founder Jake King said, was to introduce everyone to supportive adults and each other, and to teach outdoor skills as a tool to cope with stress and mental health challenges.

“There’s just a lot of connectivity that’s lost in our society,” King said last week. Plus, he added, “What we’re really trying to teach people is, they need to relax.”

Getting out

Seven of the targeted youth, plus Division of Children, Youth and Families staff members, a mentor and adults affiliated with the hike met in the parking lot of Pawtuckaway State Park in Raymond.

Among them was 29-year-old Tilton resident Becky Downs. Now working at the Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, Downs said she aged out of the foster care system seven years ago.

“I don’t think I was as prepared as I thought I was,” Downs said. “The reality of being an adult and being financially independent came smacking in my face.” Social workers were there for her, though, she added, “I didn’t really feel I had any family connections for awhile.”

Two 18-year-old hikers aren’t at that point yet, but are facing it. Josh and Damien, who both requested their last names be withheld, are currently in residential, state-licensed programs for adolescents struggling with behavioral issues.

Juvenile Justice Services, run by DCYF, works with children in those situations.

Josh was court-ordered to attend the Becket House at Campton a little more than two years ago because, he said, he would assault family members.

“I used to be an angry child,” he said. At Becket, however, the outdoor-oriented program helped Josh make friends and put his energies toward outdoor activities.

Now, he added, “I can spend a day laughing with my family.”

“I’d rather be there than anywhere else,” he said. When he graduates in June, he wants to work his way toward being an outdoor education instructor.

Damien, who attends the Wediko School in Windsor, has been in residential treatment programs since he was 13. Prior to that, he lived with a foster family in Colebrook beginning at age 3 due to his mother’s alcohol addiction.

“I was struggling with anger – kind of dealing with anger and frustration,” Damien said. “Dealing with impulses when I get frustrated.”

What helps him, he said, is being outside. Nature shows him that he doesn’t have to be frustrated when he’s not in control, since mountains, rivers, wildlife and weather aren’t things we can control.

Traci Smiley, a DCYF adolescent worker based in the northern part of the state, said this is exactly why so many adjudicated youth go into programs with an emphasis on outdoor skills.

“Some of the kids that are doing recreational wilderness training – they don’t necessarily have to re-experience their trauma to gain skills,” Smiley said. “They can use those tools when they’re ready.”

The main skill learned on the hike was pushing through a challenging experience for the reward on the other side. Almost everyone completed the 3-mile walk and scramble over rocks and got to the fire tower, which had a view at the hike’s halfway point.

Connecting

At the top of the Mountain Trail, Marina McMahon sat and rested for a bit. The 16-year-old Lynnfield, Mass., resident was adopted from Russia 7 years ago. She spent her childhood in three different orphanages before coming to America.

“It wasn’t great and it wasn’t bad,” McMahon said. She lived with about 100 other children before being adopted, which can make her current home – where she’s an only child – a bit lonely.

“I miss hanging out with the other kids my age and helping other kids,” she said. McMahon plays sports and activities at her church, she said.

She also attended the hike to meet others, which is what King and Lambert wanted. The two men offered to make connections professionally for all the young adults on the hike.

That type of opportunity, Becket adult living coordinator Denise Castonguay said, is huge.

“I can’t tell you how important it was to hear those words,” she said. “A lot of my goal is to integrate kids into the community because they don’t have one.”

Smiley, the DCYF worker, said that’s an ongoing challenge for adolescents who have gone through and aged out of the state’s system. There was one young man she said she expected to go on the hike who has struggled with homelessness and addiction since aging out of the foster care system, but has been doing better.

“I honestly don’t know whether he is okay – I’m kind of worried about him,” Smiley said. She added that his difficulties appeared to stem from past trauma that she and other DCYF workers never knew about until the young man was out of their care.

“We have to keep asking – keep trying to get the whole story,” Smiley said.

Those stories can be hard to tell and hard to hear, but a hike outdoors is a good place to talk.

That’s why 17-year-old Max Liang of Manchester attended the Thrive Outdoors and Keep Sound Minds event. He was adopted out of foster care at age 5, after living in a Russian orphanage for several years. He now participates in Thrive Outdoors’ Teen Adventure Group regularly and went on the outing to meet other kids who may have similar experiences.

“I just want to listen to their stories,” Liang said.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)




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