Summer has been a whirlwind for the youth program at Soft Landing Missoula.
Most recently, we wrapped up our annual overnight trip for girls, a chance for young women in the youth program to feel comfortable and empowered in a space of their own.
Eight girls spent three days and two nights at Lake Inez just north of Missoula. The trip had all the makings of a typical and awesome summer outing in Montana: a hike to Holland Falls, river dips and time spent on the lake. But it was so much more than that.
Girls enjoyed a lot of time and opportunity to share with one another — their culture, their languages, their foods and their experiences in Missoula. Though many of them are frequent participants at youth events, they didn’t know one another all that well since it’s not uncommon for teenagers to stick with the people they already consider friends at the regular programming. Being in a small group opened the door for new relationships.
“It really was an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and for new friendships to begin,” said Natalia Boise, who helps to organize Soft Landing Missoula’s youth program. “These intimate settings where we get to take kids in smaller groups is where those start to happen. That’s really cool to see.”
One of the ways this kind of exchange was facilitated was through a musical chairs-style game. While music played, people would move in a circle, and when the music stopped, whoever ended up in the designated “hot seat” would answer a number of questions about herself from the group.
Girls said this was one of their favorite parts of the weekend because they got to learn so much about one another that they didn’t know prior.
The weekend was also a testament to the power of food as a way to build cultural bridges.
Rather than offer more quintessential “American” meals for the lake trip, youth program organizers decided to give girls the responsibility of picking a dinner recipe from their own households, doing the grocery shopping and preparing the meal for the group on different nights.
Sitting down at a table over meals sparked a lot of conversation about peoples’ different backgrounds and culinary traditions. Some girls even asked for recipes to be shared so they could pass it along to their parents to cook back home! This approach was a new one for these overnight trips, but it’s one that youth program leaders said they hope to incorporate more often since it created such excitement, enjoyment and open exchange about different cultures.
Through all of this bonding and fun in the outdoors and kitchen, girls were also encouraged to develop new empowerment and life skills. For example, they were given a financial grocery budget and tasked with going to the supermarket to shop for the group. They quickly learned how quickly the tab can run up if you go through those aisles without a plan!
Additionally, they visited the Museum of Mountain Flying on their way out of town from Missoula where they got a tour from a female pilot and checked out the inside of firefighting planes. Who knows, maybe we now have a future pilot in our midst!
Finally, throughout the weekend, the girls were given the comfort and privacy of a safe space, one where they could ask hard questions, talk about intimate topics and feel safe speaking without judgment or some of the co-ed dynamics that can give any high schooler pause.
They did that at the dinner table and during activities, but they also participated in relationship-building and reflection exercises that spurred these kinds of conversations. For example, each girl completed a vision board – they cut our pictures from magazines and pasted them onto a poster board to illustrate their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future.
“It was really important to have that kind of space for them to connect and talk about their experiences,” Natalia said. “There’s a lot of value in having a space set aside for girls, and girls empowerment is really important regardless of the culture.”
Big thanks goes out to Natalia and two Americorp team members, Rachel and Ada from Soft Landing Missoula and the International Rescue Committee, respectively, for coordinating and chaperoning the trip. We also want to thank Jennifer Elison who so graciously allowed us to use her cabin for the weekend and gave the girls a fantastic place to lay their heads after long days out on the lake!