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Christina Cala/ Medill

Fredrick Williams (from left), Laura Statesir, and Andrea Knepper, from Chicago Adventure Therapy showed people how to use maps and kayaking gear at Chicago Ideas Week 2013.



Chicago Adventure Therapy helps teens rewire their brains the fun way

by I. Christina Cala
Nov 26, 2013

Andrea Knepper says she made it to college before she realized that camping wasn’t synonymous with vacation. An avid outdoorswoman and sea-kayaker, Knepper has done everything from work with homeless youth to guide kayaking trips professionally.

With a master’s degree in social work as well as the second highest-level certifications available for canoe skills and coaching, she has the titles to back it up.

In 2007, seeing a way to fuse her two passions, Knepper founded Chicago Adventure Therapy, a not-for-profit organization that works with under-served youth in the city, using outdoor activities.

“You get to watch kids do things that they thought were impossible and when you get to do the impossible, it changes lives,” Knepper said.

Adventure therapy, also known as wilderness therapy or adventure-based-counseling, fosters development through outdoor activities. Kayaking, cycling and climbing all get youth to open up about the things they’re dealing with, while also teaching them problem-solving and communication skills.

Though research shows people learn better when they’re smiling, it’s not just about positive feelings, Knepper said. For example, climbing is a physical manifestation of problem solving, which allows people to learn that skill while enjoying themselves.

More fundamentally though, it’s about changing how the brain works.

“So many of our kids in Chicago are growing up in an environment where they’re not safe,” Knepper said.

This constant feeling of danger leads the brain to rewire itself, Knepper said. The hormone cortisol increases, making a person hyper-aware, while access to the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls reasoning, decreases. The result: constant fight or flight.

“When the brain is rewired by trauma, they can’t think before they act,” Knepper said. 

Using outdoor activities like kayaking, or bicycling in the city, led by professionals who have safety measures in place, puts teens into a space where the perceived risk or danger is higher than real danger. This gives them the space to respond differently. Each time they do, the neural pathway grows stronger, Knepper said.

“At some level, a day kayaking, you can take that ability to think before acting and put that into school, employment, even on the street,” she said. “That’s not about talking to them, that’s about rewiring their experience and they can do it all while having fun.”

Knepper said she saw this transformation in people when guiding vacation trips, and decided to provide the same sort of support as a social worker, ultimately moving toward CAT’s current model. 

When she was a social worker she found her clients couldn't talk about their lives, Knepper said. One 16-year-old had lost his father to a drug overdose. Knepper found him lying on the floor bleating like a lamb. She told him to get up and go outside with her.

“He had no more dreams left, he couldn’t see any way to succeed,” Knepper said. Once he started walking, though, he opened up. “There was just something about moving.”

Soon after, she attended an experiential-education conference and found others fusing both therapy and outdoor activity. “I didn’t have to invent it anymore,” she said. “As social workers, we know how to make change deliberately instead of accidentally.”

With sponsors such as Whole Foods, REI and Coleman, CAT provides the opportunity to explore new sports and see different parts of the city, while helping with stress related to unstable home conditions, unsafe neighborhoods and poverty.

“A lot of it is seeing hope return to people’s lives, that they’re not going to be stuck where they are right now,” said Laura Statesir, 33, who is trained in adventure therapy and started volunteering with CAT earlier this year. “You can see that they begin to have these dreams for how things can be better and different.”

Chicagoan Fredrick Williams, 23, is one of those youths. Williams first encountered CAT through the Night Ministry, a Chicago-based organization that helps those struggling with poverty or homelessness. 

He discovered CAT a year ago after time spent living on the streets. Since participating in CAT’s second annual Gitchi Gumee Project Trip, a trip that allows youth to learn from and paddle with professional kayakers in Michigan, he’s working towards becoming a certified sea-kayaking instructor.

He is one of two youths chosen as student leaders to receive year-long skills training in Chicago. He will return to Michigan in 2014 as a leader.

"I was into the outdoors but completely lost on what to do.” Williams said. “I needed therapy, someone to talk to and it’s evolved into something bigger than I ever thought it would.”

Williams said the experience feels like getting a second chance. He’s hoping to use that and kayaking to travel the world, starting with Africa. He’s also working towards a bachelor’s degree at DePaul University. Between class work, training and taking care of his daughter, he’s getting ready for his next big adventure: ice climbing with CAT in February. He’ll just have to pass his college finals first.