The reactions I get when I talk about my experience leading a wellness adventure 6-week program with 6 teenage girls, staying in the same house as them, adventuring, cooking, cleaning, and doing groups with them in Costa Rica do not surprise me. I receive wide eyes and something like, “Oh wow, congratulations. How did it go?”
During my time with our Costa Rica Summer 2023 students, I was amazed by how much they discovered about themselves in our wellness adventure program. I got to witness their motivation to return home rooted in their newfound (or rediscovered) strengths. It was such an experience to be with them from sun up to sun down.
The RLA Difference
Rooted Life Adventures is scheduled so that our students are able to experience a wide variety of new challenges and activities. They learned how to deep clean their rooms, cook a variety of meals on a budget, rappel down waterfalls and fly on a high trapeze, work different positions in an animal sanctuary, and how to handle conflict with each other and ask for help. Embedded within these activities, I facilitated wellness groups and psychoeducational groups that helped form a culture of inclusivity, feedback, reflection, and emotional vulnerability.
During the first days of orientation, I led a group on the Stages of Group Development, including the observable behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and team needs at each stage, and the leadership required to get to the next stage. We wrote these notes out on big papers and hung them in the house to refer back to. Most all the students expressed anxiety about the “Storming” stage, and how they hoped the group could just “skip it”. Conflict was a big fear for most students in the group, as they were used to ignoring it or cutting people out entirely if it came up.
One week later, the group was whispering about each other, expressing frustrations, having small explosions, and communicating passively. I held a group again on the stages of group development. Everyone agreed that we were in the storming phase… and we celebrated! We discussed how conflict is inevitable and productive, and as we practice conflict resolution and communication skills, we can continue to move forward through the stages.
Healing with Silliness
This was a time when play and silliness, very important parts of our program, perfectly intersected with the student’s wellness and personal growth. After this group on storming, we physically played it out and had a huge paint gun fight! Everyone ended up laughing, covered in paint, returning to the house in high spirits.
The group thrived in a unique way when silliness and play emerged, whether it was a planned glow in the dark pool party or singing and dancing to music while cooking dinner. Our students experienced a safe space to let their walls down and bring out their goofy parts in a safe space. Many of our students had not allowed themselves to show these parts of at home, for fear of judgment by other peers, or because they forgot they had them. Their sense of their true self grew as they accessed these parts again within our wellness adventure curriculum, and the rest of the group welcomed them. This process also had a huge impact on the formation of close friendships; because authenticity is a required part of any healthy relationship, the students grew to have tight bonds as weeks went on.
Benefits of a Live-In Therapeutic Coach
I also witnessed the way that the psychoeducation and wellness groups helped deepen the experience that the students had while on our program. During these weekly groups, they were learning and discussing important concepts such as components to healthy relationships, personal values, and core beliefs. These conversations did not end when the groups were over — they carried on as the students slowly started turning toward each other and took risks like practicing assertive feedback to their peers, or challenging each other’s negative self-talk. Each student made great strides in becoming more vulnerable with their peers and the instructors as they learned the importance of being vulnerable and the tools to be able to do so.
Continuity of Care: At-Home Therapist
The students’ growth was not only limited to the program, because within our wellness adventure approach they also had the opportunity to share it with their at home therapist and receive even more support each week. Their weekly therapy sessions provided a continuation of care, as the therapist learned about their struggles and strengths during the week and was able to help the students generalize and prepare them to re-enter their lives back at home. I also helped coach the students to on how to share their new insights and goals to their parents, especially at the end when we prepared for reintegration.
Cultivating Community & Learning Independence
During the first few weeks running this wellness adventure program, Amalia and I were working on setting firm boundaries while also gaining rapport and doing lots of in-the-moment coaching with the students. As the students got familiar with the daily routines and schedule and learned to trust each other, however, a magical thing began to happen. They began to run themselves. Instead of us instructors setting up after-dinner activities, they would discuss it together during the day and have a plan on what they wanted to do after dinner and present it to us. They began to work out small conflicts on their own instead of asking us to speak to the other student(s) involved. They held each other accountable if someone was skirting responsibility in cooking or cleaning. Near the end of the program, they were excited to return to a check-in group on the stages of group development and were proud to recognize that they were in the “Performing” stage, the highly productive stage involving true interdependence.
Overall, it was a true privilege to see how the students thrived when they were given the skills, space, support, and opportunity to dig into who they are and who they wanted to be within our wellness adventure format. Watch out world, we have 6 more powerful teenage girls coming out of Costa Rica who have learned to own their strengths and sense of self!