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Local high school students rise from the ashes of their past with Phoenix

YMCA program helps 30 youth get second chance
by: contributed photo, Sandy High School sophomore Sierra Smith tackled the climbing wall at YMCA Camp Collins during a weekend session of the Phoenix program.

For 30 students at Sandy High School, the night of Thursday, Dec. 20, marked the beginning of a new life - one that offers hope where there was once little. That night, the once-troubled teens graduated from the YMCA-run Phoenix program, a six-week course that teaches life skills for at-risk youth.

'I went through a very rough time when I was younger; school was hard for me, I couldn't even stay up on my work and always got picked on,' said freshman Jesee McKernan, 14, before the graduation ceremony. '(The program) makes you realize how many people have gone through what you've gone through; you're not alone.'

McKernan and her 29 colleagues set off on a school bus Friday, Nov. 30 for a three-day weekend at Camp Collins in Gresham. The students on that bus included six who had been expelled, others who had been suspended, students at risk and a few leadership students.

The program - held at no cost to the community - was their opportunity for a second chance to go back to school, to rejoin athletics or clubs they had been kicked off of and to leave behind the choices that had led them astray in the past. It also gave students a better way to cope with many of the challenges they face every day, including troubles at home, drugs or alcohol.

For some, however, the camp initially did not seem too appealing.

'At first, I was just in it for the half credit, but once I went, it was totally different experience than I thought it was going to be,' McKernan said. 'I just thought it would be like a camp - you just sit there in a room and talk about your feelings. But it was just so different; you could tell that they actually cared about you.'

That weekend the students participated in a variety of activities and exercises to build trust and cooperation during that weekend, including climbing a rock wall, where students leave behind barriers and imagine a life goal at the top; 'unconditional love,' where everyone hugs a student in the middle of a circle; and a ropes course.

At the end, the students all broke a board of wood - on each board, students had written the things that no longer served them on one half and words about where they wanted to go on the other. The half that had things that no longer served them was put into a fire and burned. Just like the mythical bird, the phoenix, the students are reborn from the experience.

'We use that as the catalyst to say, 'Where are you heading now and where do you want to go?' ' said Mikki Proffitt, the drug and alcohol counselor at Sandy High School. 'Experiential learning activities are much more life-changing than sitting around talking about things.'

'There's just a metamorphosis,' said Philip Stuva, executive director of the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette. 'From kids who have hoods up, heads down, shoulders hunched over to kids who stand up strong and talk about their future and that they have one. At the start, there are a lot of people who didn't know what their future held or what they wanted to accomplish.'

After that first weekend, the students meet weekly for follow-up sessions and to finalize their vision statements.

At graduation, students cheered as they shared their statements with one another, their families and the community. The students had found something in themselves and each other.

'Just hearing their story and being able to help support them is amazing,' said sophomore Carrie Wells, 15. 'In some of the activities, we just learned to help each other through team work and cooperation.'

'I think now, when it's over, I think I'm going to be more successful than I thought I would be,' said freshman Riki Trask, 15. 'I'm going to work harder for what I want and try harder. I deserve what I want.'


Help support the Phoenix program

As part of the program, students undertake a community service project. These students created T-shirts for 'Cancer Support Tuesdays,' and they hope the T-shirts will be worn throughout the community to give support to those battling cancer, lost someone to the disease or are currently battling it. For more information or to order a T-shirt for $10, contact Mikki Proffitt at 503-668-8011, ext. 211, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..