Our Stories / Blog Posts / An empowering backcountry adventure for deaf and hard of hearing youth in BC’s Garibaldi Provincial Park

An empowering backcountry adventure for deaf and hard of hearing youth in BC’s Garibaldi Provincial Park

In October 2023, a group of eight young people embarked on a journey that showed them they were capable of much more than they had ever imagined.

On a challenging hike through Garibaldi Provincial Park in British Columbia, the grade 10-12 students, who are deaf and/or hard of hearing, left technology and assistive devices behind… and relied solely on themselves and their peers to succeed in the wilderness.

Five days later, they returned home with renewed confidence and ready for all of life’s challenges — and we at Outward Bound Canada (OBC) couldn’t be happier to have been part of this journey.

teens smiling and posing for a selfie on a bridge

A unique opportunity for students to find their own identity

The expedition was an initiative of the B.C. Provincial Outreach Program: Deaf and Hard of Hearing (POPDHH), which wanted to give students the opportunity to work together on a challenging task in an environment where they had to rely on each other.

Since the POPDHH team did not have the expertise to provide outdoor education, they partnered with OBC, drawing on our previous experience working with students from the BC School for the Deaf. OBC supported the project financially with funding from the Telus Friendly Future Foundation as part of our goal to make the outdoors accessible to all youth in Canada.
teens hiking on mountain with backpacks

According to Terry Maloney, POPDHH’s vice-principal, the goal of the expedition was to provide students with a unique bonding experience where they could make connections with other signing students in British Columbia, and develop their own sense of identity:

– These deaf and hard of hearing students are often isolated or the only member of their local community using American Sign Language (ASL). This comes with a lot of anxiety and pressure. In the OBC course, they experienced a strong sense of connection and stress relief by being outside with others who experience the same thing. The participants had opportunities to show leadership qualities in this group that they might not have had in their home communities.

In addition to the OBC instructors, the students were accompanied by Terry and another Deaf mentor, Reighan Helyer, as well as two ASL interpreters, Nathalie Freyvogel and Rebekah Zorbakis, who also served as chaperones.

When selecting participants, POPDHH considered students who are learning or using ASL as their primary language and whether they would benefit from connecting with peers who also use ASL to further develop their skills and build confidence in the language. “This gave the students the opportunity to experience a Deaf world outside of their hearing environment, which they often have to adapt to,” adds Terry.

From strangers to friends growing together – in a week!

teens sitting on a rock smilingTerry says that the group that embarked on the journey knew little about each other at first, but that quickly changed:

Over the course of the week, I witnessed remarkable interaction between these youth from diverse backgrounds and ASL levels. The expedition also served as a platform to encourage language development, self-advocacy and self-assuredness among the participants; and they accomplished all without the use of technology or specialized equipment, relying solely on their authentic selves. It was an amazing transformation that we all experienced through the offerings of nature in beautiful British Columbia.

The other Deaf mentor, Reighan Hellyer, describes the impressive development of the participants during the trip:

It was amazing to see all the students come together, work hard and experience the challenge together as well as independently. It was something you had to see with your own eyes. Everyone supported and encouraged each other to complete the hike and overcome the challenging parts. They took turns and shared the duties without hesitation. I could tell that they all learned so much about each other and about themselves on this journey. I saw how each individual grew from the first day to the last. There were many remarkable moments and beautiful sceneries to explore and hike through. I was glad that I was able to witness this moment in these students’ lives that they will remember forever.

Terry says it was clear to see how the students progressed through the experience from using more spoken language and relying on their listening skills to being fully immersed in a Deaf world as their equipment and devices such as hearing aids and Cochlear Implants stopped working. In addition, some participants were hiking for the first time and had limited beliefs about their abilities:

They surprised themselves by how hard they could push themselves to complete the task and worked together as a team to get everyone through challenges. The students told us how much more confident they were after the expedition, that they now appreciate nature much more, that they have made great new friends, that they no longer rely on technology (not even their cell phones!) and that their school backpacks feel much lighter now!

two teens smiling in the forest

OBC supporters made this trip possible

This once-in-a-lifetime experience was possible thanks to the generous support of our donors. OBC was able to fund the entire cost of the expedition for the group, while POPDHH covered the accessibility costs (ASL interpreters) and travel expenses for students living outside of B.C. Lower Mainland.

This is just one example of how outdoor education can transform lives for the better and give youth the confidence they need to succeed in school, work, and life – something Terry wholeheartedly recommends from his experience:

– This was a life-changing experience for our students and we would recommend it to other organizations looking for a unique opportunity. It shows that all students can participate in and benefit from outdoor education, no matter what their barriers are.

A donation to OBC can help ensure that more youth have access to life-changing experiences, just like the POPDHH students had.

teens posing infront of a forest

Check out what other participants* had to say about the expedition:

“I loved the expedition, it was such a rewarding feeling when we completed the trail! I saw many different sights that I wouldn’t see in my everyday life and made many new connections with other deaf and hard of hearing teens. I will cherish these bonds forever. This was a new experience and I loved every second of it.”

“Hiking is one of the best opportunities to meet other people who have had similar experiences with hearing loss, where we can feel comfortable and relate. Thank you for this rare opportunity in my life. Since how essential it is, it should be a recurring event!”

“I loved this experience! It was so much fun to be disconnected from technology and just be with everyone. At first I was a bit nervous because I’d be with people I had never met before, but the first night at camp showed me that I had no reason to be nervous. Everyone was supportive and bonded quickly.

Once we started hiking, you always had someone to talk to or just walk side by side in comfortable silence. At every meal we spoke or signed to each other, which led to the guides wanting to learn more sign language. We soon had little sessions where we taught them signs they could use.

The hikes were beautiful and every day was almost a new world, from trees and lakes to big mountains and valleys to stunning rivers and snow-capped peaks. My favorite moment on the trip was one morning when it was freezing cold and everyone was bundled in layers around the boiling water waiting for drinks and food. We were all talking, which was so much fun because we really all bonded that day, just like the last night when we all ate s’mores together and laughed around the fire.”

“The fact that I weigh less than 100 pounds might make people think I’m too small to carry big things. Some people have even mocked me as a lightweight. After taking the OBC course, I was able to prove people wrong! My backpack weighed up to 50 pounds and I walked uphill, flat and downhill for three days while carrying my sleeping bag, clothes, water, a tent and food.

My journey also brought me closer to some amazing people and gave me a chance to reflect on my life. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m constantly busy at school or with extracurricular activities. I realized that I need to take a break from some of my commitments and focus on myself. I’m grateful that I was able to be part of this journey and am inspired by the experience I had on the course.”

“My Outward Bound experience taught me a lot about what I’m capable of. I knew beforehand that I was capable of some pretty amazing things, but this trip helped me to better understand my limits and capabilities. It wasn’t the first time I’d camped, but it was the first time I’d spent multiple days in a provincial park and really put in a lot of hours on the trail, and I really enjoyed that.

I enjoyed meeting the other deaf and/or hard of hearing students, catching up with some and getting to know our instructors – I couldn’t have asked for a better duo! There were many different walks of life represented in our diverse group. I was happy to see how others in our group persevered and challenged themselves physically and mentally. All in all, I feel like I learned a lot, even though it’s not your typical school course, and I’d definitely do it again!”

Thank you to Terry, the team at POPDHH, and the participants for sharing this special journey with us!

photo of a mountain and a lake

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