In December, after a rigorous selection and preparation process, thirteen Wester Hailes students and three staff (two teachers and our school librarian) spent a week at Staffin on Skye, the base of Columba 1400, a social enterprise devoted to leadership development and to releasing the potential of young people who have weathered tough times. Its core values are Awareness, Focus, Creativity, Integrity, Perseverance, and Service.
After a long, weary journey, our group arrived at Staffin at seven o’clock on Sunday evening. After a warm welcome and food, the group worked in pairs on their goals for the week. The welcome, the food and the accommodation were not incidentals. The commitment which a week at Columba requires would be impossible without the caring security which Columba’s attention to domestic details supports.
The next morning’s activity practising focus was followed by a walk on the Trotternish Peninsula. Emerging from the woods, crossing the almost lunar landscape, the group saw the Old Man of Storr, a volcanic plug around which the softer rocks have been eroded, looming out of the mist. The Skye landscape and its absolute contrast to what the young people know focussed them on what was an entirely new and inspiring environment and provided the core for reflection that evening.
The Tuesday script was that Columba was the standby if the local mountain rescue team was unavailable. The locals were indeed ‘unavailable’. There was ‘a casualty’ on the hills. The group was given maps to find the scene. The line of beaters covered the countryside and eventually found their ‘casualty’. They made their own stretcher and rescued the ‘casualty’. Different youngsters took different leadership roles. Some avoided involvement. The evening’s review was not easy. Team work had been learned the hard way. The abstainers had to reconcile their behaviour and attitudes with their peers.
Wednesday started with discussion but the active work was fun and adventure in canoes. Supervised by trained Outdoor Education staff and observed by the Columba staff, teams had to lash canoes together and find a treasure bag on Loch Mealt. Again the process did not go easily as individuals came to the fore, not always creatively or cooperatively. A frank and honest review of the day followed. Issues were aired and apologies offered without blame. In the early evening tension was released when each individual hand-painted a mug with symbols of their personal values, a keepsake and a reinforcement.
On Thursday the group was split in two, each team working on presentation on how to improve Cnoc, a fictional island facing economic, ecological and social problems. Both groups presented to a panel which fed back on the quality of the problem-solving, the team-work, the presentation skills and the application of the Columban principles. That evening dinner was semi-formal, served professionally in beautiful surroundings. The atmosphere was that of a large family, a the culmination of the week’s collective activity. After dinner the group visited the Columba Garden, an extraordinary and minimalist labyrinth, recently constructed in stone, pebbles, wood and plants, each section representing one of the Columban values. Perhaps it was the garden, perhaps the emptiness of the northern sky, but according to one of our students, an urban Scots teenager not given to emotional outpourings, “You looked in to the sky, it was dark and quiet and amazing and you saw the stars different from what you usually saw them. Walking round with a torch and seeing the words on the stones was so emotional. It made people think about themselves and their families, the issues they had gone through but also the happiness in their lives.”
On Friday, the last day, the participants summed up their week and described the salient attributes of each of their peers. At the graduation the hopes for the week were reviewed and each participant heard of their strengths and growth before they stated how they had individually valued the experience. One lad said, “I was speechless, it showed we could work as a team, could achieve anything if we put effort into it. It was great that school staff treated students ‘like normal people’ and we treated them ‘like one of us’. Columba 1400 gave me a lot of confidence and it helped me gain trust with people I didn’t trust before.” Another boy summed it up: “I found the experience life changing, absolutely amazing”
The impact of Columba was as powerful on our staff as on our students. One of our teachers summed up the experience: “Columba 1400 gave me time, space and peace to revaluate what is important to me in life, there is not a lot of time in our hectic world to focus on yourself, Columba gives you the opportunity to be reflective. My time there made me think about looking after, respecting and valuing ALL the people who are in my life, to be generous with my time for the important things. Also to spend time with people who help to develop and bring out the best in me, don’t waste precious time, look for the good in everyone. Columba 1400 provides the perfect environment to let people grow and develop to their best. It highlights how pulling on the collective strengths of a team helps you to achieve tasks you might have thought individually were unachievable. You are honoured and humbled to be part of someone else’s life affirming experiences.”
Our hope is that these students and staff will have brought back to school the attitudes and values and potential which were brought to the surface on Skye.
For more information on Columba, check the web-site: http://www.columba1400.com/
The above article was first published in SecEd on 22 April 2010: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=47680;type_uid=2