New Beginnings: High Rocks Camp for Girls

by Barbara Cervone

HILLSBORO, WV—It’s 7:30 on a cloudless July morning, deep in the mountains of Pocahontas County in West Virginia. An outdoor breakfast spread, stretching from granola and homemade jam to scrambled eggs and fresh melon, greets twenty teenage girls as they emerge from their tents to grab their plates. A half hour later, they are off. “Have a good day!” the AmeriCorps intern in charge of the day’s schedule calls out.

The girls, all second-year campers at a remarkable program called High Rocks, fan out through the woods. One group heads to the camp lodge, where they are learning carpentry skills by making cubbies and benches for a new outdoor bathroom. “If you drill one and put a screw in,” says carpentry teacher Naomi Cohen, “it will help hold it,” finishes Maybeth, 14.

Another team sets out by van to take photos in the nearby town of Hillsboro, collecting images to go with the essays they have recorded for their digital journalism class. “I’m doing my piece about how water connects us,” explains Julia, “as a family and a community.”

A third group saddles up their horses at the riding ring. “Use as light a rein as possible with Mega,” equestrian instructor Kelly Arfstrom advises Caressa. “That way, he’ll react more to your movement, your weight shifts.”

A fourth team of girls gathers in a sunny classroom built by last summer’s carpentry class. There, they practice the Shakespeare monologues and inspirational songs they have chosen to perform at the end of the week, crowning their theater studies. Brianna has chosen “Music of the Night” from the Phantom of the Opera; as she practices it, theater instructor Emma Eisenberg gently coaxes her to breathe and sing louder.

A place to soar

"One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar,” said Helen Keller. Her maxim has infused High Rocks ever since a local schoolteacher, Susan Burt, dreamed of creating a summer camp where area middle school girls might spread their wings.

Hearing of Burt’s dream, Virginia Steele—a community member who helped start Freedom Schools in the 1960s South—donated 200 acres of wilderness land to house the camp. A female justice in the West Virginia Supreme Court arranged for a local prison crew to clear away trees and brush to accommodate a campground. High Rocks Academy of Hillsboro, West Virginia began that summer of 1996, with thirteen girls.

Today, High Rocks is an award-winning leadership development program for over seventy young women ages thirteen to twenty-five. It is multifaceted, year-round, and free—attracting girls from three local counties and all walks of life, students on the high honor roll and those barely holding on.

Each summer, for twelve days in June, a new crop of eighth-grade girls comes to High Rocks for “New Beginnings.” They hike, explore relationships in daily “girls group” discussions, reflect during “solo time,” and share their thoughts at nightly campfires. Their teachers have nominated them as students who would benefit from the program’s academic challenge and social support. In hands-on classes, they explore math, writing, and science in innovative ways. Drama games and horseback riding give them confidence in their bodies and communication skills, while projects focused on writing and painting spur self-expression.

CLICK HERE to listen to Co-Director Sarah Riley talk about  defining success, women and leadership, and more  . . .

CLICK HERE to listen to High Rocks camper Brandy, 14, talk about mastering carpentry, finding her voice,
and more . . .

In July, an older group of girls—ninth through twelfth graders—unpack their belongings. Graduates of the previous summer’s New Beginnings camp, they return to mix fellowship and leadership with morning-long “specialty tracks.”
“Math and Art: The Golden Mean” focuses on interdisciplinary thinking: math, aesthetics, art, and theories of the universe. “You can find the Golden Mean in the Milky Way, in a conch shell, in Da Vinci ’s masterpieces, in DNA, in the compositions of Beethoven,” the Hard Rocks course catalog says.
“The Good (Green) Earth” brings college-level math and science to bear on creative solutions to environmental problems, with the High Rocks property as laboratory. Girls wade in the creeks, assay logging sites, learn how to make biodiesel fuel, and conduct energy efficiency surveys.
At the end of the two weeks, every girl demonstrates or performs what she has learned. Girls test their grit in other ways, too. They spend a daunting night alone in the woods, with a sleeping bag, three matches, a bottle of water, and a small bag of food. “I saw no bear,” says Cierra, relieved, “but I lit myself a fine fire.”

Continuing connections

Once school resumes, High Rocks continues its embrace. After school on Tuesdays, girls receive two hours of one-on-one tutoring tailored to their academic needs. (For many, this means a two-hour round trip over winding mountain roads.) Girls who complete their work have the option of attending a college-style discussion group or an enrichment class. These tutoring days are a weekly homecoming, too. Girls, staff, parent volunteers, and tutors connect over dinner and share highlights of their week during the ritual called “gratefuls.”

Students also plan and carry out service projects, responding to needs they identify in their community. They have organized a women’s self-defense class, created a youth magazine, formed a student group to present teen concerns at city council meetings, recorded stories from community members, organized stream clean-ups, and much more.

High Rocks alums stay involved as summer interns and volunteers. At summer camp, as many older girls as younger serve as interns and volunteers; interns have their own dedicated week of training and learning before the campers arrive. The nurturance and press to grow strong begins on a girl’s first day at High Rocks and follows her into her twenties, as she goes to college, starts work, and begins her adult life. “High Rocks never leaves you,” one intern said. “You’re partners for life.”

Creative learners and leaders

High Rocks is in the blood of its co-director Sarah Riley, whose mother, Susan Burt, founded the program. Sarah grew up in Pocahontas County and went off to Harvard, but wended her way back to the mountains, valleys, and neighbors she cherished, and took her High Rocks post in 2005.

“I care so much about these girls’ ability to be self-educators, to get inspired by things and devour them,” says Riley. “But it’s a hard thing. It’s not something they learn or hear anywhere else before they get here. And then when they do, when they get the eye of it, when they get the bit in their teeth, and they say, ‘Wait, we can do whatever we want, really!’—then they start learning so fast.”

Riley and her colleagues do everything in their power to tie this thirst for learning to post-graduate planning. High Rocks girls receive career counseling, mentoring, workshops to develop writing and interview skills, and individual support for academic and personal goal setting. They research colleges and financial aid opportunities. Weekend workshops prepare them for standardized ACT and SAT tests, and college trips introduce them to current students, admission officers, professors, and college-level classes.

Just about all of High Rocks’ graduates head to college, with nearby Berea College a favorite. But Riley is just as determined that they discover their own power and possibilities. “We spend too much time scaring kids, instead of helping them understand that it’s not a very scary world,” she says. “They should all marry rock stars and travel in Africa!”

For High Rocks, character counts more than status. “Whether they go on to be carpenters or surgeons, we want to grow young women, creative thinkers and optimists who think outside the box,” says Riley. “We want them to creatively solve problems, to know how to really listen to other people, to reach across what seem to be very big differences and find common ground. That’s the heart of what we do at High Rocks.”

Dreams and schemes

It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and girls in bathing suits and shorts, each on her own blanket, dot the camp’s main field. They have an index box and cards and are completing the afternoon’s assignment: filling their box with cards that contain their plans, their dreams and schemes, colleges they want to investigate, books they’d like to read, contacts that can help them on their paths, and sayings and quotes to inspire them. A High Rocks staff member or intern sits by and coaches them.

Haley has the names of twenty colleges in her box. Brooke has lines from an Emily Dickinson poem—“words I want to live by,” she says. Cierra has jotted down feminist titles she hopes to read.

Brooke lists her dreams and schemes: “Be on Broadway, good grades, grow up, get a scholarship, go to college, have my degree in criminal justice and end up with a great job I love.”

“I would want to go to Egypt and look at the hieroglyphics, go to school at Virginia Tech, and get my veterinarian’s degree,” says Kacie.

Why creep when you feel the impulse to soar?

Click here to watch video of High Rocks in action, July 2009
Click here to listen to Co-Director Sarah Riley talk about  girls’ leadership, defining success, and more  . . .
Click here  to listen to High Rocks camper Brandy, 14, talk about mastering carpentry, finding her voice, and more . . .
Click here to read a collection of writing by High Rocks girls
Click here to read success stories from High Rocks alumnae


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator