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Sometimes, all it takes to alter the trajectory of a teenager’s life that is careening out of control is a little guidance, support and some fresh mountain air.

Such is the philosophy of the Bitterroot Ecological Awareness Resources (B.E.A.R.) mentoring program, which pairs Ravalli County boys and girls aged 10-18 with adults to participate in outdoor recreation, community service projects and other activities like skateboarding or cooking hot meals for senior citizens.

For hundreds of local kids over the years, those precious few hours a week make all the difference in the world.

Lindsey Dickes, a program leader for the Hamilton-based nonprofit and the girls’ mentor, said the program is invaluable to these kids’ lives.

“I think we can all think back as adults to a person or people in our live who served as mentors,” she said. “And we remember how they supported and believed in us, listened to us and positively shaped who we are today. It’s a really valuable service we can provide to our community and to our kids who are our future and a part of our community and growing into adults.”

Dawson Burnett, 13, is a Hamilton Middle School seventh-grader and one of the Venture O.U.T. mentees. He visits boys’ program leader Sean MacNee every Monday for two hours and the two come up with a wide variety of different activities.

For example, on Jan. 21, Burnett joined several other teens to help out with the Ravalli County Recycles free recycling program at the county fairgrounds. Afterwards, the kids prepared a hot meal for volunteers and community members.

Burnett’s mother, Naomi Tharp, said she is forever grateful for what the mentoring program has done for her son over the past three years.

“When we moved here, we didn’t know anybody, and Dawson hadn’t seen his dad in a couple years,” Tharp explained. “His dad just stopped seeing him one day. So Dawson didn’t have anyone to talk to. He was one of those angry, upset kids. He was carrying the world on his shoulders. But just after the first time he went skating with Sean, he bloomed. He was talkative, and he had things to look forward to. Sean takes him to play basketball, go snowshoeing, shopping. Dawson comes home with a smile on his face. Just for a little bit, he is able to lay that weight of the world off his shoulders. He has a few hours where he doesn’t have to carry that load. It’s just amazing the difference.”

Tharp said MacNee’s presence as a male role model that her son can look up to is an unbelievable help.

“It’s really a great program,” she said. “Sean is just wonderful, and we’re so pleased to have this available to us. One of the things Sean took Dawson to was a meeting where he got to learn about Search and Rescue teams. Now he wants to be a Search and Rescue volunteer. It’s so nice for him to see different things outside of school, and different paths in life than what Dawson has known from his previous childhood. He has dreams and goals now. He knows what he wants to do and a lot of it has to do with Sean. It all comes together.”

Tharp said she thinks her son’s life might have gone in a darker direction if he hadn’t teamed up with a mentor.

“If we had never found B.E.A.R., he is at that impressionable age where people are introducing drinking and smoking,” she said. “I don’t see him having that weakness where he has low self-esteem and wants to fit in, so he doesn’t need to do those things. It has improved his confidence. And I’ve noticed how he’s able to communicate better. He’s really enjoying himself, he’s not stressed or worrying about things as much anymore.”

The mentoring program is called “Venture O.U.T.” (Onward to new possibilities, Upward beyond expectations and Through obstacles), and is focused on helping youth in the community who need more support than what they get at school or at home.

“Our mission is to inspire youth to connect to their own potential, the community and the landscape through experiential outdoor adventure programs,” Dickes said. “We are focused on area youth who need more group or one-on-one and intensive mentoring.”

The program is referral-based, meaning that the Ravalli County Youth Court, local schools, parents and other community organizations contact B.E.A.R. for their services.

“We really like to see the kids be involved in a mentoring relationship for a year,” Dickes said. “That’s really what studies have shown makes the most impact. Our kids spend anywhere from an hour to two hours with a mentee each week. Some kids are weekly or every other week. Really we like to have that consistent connection to keep the relationship growing and provide that consistency of someone who cares about them in their life and can show they can support and help.”

The B.E.A.R. program also has a Kids Outdoors Reaching Extremes (K.O.R.E.) program that is designed for area youth who want to learn leadership skills, teamwork and outdoor skills. All of the programs have a common theme – nature.

“The mentoring program is just those youth who need extra support,” Dickes said. “Some of them may be dealing with a lack of resources at home, and they may need somebody else to support them. They are dealing with school and typical childhood and teenager challenges. Our programs really focus on getting kids outside, and experiential activities. They go for hikes, go to the park, group events, snowshoeing. We take them to Lost Trail for skiing and snowboarding, cross country skiing or we may just take a walk. They do team building activities as well. If the weather is bad we will play games and take advantage of community resources.”

The program focuses on instilling a community service ethic within the youth, Dickes said.

“For example, the MLK Day event focused on service ethic and connection with the community, and connection with peers and positive activity,” she said. “The kids learn life skills as well. There are a lot of life skills you can learn out in nature. Planning, working with others, communicating positively.”

The program served 83 kids last year, and operates through national and state grants as well as community donations.

Dickes and MacNee are the only two paid mentors on staff, although Dickes said other volunteer mentors could be a great resource for the community.

“Having a volunteer-based mentorship is something we would like to see in the future,” she said. “There is definitely a need in the community for community-minded and committed citizens. We definitely want to increase community awareness.”

Dickes said although kids may be hesitant at first, there are countless success stories.

“We get a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “It can be intimidating for a youth to go with an adult that they don’t know. What we’ve found is once they realize we are here to provide a caring peer, that we are on their side and here to support them, that they start to open up a lot more. There is a natural trust building cycle and you start to develop that relationship.”

The goal of the program is not necessarily discipline, Dickes said.

“One thread that really flows through B.E.A.R. and our mentoring program is we provide a strengths-based approach,” she explained. “Many kids have been told what they are doing wrong, and what mistakes they are making. We really focus on what the youth are doing well, and they use those to move forward and make healthy choices in the future.”

MacNee said the MLK day event was rewarding for him, watching his mentees prepare a meal for local recycling volunteers.

“The kids really took ownership of preparing the meal,” he said.

The best part of the job is watching the kids grow both inwardly and outwardly, MacNee said.

“I would say you don’t always see changes immediately,” he said. “But it helps them build confidence on a daily basis. Our goal is to increase pro-social behaviors, and increase positive attitudes towards school and family members. We want to encourage empathy, sharing, cooperating and rule compliance. We’re not real sticklers on rule compliance though, they get enough of that at school. When they’re connected with a mentor it’s like they are connected with a peer who has their life together. That becomes a positive role model.”

MacNee said that he has found he can relate to his mentees.

“You relate,” he explained. “I’m a pretty easygoing guy so I’m able to relate to them pretty well. We strive to build connections and engagement to nature. Sometimes we’re just throwing a frisbee around. Some of these kids don’t get outside a lot. There is this electronic media, video games and iPods culture. We teach them that you can have those things in moderations, but also getting out in nature is important and can be really fun. We also teach critical thinking skills. And we build confidence by challenge by choice. For example, with rock climbing, the challenge might be showing up that day.”

MacNee said he has been with the program for two years, although he never thought he would enjoy it as much as he has.

“I’m a biologists by training,” he said. “I worked for the labs in the valley, and when I took this job and it was more of a placeholder job, but now I get as much out of it as I give. It’s very rewarding.”

For more information on B.E.A.R., visit http://www.bearoutdooradventures.com/.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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