The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

"Am I Going to Be That Way?"

“Managing expectations” is a phase that reminds us that real life can fall short of our dreams. That's not news to boys who live in a harsh world of disappointment. For these kids, it can be important to create high expectations and reinforce the fact that a better life is possible.

That was the idea behind taking 25 boys to the Bahamas in 2002. The experience, in fact, was powerful, but not what any of us expected.

As head of the Boys’ Club of New York, I led this group of 13- and 14-year old boys, who had been chosen to participate in a two-week leadership retreat in a remote area of the Bahamas. Understandably, at our first get together, their spirits were high and their own images of palm trees, resorts and beautiful beaches were enough to convince them that they were about to embark on a vacation generally afforded to the rich and famous.

The parents who were also at this meeting were clearly very excited and proud, and although we did try to temper some of this excitement, expectations can often distort the truth. Our goals were really quite simple. We wanted to challenge these boys and encourage them to consider what qualities were truly needed in order to become a good man.

We partnered with the Island School, a specialized school in the Bahamas that had offered activities in marine biology, sustainable energy systems and physical fitness. The school also emphasized developing healthy and respectful attitudes about the environment. The curriculum was designed to stretch our boys in unexpected ways and bring them face-to-face with their insecurities and fears.

Our departure to the Bahamas was accompanied by great anticipation and enthusiasm. For most of these boys, it was their first experience flying, and for many, this was their first trip beyond New York City. I have always contended that while these boys live in what many would consider to be the economic and cultural capital of the world, they also live in isolation. It is, indeed, a painful reminder that by being so near-and yet so far away from--opportunities, these boys can only dream of a better life.

Our travels to the Bahamas required a stop and transfer in Florida. To the boys' surprise, we completed our trip aboard six eight-seat propeller-driven planes flying at 10,000 feet. Even the most experienced among us were on edge; however, once airborne we all marveled at the clear and blue waters that shaped the islands and defined life in the Caribbean. We too would soon be enjoying the region's warm breezes, exotic foods and pastel landscapes ... or so we all thought.

While the boys certainly had their expectations, these were quickly replaced by a reality they could not have possibly anticipated. The half-hour ride from the airport to the school where they would be staying and studying revealed a countryside that was punctuated by large numbers of men idly standing and sitting by the roadside, houses in disrepair, barefoot women carrying buckets of water and other supplies, broken down cars and trucks and very little in the way of infrastructure. This was not the Bahamas they had imagined, but rather, an island with extremely high rates of under and unemployment, little industry and a scarcity of fresh water.

Once at school, they settled into their quarters and quickly learned that the heat would be oppressive and the bugs atrocious. School officials and staff were made up of former U.S. Navy Seals, environmentalists, and physical fitness and outdoor enthusiasts. It was clear that the boys were going to be tested, pushed to their limits and completely taken outside of their comfort zone.

There were no radios, TV's, i-pods, Walkmen or other forms of communication. The noise level that they were so accustomed to was turned way down. The quiet atmosphere, however, allowed the boys to hear more of their inner voices, with thoughts that were rarely shared with others. By the second week, the boys were experiencing emotional outbursts and patterns of behavior we had not witnessed before. While the group struggled to find its identity and achieve the sense of unity it so desperately needed, we were engaged in activities that required risk, cooperation, sharing and trust. Although the boys were not used to expressing these feelings, their own masks began to peel away, and we began to make progress.

After an entire day in our sea kayaks, paddling under an unrelenting sun and fighting the wind, we came to shore on a deserted beach on the southern end of the island we were staying on. The boys were by now covered with bug bites, had only been able to shower sparingly during their stay. They were thirsty and hungry and a few were in danger of overheating. Extreme temperatures, in concert with physical challenges, have a way of transforming our most basic instincts and what we witnessed next demonstrated that we had changed and we were now in uncharted waters.

We made camp, set our tents, collected some firewood, and watched as some distant storm clouds gathered and moved closer to make our lives a bit more challenging. We then proceeded to enjoy a simple meal of rice and beans. It is amazing how good and satisfying a simple meal can be after having physically worked so hard. Cooking on an open fire with the sea marking your time and framed by the setting sun can bring you closer to yourself and to those who are with you.

Later that evening while I was tending the fire with some of the boys, others were lying on their backs by the edge of the water. The waves were gently rolling over their feet and ankles and as they looked to the heavens gone electric, the “oohs and ahhs” followed. There they were: the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Venus and Mars. And when they saw a shooting star, cries of joyful discovery signaled a very special first in their lives. The sky was vivid, the stars almost within reach. And the boys seemed far away from the lives in the projects where hope and wonder are often squashed.

Just three days before and during one of our leadership and training sessions, we heard boys talk of fathers who were in prison, of some who had died and of others never known. That night, one of the boys pulled me aside along with one of the other counselors to tell us something he said he had never told anyone else before. He told us about the day his father had beaten him, his infant sister and mother senseless and then left only to return four years later to steal from them. In between, a succession of other men followed accompanied by more broken promises and unexpected departures.

“Am I going to be that way?,” he asked.

Frankly, no boy should ever have to ask this question. For those who need reassurance and a path forward, we must continue to find ways to address their fears, being realistic about the effort it will take for them to become good men, noble and strong, capable of tears and moments of vulnerability. But by setting expectations high—and literally looking to the stars—we can find the new leadership we are currently lacking and strengthen our families, our communities and our nation.

Brad Zervas, Director, The Ascension Project
About Brad Zervas