CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — The motto of the Kids in the Canyon program, run out of Central Falls High School, is “Hiking into brighter futures.” It lives up to those words both literally and figuratively.
The group takes kids from a sometimes tough environment and trains them over several months to hike the Grand Canyon. But Kids in the Canyon is about much more than the climb. It’s about community, responsibility and stopping at-risk teenagers from becoming statistics. Teens like Maria Gaskell of Central Falls.
Gaskell says at 14 years old, she was overweight and underachieving.
“The beginning of freshman year I was 199 pounds on the dot,” Gaskell said, now looking much healthier.
“I didn’t really care about school,” Gaskell went on. “I had really bad grades.”
But sophomore year, a teacher told her about a group at the school called Kids in the Canyon, run by special education teacher Don Blais. The group hikes the canyon over April vacation.
“You’re going to carry 30 to 40 pounds on your back and you’re gonna go hike up to 40 miles in the Grand Canyon,” said Blais, who is also the program coordinator.
The training for the trek begins at the start of the school year, and Maria says that made her skeptical.
“The first meeting I thought, ‘this guy’s crazy,'” she said.
But through Blais’ passion and attitude, Gaskell bought in. She says she was ready to commit to the three tenets of the program: academics, attendance and attitude.
“The expectations are high,” Blais added.
Outside the building, though, the expectations are even higher. Community service and weekly character-building meetings are required. And weekly workouts are mandatory. In addition to those sessions, which are held on Saturday mornings, students also have to complete 20 CrossFit sessions. The rigorous routine prepares them for the canyon, but also for life.
Marc Mainville of Mentor Rhode Island says, at its core, Kids in the Canyon is a mentor program.
“You have adults that are teaching them this specific skill, preparing them for this specific event in their lives,” he said. “But along the way, they’re becoming their coach, their mentor, their confidante. What a mentor does is expand possibilities.”
And since it began 12 years ago, that’s what Kids in the Canyon has done for 175 potentially at-risk children like Gaskell.
“You look down from the bottom and think, ‘am I really gonna make it?'” Gaskell recalled. “Then you’re at the top and you look down and you’re like, ‘wow I made it!'”
Blais says seeing and feeling that success can have a major impact on a teen’s outlook on their own future.
“If you can do this, then fill in the blank,” Blais said. “What’s next for you? Well that’s up to you to write that next chapter of your life.”
For Gaskell, that chapter opened at Rhode Island College this year, where she’s in the pre-med program. She’s also now a mentor for Kids in the Canyon, but more like her are needed. If you’d like to get involved, contact the group at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Mentor RI’s website.