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Safe Passage: On 80 Acres in Underhill, Teens Reflect on Who They Are and How They Want to Change 

click to enlarge Marlie Hunt, 17, taking part in the re-entry ceremony on the final day of ReTribe's Inner Journeys retreat - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Marlie Hunt, 17, taking part in the re-entry ceremony on the final day of ReTribe's Inner Journeys retreat

On the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, boys mark the passage into manhood through land diving, jumping off a wooden tower with two tree vines wrapped around their ankles. A coming-of-age ceremony among the Ticuna, indigenous people of the Northwest Amazon, involves girls spending three months to a year living alone in a small dwelling or private room after they get their first period. Facial tattoos signify the transition from childhood to adulthood in Papua New Guinea and Mali.

In the United States, however, rites of passage are typically limited to commemorative events like sweet sixteens and quinceañeras, confirmations in Catholicism, and bar and bat mitzvahs in Judaism.

On a picturesque 80 acres in Underhill on the slope of Mount Mansfield, though, one small organization is quietly working to foster teens' transition from childhood into adulthood by helping them look within. For the past eight summers, ReTribe — an organization that provides what it calls "transformational programs" for all ages — has run Inner Journeys, a two-week retreat designed to help usher teens into adulthood using play, therapy, nature and spirituality.

Teens, ages 14 to 19, live in single-sex dorms, rise at 7:30 a.m. to meditate, and eat healthy, organic food at every meal. Days are a mix of fun, playful activities and reflective, therapeutic ones. Ceremonies that incorporate traditions from around the world commemorate transformation and growth and create a sense of reverence for the wisdom of those who came before.

"In my view, we are sort of an acorn or a caterpillar," explains John Hunt, who cofounded ReTribe in 2009 with his wife, Julia Hunt. "Our potential is already fully within us, but it takes work to transform ourselves, to become fully ourselves, to grow into the oak tree." Inner Journeys, he says, is about creating a space that allows teens "to look at themselves and see what they'd like to change and what they'd like to become."

click to enlarge ReTribers Peter Orzech, Riley Craig and Maddie Parker (left to right) embrace on the final day of Inner Journeys - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • ReTribers Peter Orzech, Riley Craig and Maddie Parker (left to right) embrace on the final day of Inner Journeys

At the retreat, participants play wacky group games like Ninja the Flag, a nighttime iteration of Capture the Flag where ReTribers dress up in black and wield foam swords, and watermelon water polo in the Stevensville Brook. These playful activities are woven in with workshops on nonviolent communication, consent and substance abuse; small group therapy sessions; and whole group workshops devoted to breath work, dream interpretation and inner-child healing. The last three practices are part of body psychotherapy, a school of therapy founded by Sigmund Freud protégé Wilhelm Reich that focuses on mind-body interaction.

Each morning, John leads a 45-minute meditation session that incorporates yoga, breathing, tai chi and qigong. This practice demonstrates to the teens that "the mind is a muscle that needs to have work," explains Julia, "and if you grow those muscles of being able to focus, that will help all parts of your life." Technology, which teens are not allowed to use during the two weeks, is so stimulating that it works against this centering and slowing down of the mind, she adds.

During daily "sit-spot time," teens go into the woods for an hour to examine their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to journal. Near the end of the retreat, they take part in a "wilderness solo," spending seven hours, often overnight, outdoors by themselves. The rationale behind this practice is that in the absence of outside stimuli, teens are able to be more in touch with their inner psyches. During the solo,"I did a lot of contemplation about myself and my future and what I want to do," explains 17-year-old Marlie Hunt, a longtime ReTriber and John's younger sister. "I feel like when I'm at ReTribe, I get to think a lot more and just be more expansive and connect with people in a different way," she adds.

ReTribe's philosophy is shaped by founders John and Julia's backgrounds and experiences, as well as those of Julia's mother, Jane Martin, a psychotherapist who has been involved in the teen programs since they began.

John, 31, a member of the Nulhegan Band of Abenaki, was raised on an Addison County dairy farm, where, he says, he developed a strong connection to the Earth. He attended the University of Vermont for one year, then apprenticed with a variety of programs focused on experiential and outdoor learning. He ran a camp for elementary-age kids at New Village Farm in Shelburne for two years before starting ReTribe.

click to enlarge ReTribe leader and psychotherapist Jane Martin - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • ReTribe leader and psychotherapist Jane Martin

Julia, 32, grew up in New Jersey and attended the Waldorf School of Princeton. While taking part in a family week at Omega, a Rhinebeck, N.Y. institute that offers holistic instruction on topics like mindfulness and the arts, she discovered Adventure Game Theater at age 12. The program incorporates improvisational theater and live-action adventure, and is now also offered at ReTribe. As a sociology major at UVM, Julia wrote her thesis on how people live together in intentional communities.

Martin, 60, a licensed professional counselor in New Jersey and licensed clinical mental health counselor in Vermont, has been in private psychotherapy practice since 2002.

The name ReTribe is based on the idea that "there's a wisdom in the way humans used to live in tighter communities," says John. He sees the world as a series of concentric rings, starting with the personal and radiating out to family, to community, and all the way to the biggest ring, "One Earth Family," which is the organization's motto.

Twenty-five teens took part in Inner Journeys this summer. Late on a cloudy Wednesday morning in July, day 10 of the retreat, the interplay between light-hearted silliness and deep reflection is on full display during the group's daily morning gratitude circle. The teens and 10 staff members, some chewing long blades of grass, sit barefoot in a large circle and take turns giving thanks.

"I'm thankful for the fireflies, the moon, and the cool air and wind this morning," shares one teen.

"I'm thankful for dinosaurs and the color red," Emily Tompkins, the resident cook, says, to a few giggles.

The answers flow easily: I'm thankful for the folks that sang me to sleep last night... I'm thankful that I was able to make fire during my solo... I'm thankful for how beautiful the forest is at night, lit by the moon.

Julia then launches into an overview of the day's activities. Because the teens just completed their overnight solos, the day is going to be more laid back than usual, she explains.

"Today's schedule is..." she says, then pauses as the group pats their palms on the ground like a collective drum roll.

"Rumor on the street is that things have gotten crazy," she continues, referring to the messy dorm rooms. Later that morning, everyone will go back to their bunks to "make sure there's nothing really nasty in your room," she says. (Chores like cleaning, cooking and gardening are built into the daily schedule.) Afternoon workshops will include forest drumming, massage, and nonviolent communication, an approach to interacting with others that combines honest expression and empathetic listening. After dinner, ReTribers can choose to play board games or a group game called Silent Football, which staff member Teddy Pietrzak cryptically explains "has nothing to do with football... it's [a game] about dictatorship."

Before heading down to the brook for a photo, the teens organize themselves in two facing lines for an activity called Angel Walk. One by one, participants are invited to walk down the aisle between the lines with their eyes closed. As they pass, group members give them a gentle touch or whisper something in their ear that they wish people had communicated to them as a child — sentiments like "You're beautiful" or "You're worthy of love just as you are." As the activity unfolds, the group sings a soft song that goes, "I behold you beautiful one/I behold you child of the Earth and the sun/Let my love wash over you/Let my love wash over you." A few participants quietly shed tears.

The adults who run ReTribe understand that their programs might feel strange or uncomfortable to the average teen initially.

"When they get here that first day, you can tell there are some teens who are like, Oh, what did I get myself into," says Julia. But, within 24 hours, they typically settle into the environment. She thinks that's because the nonjudgmental and supportive culture that starts from day one puts them at ease. "Humans feel good when they feel safe to be able to be themselves," she explains.

Instead of sitting teens down and telling them what the rules are, the group comes to joint agreements on how they want the community to run and how they want to treat each other. Past agreements have included, "Let the emotions flow," "Humor and kindness can go together" and "Invite others to join in."

click to enlarge ReTribe staff member Emily DiPaola: - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • ReTribe staff member Emily DiPaola:

This communal mindset, in which there is an awareness about how one's actions impact others, is a critical part of ReTribe's DNA, says Julia. Having the Underhill land as a home base for their programs is an important step in fostering that mindset, she adds. In May 2018 — after renting land at different camps and retreat centers in Plymouth, Stannard and Starksboro — Julia, John and Martin purchased the property, formerly the site of the now-defunct Maple Leaf Treatment Center. The three live in homes on the land year-round.

Teens who have been coming to ReTribe programs for multiple years also help reinforce the strong sense of community for new participants. Sixteen-year-old Wyll Hoerres of Montpelier has attended Inner Journeys since 2017. "At the start of every retreat, I kind of have to shift into the ReTribe mode," he says, and at the end, "I always have to recalibrate to how things are in society." ReTribe is an environment in which "everything is accepted; there's not anything that's bad or wrong, it's just different."

One of Wyll's favorite activities is breath work, a set of breathing exercises which, explains Martin, is thought to create an altered state of consciousness that allows for growth and healing. Wyll describes the practice, which he's done at every retreat, as a way to relive emotional experiences like a big fight with a parent or sibling, or the death of a loved one, "but in a safe space."

Martin explains that breath work is one example of the Non-Ordinary State, or NOS, processes that ReTribe uses to foster transformation and healing of trauma. Many cultures induce this altered state through fasting, isolation or the use of psychotropic substances like mushrooms or ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic brew. At Inner Journeys, the use of breath work, nature solos, and shamanic journeys and trance dance — practices that involve drumming, visualization, breathing and body movement — produce a similar outcome, without side effects. Adventure Game Theater, offered for a week in August, also creates this kind of altered state, says Martin.

ReTribe's staff is cognizant of the fact that to be a teen today is, in some ways, more complicated and difficult than ever. Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60 percent, according to a 2019 article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. And from 2000 to 2017, the rate of suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds rose 47 percent.

"We get handed down unhealthy habits and traumas from our parents, and what I noticed is that adults don't really process their things until their 40s or 50s, when their life is slowing down," says John. "And so I thought, if we actually started working with young people, we could create a stronger cultural shift." The organization's programs for younger kids use a framework of play to create a beneficial and healthy environment, he explains. Teens, though, have a greater capacity for thinking about "how they are in the world and what they want to become as an adult," says John, so activities are more reflective and intellectual.

There is some research to support the idea that reflecting on one's feelings is helpful in combating depression. A recent study published in the journal Emotion finds that teenagers who can describe their negative emotions in precise and nuanced ways are better protected against depression than teens who describe their feelings in more general terms.

click to enlarge ReTribe founders Julia and John Hunt - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • ReTribe founders Julia and John Hunt

And though Inner Journeys is not specifically designed for teens with mental health issues, "our systems are designed to meet the teens where they are," says Martin. The mix of participants — some who are psychologically healthy and others struggling with issues like trauma, depression and eating disorders — leads to a powerful learning environment, she adds. Teens develop empathy and compassion and come to understand the importance of not judging others. More troubled participants have a chance to see what healthy relationships look like, and learn that, despite outward appearances, everyone has their own struggles.

Mary Claire DeHaven, a psychotherapist in private practice in Middlebury, learned about ReTribe when her son, now 19, attended a camp run by John and Julia at Willowell in Monkton when he was 12. He's since attended multiple Adventure Game Theater and Inner Journeys sessions, and she's recommended the programs to other parents. Each time her son returned from a retreat, DeHaven says, "he was obviously at a new level of maturity," both in his ability to share more deeply about himself and to explore interesting ideas and insights that he had.

Teens today are dealing with a lot, including self-esteem issues, social anxiety and anger, she adds, and Inner Journeys is a place where they can work through their issues, while being "accepted for who they are, and celebrated for who they are."

Eighteen-year-old Peter Orzech, a recent graduate of Middlebury High School, who has been coming to ReTribe programs since 2012, would likely agree with that assertion. When he was younger, he harbored a lot of insecurity about people not liking him, he says, which manifested itself as anger and treating people unkindly. "And then I came here, and I kind of learned to love myself," he says. Therapeutic practices, like breath work and daily meditation, have helped to give him a strong sense of self and to release internalized anger. Even when he's not at ReTribe, he regularly meditates to the sound of running water or birds to focus his mind.

Emily DiPaola, a Montessori teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who has been working with teens at ReTribe for six summers, says it's powerful and personally affecting to see them change over the course of the retreat. "I see a really shy person get to release and scream and yell and cry. I see a teen who's kind of hard and seems angry soften and smile," she explains. "And watching them love each other makes me love more and become softer myself."

The transformation has been profound for 18-year-old Riley Craig of Montpelier, who has been attending ReTribe retreats since he was 11. For many years, he struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. ReTribe, he says, "has shaped most of my entire being" and "basically saved my life." The therapeutic work he's done at the retreats "often gives me insight into myself that I didn't necessarily have before," and has helped with issues related to self-esteem and unhealthy relationships.

"This is such an emotionally fulfilling and intimate space," he says, "and also this is where my deepest connections are... These are the people I live for."

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