Reflections on Mentoring

At August Family Seminar, Beth Venable mentors parents on how to develop a village of support before their students return home.

At August Family Seminar, Beth Venable mentors parents on how to develop a village of support before their sons return home.

As I prepare to leave CCBS and take the next step on my career path, I find myself reflecting on all I have learned here and the power of mentors throughout my life.

Mentors are people who help reveal “what is real and true about you and the world around you” by role modeling, teaching, and, as Dan Rather once said are people who” believe in you, who tug and push and lead you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called “Truth.'”

Dr. Beger, my high school mentor & teacher, taught me that I had a power and purpose that was innately mine. She taught me how to access my courage, even when it was buried near my toes. Jane Condon, my high school’s principal, showed me that leadership can be a class act, that teams of people are happiest when they know why you have picked them. Shelby Hicks, my first boss, taught me about service and gave my my first lessons in business as she taught me to keep the books in a pencil ledger, the same way her father had before her. John Degan, a college professor who became a dear friend, taught me that no man need be an island, that exceptional performance is a rare treasure and that I could work my fanny off and still get a “C.” Ellen Richard, who hired me fresh out of college at the Roundabout Theatre, taught me that all the Southern charm I can muster will have little result if I don’t do my job well. She also taught me, rather painfully, that everyone is replaceable. Suzanne Youngerman, the Program Director at Young Audiences at the time, taught me what program development is and how to do it well. The “Duenas” (my mother’s close girlfriends) taught me how to return to my authentic self, when I had all but lost any thread of her. Jack Wise, with whom I once sunk a boat, taught me about accepting “what is” and moving ahead whether you like it or not. Beth Black, who founded Cherokee Creek Boys School, taught me the value of orienting your business, first and foremost, by its mission and values and about what it really means to put form after function.

Though none of these folks are my immediate family, their impact on my life has been profound. These are some of the greatest mentors I have intersected in my life. Beginning at the age of 13 and continuing on to today, they have presented themselves as catalysts for change throughout the years.

Some of them were great inspirations, others have made me wince with the raw reality of “real life.” All of them were invaluable and changed my life for the better. I would not trade any of these relationships for a life of ease and riches. I believe the most interesting tapestries are the ones with an abundance of colors, a rainbow of stories and even a few knots.

We all need mentors who help us uncover our authentic self and move toward discovering and living out our purpose. I want to express to all parents that your sons have wonderful mentors at CCBS. They will be blessed by their experience here and remember their favorite staff with affection…as will I. Thank you to everyone who has touched my life while at Cherokee Creek…you have added a stitch to the tapestry of my life.

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Earthlore Lessons

Mark Warren determines appropriate bark for making cordage.

Mark Warren determines appropriate bark for making cordage.

Recently, I observed the intense curiosity and active engagement of the boys as they listened to a story about the Cherokee Indians. It was presented by Mark Warren, naturalist, composer, writer and Director of Medicine Bow, A Primitive School of Earthlore in the North Georgia Mountains. Warren showed the boys their unique relationship with nature through the Earthlore (stories from nature) he had accumulated by the Native Americans. After engaging the boys in a discussion of Earthlore and nature, the boys went outdoors to experience hands- on activities that connected them to the spirit of Cherokee Indians who lived and walked the soil where the Cherokee Creek campus now sits. Mark then helped the boys experience nature as a source of food, medicine, craft materials, fire, tools, weaponry, play and shelter. Learning through the patient methods of the American Indians, the boys had an incredible opportunity for academic as well as spiritual growth. They encountered their masculine spirit through the rituals of an Indian Warrior. These rituals included learning how to hand drill a fire from wood, stalk without being seen, and make cordage (rope) from tree bark. For me, the day was a “real and true” demonstration of the living and practical messages of the medicine wheel –the warrior, visionary, healer and teacher. He showed us how our Cherokee ancestors lived in harmony with nature. But the day went beyond Warren’s lessons of Earthlore. It was a poignant demonstration of the power of mentoring. He shared not only skills and knowledge but also the important message for all males, “I am wise, strong, loved, and a man.Jane Barker, LISW, is the Clinical Services Manager at Cherokee Creek Boys School, located in the upstate of South Carolina.

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Say What?

Davis and his teacher Nick Linscott use the Can-O-Phone in Physical Science Class

Davis and his teacher Nick Linscott use the Can-O-Phone in Physical Science Class

Cherokee Creek Boys School Science teacher Nick and student Davis rigged up two #10 tin cans with a long cord. They stretched it from one balcony to the other – far enough that they couldn’t hear each other in a conversational tone, pulled the cord tight, and started talking.

Having grown up in a time when phones don’t use wires, our students were stunned by how well this worked – and of course it naturally led to his science lesson for the day!

Some interesting limitations of can and string technology are that only one person can talk at a time, and the call quality is poor, so you really have to pay attention to hear what is being said. Sometimes you even have to ask the other end to repeat what they said. Also the string has to be taut in order for the “Can-O-Phone” to work.

There are at least three mini lessons in these limitations that can help us be better communicators…
1. In any conversation, the only way for understanding to take place is for one person to talk and the other person to listen. It is not possible to listen and talk at the same time. Our brains simply don’t work that way, even if our smartphones do.
2. Check for understanding. Carla Shorts, one of our therapists says the only way to be absolutely sure you know what is being expressed is to ask. She says use a phrase like, “What I’m hearing you say is…or …Do I have that right?”
3. You can only pay attention to one thing at a time. When I asked Mitchell, one of our students how he knew he was being heard in a conversation, he said, “When the person is looking at me and paying attention to me. If they’re checking their phone, I know they aren’t listening to me at all.”

The lessons of the “Can-O-Phone” serve as a challenge for all of us today as we tighten the bond between us when we talk and listen with each other!

Cherokee Creek Boys School is a therapeutic boarding school for boys ages 11-15. Located at the foothills of the blue ridge mountains in South Carolina, the school has been serving boys and their families since 2003.

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Meatballs, Noodles and Ribs

I’m a big picture kind of person who likes to simplify ideas down so everybody can grasp my concepts. When I gomeatballs shampoo shopping, there are two kinds: “cheap and expensive.” When I go clothes shopping, I breeze right past most of the racks and head for the back where they keep the items on sale: “clearance vs. outrageous.” Additionally, when it comes to grocery shopping, there are three kinds of foods: “name brand, generic or fresh.” Actually, there is no difference between name brand and generic to me, which leaves my preferred two categories.

In the past year at Cherokee Creek Boy School, I’ve met about 50 boys, aged 11 to 15. And in my mind, I’ve boiled them down to three types: Meatballs, Noodles and Ribs. The labels have to do with how hard each boy is going to make it for me to build a relationship with them.  I’ll explain.

Almost all the boys who come here are meatballs. I’d say about 80% of the population would be a meatball.  If you grew up Italian – or just wanted to eat exclusively in fine Italian restaurants your entire life, like me – you know that a perfectly made meatball begins in the frying pan. For just a few minutes, you brown it so it holds its shape in the sauce into which you later add it. Then, when it’s pasta time, you bite into a meatball and it’s got the perfect amount of “crusty” texture with a nice, soft, warm and perfectly cooked inside. “That’s a meat-a-ball,” my saintly, childhood babysitter used to say. (Bless your heart for giving me the love of all things Italian, Mrs. Cialini!)

That’s how the majority of our boys are – slightly crispy on the outside, but tender on the inside. Once you get past that crusty exterior and get to know the heart of them, they’re such a delight to work with and build a relationship with. They’re meatballs!

Now another group of boys comes to us as noodles …  slightly overcooked, if I may say so. All good Italian chefs know you want your noodles al dente and the best way to test their readiness is to throw them against a wall and see if they stick. No stick – not ready. Stick a moment then fall — perfect. Stick and takes a chisel to get it off – way overdone.  A few of our boys come to us and suddenly become an appendage to anyone who’ll allow it — too much stick. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, don’t feel like they can function without constant assistance, and feel as if they need complete direction in their lives – too much limp as well. About 15% are Noodles – easy to get to know, but you need to set some firm boundaries and help them see their own strengths for maximum enjoyment.

The last 5% are ribs. Anybody who has had a good, Italian gravy with pork ribs thrown in for flavoring knows that the ribs are worth fighting over with relatives. These boys are wonderful challenges in relationship building. But they’re like a rib in this way … there’s an easy layer to enjoy on the surface, but a stiff bone in there that you really need to work on to finally get all the good stuff. Ask any dog — for maximum enjoyment, you need to get to the stuff inside the bone. Not that we gnaw away at the boys here, but there are definitely some that take a little longer to come to know with the numbers of defenses they have. But when you finally do, they’re lip smacking, finger licking, fabulous – just like a rib.

Meatballs, noodles, and ribs … all really wonderful foods, just like all our really wonderful boys.

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Turning It Around

Denise Savidge with Sam and "driver" Nick - too cute!

Denise Savidge with Sam and "driver" Nick - too cute!

Next week marks my one year anniversary of joining the Cherokee Creek Boys School staff as Academic Dean. It’s been an amazing journey of growth, self-discovery, and relationship building in what I call fondly, “The Greatest Job Ever.”

There will likely be those who ponder how big a (choose from suck-up, butt-kisser, brown-noser) I am by writing a blog so blatantly complimentary to my colleagues. But you have to know them. When you’re as delighted as I am to come every day and work with these folks, you feel the need to spread the love on a little thick now and then.

Two years ago I was homeless and jobless. Who wouldn’t feel lucky to have a job — any job — given those circumstances? Somewhere close to MLK day 2010, I was packed up and halfway home to Pennsylvania to live in my parents’ basement. That’s the absolute truth. Well okay, the basement is actually unfinished. I probably could have scored my old bedroom. Thanks to the miracle of modern smart phone communication, an email was delivered offering me a job to make just-above-poverty-level in the local school district. It was enough to get by. It was also a foot in the door, and I turned around and drove five hours back to where I’d started.

That fortuitous email was the beginning of a much needed walk in faith and fellowship. The friends and relationships I’ve formed since turning around that day make life before that point look like a scrimmage against myself. I had been losing no matter what, questioning every decision and second guessing every move. It was mental torture I was inflicting upon myself. Does this sound like something our boys have experienced?

Each move I made after my personal decision to turn my car around brought me closer to finding CCBS one year later, where I finally feel at home. Every perceived misstep I took gained me a skill set I’m using daily in a giant montage of job freedom and creativity. It’s good, hard, rewarding work with payoffs every day – always based in being able to witness and be part of the “turn around” the boys do while they’re here. It’s a team effort in which there are no superstars claiming MVP, just team players acknowledging the other guy’s part in the process.

Turning around is a BIG theme here at CCBS. Our boys come to “turn it around.” Our families get to take a new course along with them. And we’ve grown so much as a school since about this time last year. We all manage to grow and change on these healing soils – from the trees to the people to the school itself.

This week, we were told we would again be recommended for accreditation by SACS. We can’t reveal most of the contents of the study until it’s published, but suffice it to say we were showered with some pretty amazing and heartwarming Commendations. To have strangers walk onto your campus and immediately recognize the warmth, camaraderie, cohesion, and respect among students and staff is a pretty big accolade.

Have you ever wondered about our claim to be “The Small School with the Big Heart?” Even first time visitors see it. Next time you’re in the area, turn around for a quick visit with us. It’s always rewarding to see the good work going on around here.

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Announcing the Family Center!

Members of our most recent Family Trek in November: Beth Venable is center among CCBS students, parents, siblings, guides and staff.

Members of our most recent Family Trek in November just after completing a zip-line canopy tour: Family Center Director Beth Venable is center among CCBS students, parents, siblings, guides and staff.

Hi folks…we are terribly excited to share this press release that is going out today to our extended “learning community” of parents, alumni, educational consultants and industry professionals. We have always been proud of our family focus and we hope, if you currently have a boy with us, you feel the care and dedication we offer to both the child and the entire family. The Family Center is a long-held dream of Founder Beth Black. Her experience as “the mom” of a struggling child in a therapeutic program and her commitment to serving the whole family is directly reflected in our mission statement to “challenge boys…and their families…to discover what is real and true about themselves and the world around them.” While we have been serving families from the beginning, we have grown to a place where we can launch our Family Center and have a focused, coordinated program for the entire family.

Press Release:
Cherokee Creek Boys School is pleased to announce launch of the Cherokee Creek Family Center. This new department will be headed by Beth Venable, formerly Marketing and Communications Director. She will report directly to Executive Director David LePere.

Beth was selected because of her excellent experiential education and program development background and deep interest in family-centered healing. She was the founder of our weekend CCBS Treks program for students and the Family Treks program for our parents and siblings. She will continue to manage marketing and communications duties during the start up of the department. Once the Center is fully up and running, marketing and communications will be assigned elsewhere within the organization.

“Establishing the Family Center has been a long-held dream for Cherokee Creek,” stated LePere. “Serving the whole family is a key part our mission. The Family Center lets us take our commitment to boys and their families to the next level. Not only will we bring the design and implementation of our current family services under common management, we are also adding new programs and activities.”

Beth Venable adds, “We are proud of our numerous existing services, including Family Seminars, Family Treks, sibling activities, Women’s Retreats for CCBS mothers,  Father/Son events, and our Alumni Weekend. The new Family Center will allow us to make these programs even better and to introduce several new elements such as Alumni Treks, Parent Coaching, Transition workshops, and skill development workshops to address the needs and interests of our boys and their families.”

What’s first? “Two ‘Women of Courage’ Retreats for CCBS moms, the quarterly Family Seminar featuring a special ‘Boundaries Boot Camp’ skill-building workshop…all in February!” says Venable. “We are excited and ready to get started!”

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The Burpee Challenge

From Left: Rick, Dain, Academic Dean Denise Savidge, Executive Director David LePere and Jackson all participated in the Burpee Challenge today.

From Left: Rick, Dain, Academic Dean Denise Savidge, Executive Director David LePere and Jackson all participated in the Burpee Challenge today.

A day after New Year’s, a friend of mine told me he was starting a 100-day Burpee Challenge. Thinking this would have something to do with growing plants, I asked, “Does that involve vegetables, or flowers?” He laughed, then without any explanation, did something that caught me completely by surprise. My friend squatted down, kicked his legs out behind him, did a push-up, brought his legs back in and from a squatting position jumped up with his hands reaching for the sky.

“That’s a burpee!” Excitedly he continued, “My brother and I have just started this great workout plan. We do one burpee on day one, two on day two, and so on until on day 100, we do 100.” He waited until he saw that I understood and then asked, “Want to join us? We’re on day 1.”

“Sure. That sounds like fun! I do need to get in shape for a sea kayaking trip.” I said quickly.

Doing 1 burpee was pretty easy so I later consulted Saint Google to see if joining my friends would actually get me in shape for a sea-kayaking trip I have coming up in the spring.

Apparently, over the course of the 100 days, we will do 5000 push-ups each…( and 5000 lunges… and 5000 squat thrusts!) …I love exercise, but the thought of those 5000 push-ups seemed overwhelming!

I’ve stuck with the plan and am on day 25 now. It is actually starting to become fun. The last few are always tough, but now that my body is adapting, the first 15 and even 20 were easy.  I’ve overcome my initial doubt that I could finish the whole challenge because all I have to do is “just do one more than I did yesterday”…and it’s not hard to do one burpee.

David, Rick and Denise in full burpee action.

David, Rick and Denise in full burpee action.

On day 2, I invited the staff and students of Cherokee Creek Boys School to join me in the challenge. During this quarter, we are studying the value of Courage in our classrooms, our outdoor treks, and in our PATH work. We already have PE every day before classes and many of our students are on the basketball team, so I just put the invitation out there. Eight courageous boys and one courageous Academic Dean embraced the challenge.

It reminded me that great goals are achieved one step – or pushup – at a time.  It’s a great message for everyone, but especially for students. By “exercising” courage to take on new challenges…and just doing a little bit more than we did last time, we can accomplish great feats in our lives!

If any of you who are going on the CCBS sea kayaking trip with me in April, it’s not too late to join the challenge? One burpee is really easy…

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“Just Try It, Buddy.”

Noah Climbs

Noah reaches new heights...after voicing his concerns.

My daughter’s school recently held a short presentation that included the best and worst phrases you can say to a child. There was a buzz about the room as the audience went through the list and reacted. We parents patted ourselves on the back for the many “Best” things we said frequently to our children. We cringed at some of the “Worst” things that had been said to us as children and sheepishly admitted that, yes, we had said some of them to our children, too.

Unanimously we all paused at the end of the list of the worst statements. The phrase, “Just try it, buddy,” rounded out the list.

Of course, it must be a threat, right? “You cross that line one more time and you’ll regret it. Just try it, Buddy!” A baited warning that mom or dad had met their limit…the final straw. I am certain this is how it was meant in my house growing up and can easily visualize the body language: pointed finger, hand on hip, raised eyebrow, etc.

And then our presenter clarified why “Just try it, buddy,” had made the “Worst” list. This phrase was NOT included because of its common use as a stern warning or threat. The context, we were informed, was the circumstance where a child is communicating or demonstrating real resistance to trying something we parents think they should be ready or wanting to try that, perhaps, they are unsure, unready or afraid to attempt.  What is called for in this moment is listening…not our well-meant coaching.

“Huh? Are we not supposed to encourage our kids to try things, to step out of their box?” we challenged. Our discussion continued, a circle of folks meeting the common parenting challenge of when to push and when to pause.

Of course, as parents, teachers, counselors and clinicians, we often have to give “our kids” a nudge when it comes to new things, new activities and new responsibilities. “Just try it, Buddy,” is used here as a cautionary tale. Sometimes there is real fear, real anxiety or another “real” reason that a child is digging in their heels.

In those moments I hope I remember to pause and listen and make the statement, “I will listen to your concerns.” Ninety percent of the time it will be followed by a pep talk about perseverance over fear and trying new things…but once in a blue moon it will be time to try something different…to say, “That’s OK, Buddy, let’s try this instead.”

At Cherokee Creek Boys School we study the Way of the Warrior in the winter months. The lessons of the Warrior include knowing the right language, time, place, etc.

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Way of the Parenting Warrior

A few of of the boys with Nali, one of our canine Trek staff.

A few of of the boys with Nali, one of our canine Trek staff.

I disappointed my daughter today – her birthday, of all days. I’d promised her a dog after she tearfully approached me saying she missed our old dog that mysteriously disappeared in October. So I showed up early at preschool and took her to the local shelter. I’d secretly been doing recon on one certain dog for weeks and was confident he was still available three days since my last visit. Needless to say he wasn’t. I’d blown it. Someone saw him the day before and his sign read “I’m Adopted!!” I was crushed.

I can’t tell you how firmly my heart was set on that beautiful red chow mix. But Grace’s wasn’t – she had never met him. In her joyous, five-year-old exuberance, any old dog would do as long as we took one home then. I halfheartedly took a pretty, white, husky mix out to the dog run to play. Grace had a blast chasing him, while throwing the ball and Frisbee. He played along a little, but was more interested in menacing the puppy in the run next door and twice snapped his head around, annoyed at my daughter for interrupting that mission. Obviously, he didn’t come home with us and Grace was NOT happy. She stomped, cried, and generally made my life miserable all the way home as I attempted to explain we would try again another day. She wasn’t having it.

Upon reflection that evening, I recognized the mistakes I had made and how to fix them next time. First, I failed to set the boundaries of our visit – that we were looking for a dog, but might not take one home that day. Next visit I will remember to define the parameters ahead of time and come out the shining mom I know I am.

Second, I neglected to be consistent in my words and action. I told her she could have a dog for her birthday. That, to a five-year-old, means “dog on birthday,” so I broke my implied promise. Walking the talk is something I’m usually pretty good at when it comes to following up with consequences. I learned I need to be cognizant of saying what I mean and meaning what I say ALL the time.

Third, I forgot to conduct due diligence to see if the dog I picked as the perfect match for our family was still available. A disciplined check on the internet could have helped me avoid the whole situation. I’ve resolved that being busy isn’t an excuse for important information gathering!

This learning path I traveled falls nicely into our new quarter: The Warrior Leadership skills ask us to align our words with actions, be responsible and disciplined, and to respect limits and boundaries. When we disregard doing so, we fail ourselves and others, unintentionally or otherwise.

Not to worry, Gracie will get her dog, I will get over my disappointment, and the Husky may get another chance without distractions. Who knows? I may name him Warrior.

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In 2012 I Resolve…

A photo from our annual December retreat last week

A photo from our annual December staff retreat last week

Very often it is the wisdom of others that is the most inspiring. My list of resolutions for the New Year sound like an echo from last year..”lose a few pounds, get organized, exercise more.” I genuinely aspire to these life improvement challenges, but they are personal commitments and not terribly inspiring.

When my good friend Jack Levine – founder of the 4Generations Institute (www.4Gen.org ) and a professional advocate for children and families – shared his  “real and true” resolutions I said, “Wow, now that’s inspiring!” His pledges, if kept, would make the world a better place. A much grander plan!

With his permission, I share them with you. I hope you have had wonderful holidays and that these resolutions inspire you to begin the New Year with hope and optimism for the blessings to be discovered in 2012!


As we prepare to launch into the New Year, please reflect with me for a few minutes on who we are and where we hope to go in the 12-months ahead.

2011 was a year of changes, challenges and new responsibilities.  Life is about transitions, and as an incurable optimist, I believe the year ahead will open new doors and present valuable opportunities for all of us. I hope you agree…..

15 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR 2012
In 2012 I resolve….

— To appreciate my family, friends, and colleagues for who they are, what they mean to me and others, and to gracefully overlook some things they do (or don’t do!).  None of us is perfect and accepting that reality helps relationships flourish.

— To act upon wrongs that need righting, crass statements that require correction, and offenses that demand just responses.  We set a positive example by not accepting negativity in others.

— To be a valuable teammate and to trust others to do their best.  Each of us should know what position we play, and regularly practice our skills to be our personal best.

— To actively listen to the voices of children and elders. Accepting the wisdom of innocence and experience is both free and priceless.

— To accept that I don’t know everything. By collaborating with others who know much more, together we can create a great brain trust and blend expertise.

— To pleasantly surprise someone every day with a genuine smile and unexpected kindness in word and deed.  Life’s subtle gifts of compassion and concern are cherished.

— To respect and celebrate the diversity of faiths, feelings, and fashions. Differences are natural and honoring each others’ perspectives creates mutual admiration.

— To exercise artistic expression for its intrinsic value. The vitality of the instrumental, literary, dance, visual or vocal arts fuels the soul and expands the mind to new possibilities.

— To invest a thoughtful minute before I speak or act.  Regret is often preventable. Reversing harm is one of life’s most vexing challenges.

— To honor those who courageously sacrifice for us at home and abroad, care for our health, educate, protect us and perform the healing and helping arts so that our quality of life is improved.

— To share even if I think I don’t have enough. Setting an example by giving to others in need is one of the best lessons for children to observe.

— To protect, defend and advocate for people who rely on me. Give special attention to the needs of others of every stage of life who may not know how to find their own voice.

— To preserve natural environments for their beauty and bounty. Natural settings are home to plant-life and species which are too often victims of our wants, not our needs.

— To never give up on a person or a cause, despite the challenges we face. Perseverance is an attitude that exemplifies leadership, attracts allies, and creates meaningful change.

— To speak truth to power, but to be both polite and persistent. There’s a fine line between persistence and pestilence. Resist aggressiveness, but advocate with assertion, confidence and commitment to the cause.  Advocating for prevention policies and programs that keep bad things from happening is the most important of all investments.

Happy New Year!

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