A Fond Farewell to a Long-time Employee

David LePere and Clarence Robinson

David LePere and Clarence Robinson

At Cherokee Creek, our mentors come in all sizes, shapes, ages and genders! We recently said farewell to one of our senior mentors, Clarence Robinson, who dedicated 8 years to our boys as a night shift counselor at Cherokee Creek Boys School. Last week we held a retirement party for him and it was a grand event! Our students made a bright yellow 16 foot long poster. The kitchen served up a fancy lunch and added desert, which is rare on our “limited sugar” campus.

We gathered all our students and staff and Clarence’s wife to host an Honorable Closure ceremony for Clarence. This event honors community members for their contributions, the relationships they built over time, the stories that were shared, the knowledge that was created, the healing that has taken place and the work that was accomplished. It is a time for everyone to say goodbye and for the honoree to leave with dignity, respect, a sense of their own value, and their value to the community.

Everyone was invited to share a favorite memory and wish Clarence well in his retirement. And, Clarence told a few stories about his times here. The most famous story…now a legendary part of our school history…was about the time he walked around the corner of a bunkhouse in the middle of the night and came to nose-to-nose with a black bear! The bear scrambled up the hillside, leaving claw marks as evidence. We’re not sure who was more alarmed, the bear or Clarence…although he claims to have lost a few years of growth! While we never saw the bear again, Clarence proved his dedication to our school by coming back to work the next night.

Clarence also gave the boys some advice. In a straight-shooting grandfatherly way he gave us a few “real and true” nuggets of gold…

“When I was a kid, any black kids were thought of as bad kids. What I have learned is that we are all the same, it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or purple.” Clarence grew up in rural South Carolina in the 50’s.

“You will always have a boss, someone who tells you what to do. Learn to respect the authority that your bosses have.”…he playfully winked at his wife on this one…

“Your parents love you. I hear you sometimes moan and complain that they won’t let you do this activity or buy you these shoes, or whatever. But I’ve got to tell you, your parents love you. In fact, they tell you ‘NO’ because they love you. They want you to learn to work for your things and be responsible for yourself.”…couldn’t have said it better myself!

Congratulations Clarence! Thank you from all the members of the Cherokee Creek community. Your hard work and wisdom have helped many students to “…discover what is real and true about themselves and the world around them.”

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posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (6)

All I Really Need to Know About Life, I Learned from Middle School Boys

Learning all I need to know about life with the boys on the CCBS front porch chairs...

Learning all I need to know about life with the boys on the CCBS front porch chairs...

(with a nod to Robert Fulghum, who learned about life through Kindergarteners)

Most of what I really need

To know about how to live

And what to do and how to be

I learned from my middle school boys.

Wisdom was not at the top

Of my doctorate pursuit mountain,

But deep in the red dirt of a therapeutic boys school known as Cherokee Creek.

These are the things I learned:

Share with others, but some things can be just yours.

Play fair. Play often. Be playful.

Don’t hit, kick, punch, throw things, or yell.

Put things away if you want them to be there tomorrow.

Clean up your own mess.

Anything found abandoned is considered fair game – It’s called a “G-Score.”

Say you’re sorry when you’ve finished processing an argument. Don’t say it until you are ready , or it’s not authentic.

Wash your hands, a lot. Especially important after seeing their science fair pitri dish results.

Flush. Twice if necessary. There will be a boy cleaning your restroom.

Cookies, milk, and the occasional gourmet cupcake can make anybody’s day.

Live in balance – pursue Personal Enrichment, Academics, Therapy, and Healthy endeavors.

Learn some and think some

And play and work every day some. Make it outdoors whenever possible.

Forget naps – you might miss something good. You can sleep when you’re dead.

When you go out in the world, keep an eye on whoever’s in your group. They like to hide around corners just to see if you’re paying attention.

Hug them a lot.

Be aware of their individual boy-ness, build a strong relationship in which you show you care about them, and remember, no matter how big or hairy they are, they are still BOYS.

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posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (3)

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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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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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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posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (5)

Powering Down

Academic Dean Denise Savidge

Academic Dean Denise Savidge

“You aren’t depressed; our brains just aren’t equipped for 21st-century life.” This quote comes from esteemed health expert Andrew Weil, M.D. from his new book Spontaneous Happiness. And since we really have no choice in which century we’re destined to exist, that statement sounds like it could be a major bummer … sending us all into a tailspin spiral of, well, DEPRESSION.

But wait, there’s more. “In my experience, the more people have the less likely they are to be contented. Indeed there is abundant evidence that depression is a ‘disease of affluence’,” he adds.  To which I breathe a huge sigh of relief, because everybody knows teachers don’t typically drive Maseratis and earn salaries in six-figure range. However, the population that does still has an out … specifically the outdoors.

Dr. Weil goes on to discuss the overload of information and stimulation present in the age of the Internet. Very few of us these days are far removed from our email, mobile phones, texts, televisions or tweets [information surfeit]. Meanwhile we’re missing out on very important time spent outdoors [Richard Louv has coined it “nature deficit”]. The combination is causing us problems. He further explains, “This kind life simply was not an option throughout most of human history,” and therefore the brains we’ve developed just aren’t equipped to handle all this chaos we’ve created.

Weil’s solution? Since throwing away the communication links would make it difficult for most of us to keep our jobs, he offers five Tips for Modern Life. Paraphrased, they are:

1) Bring more of your awareness to the present moment and train your mind and concentration on one thing.

2) Sleep in complete darkness. Try to be out in bright light during the day.

3) Reach out to others. Be social.

4) Avoid disturbing sounds. Try to cultivate silence.

5) Set limits on the amount of time you spend with modern technology.

His advice reminds me of the Cherokee Creek Medicine Wheel and many of our underlying philosophies for helping boys reach a state of good health. On campus one will often hear, “Be present in the moment.” We arrange outdoor activity for our boys numerous times during the day, including PE before class to prepare our learners to learn and even off campus wilderness Treks on the weekends. We live in social “packs” and advocate community-cooperation. And we severely limit television, video games, and internet usage. Using Weil’s standards, our therapeutic program is the perfect storm toward curing depression.

As adults, it’s important to remember that modern technology is a little like, “too much of a good thing,” kind of like a goose laying a golden egg every minute and a half instead of once a day. Soon we will be spending our time gathering the eggs and find we have no time left to enjoy the rest of our life! And that’s depressing.

In what area could you let go of a few eggs? And might there be platinum or rare jewels awaiting you in the outdoors?

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posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (4)