Do You Want to be Right, or Do You Want to be Happy?

Boy, did I ever hear that a lot growing up.  As most teens fresh out of puberty, I had plenty of opinions that were Phil - website portraitnon-negotiable.  I was right and that was that.  My parents (and any other adult for that matter) didn’t have a clue and were obviously, hopelessly out of touch.

Then, by the magical humor of the universe, before I knew it I had teenagers of my own.  Now I understand some of what my parents had to deal with, and their gracious patience and understanding.

Fortunately, I also work at Cherokee Creek Boys School and have the advantage of seeing middle school behavior in generous supply.  Our school is a learning environment both in academics and social skills.  I could see what great effect we were having on the lives of our students here at school, and I decided to try some of the same techniques at home.

First, I recognized the division of labor…hey, I really don’t have to do everything AND know everything.  My teens  were developing their independence for the first time … they were supposed to act as if they knew everything.  I remembered that as a young teen, I had just enough years under my belt to feel like I had a handle on all of life’s difficulties.  It wasn’t until I added a couple of decades that I began to realize how much I didn’t know.

So, with my own kids, I changed my approach and my role.  I realized that they were in a transition phase and needed to form their own opinions and reasoning.  I changed from telling them how they were suppose to think to asking them why they thought a certain way, and I tried to help them form more fully their own thoughts.  I was happy to see the openness that developed between us when they were able to express their own thoughts and feelings.

After all, I reasoned, I’m not going to be able to make decisions for my kids their whole life, nor would I want to. So I changed my approach from telling and demanding to asking and listening. My role switched from dictator to mentor and coach.   I realized that they were in a transition phase and needed to form their own opinions and reasoning.  They were trying out new ideas for the first time and developing the ability to express these fledgling ideas to their peers and to adults.

I decided to be happy and enjoy my kids … let them take on the anxiety of being right. It is a rite of passage we, as their wiser parents or teachers, must allow them. It is a rite of passage they, as young warriors, must be allowed as they discover what is Real and True about the world around them!

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The Best Thanksgiving Anywhere…Ever

Phil gets the bird's ready for roasting.

Phil gets the birds ready for roasting.

“Wow, that was the best Thanksgiving dinner anywhere…ever.”

That comment was overheard and much appreciated by the students and staff who started the preparation 14 hours earlier; and reflects on a tradition that started when Cherokee Creek Boys School opened eight years earlier.

From its first year, Cherokee Creek Boys School was committed to celebrating the traditional Thanksgiving feast with our own special flare. We wanted our students to feel the joy and excitement that comes with this holiday and to be able to create rich memories that they could take with them when they graduated.

The central ingredient of any Thanksgiving is the turkey. At CCBS we decided to create a ritual around the preparation by pit-roasting the turkeys.  This is a fabulous ritual that is present in cultures all over the world.  At CCBS we start with selecting student volunteers for a special “turkey team” who prepare the pit in advance of cooking the turkeys. Then at 1:00am early Thanksgiving morning these boys wake to build a bonfire over the pit and continue to feed a roaring fire for the next four hours. At the end of that time the pit is full of red hot glowing embers.

Once we have this bed of coals, we bury the turkeys (this year we had 5 turkeys) surrounded on all sides and top and bottom by at least 6 inches of coals. Then the pit is covered with dirt which seals in the heat and allows the turkeys to slow roast. Just before dawn, the turkeys safely roasting in the pit, the boys head back to bed, tired, a little smokey, and full of satisfaction for a job well done.

Six hours later, the “turkey team” is back to carefully uncover the turkeys. This is no time for a stray shovel blade to pierce the wrappings, so the students proceed with archeology-type precision. Once uncovered, the turkeys are brought to the kitchen where they are carved and presented as the central piece of a grand feast.

It is remarkable to watch the transformation as these boys take ownership and pride in this monumental task. They spent the night growing in friendships and memories, they see the spectacle of the feast and the shining eyes of those gathered to help celebrate, and they take pride in hearing the words of praise and knowing of their part in this meaningful tradition.

For more  about the process of pit roasting turkeys at Cherokee Creek Boys School, click on  Bear Tracks Newsroom for photos of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

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No Longer This Person

Ben heads to graduation, mask in hand

Ben heads to graduation, mask in hand

On Friday we celebrated Ben’s graduation. As always, it was a solemn, sweet, fun and meaningful experience filled with several rituals that intentionally fill this rite of passage. One of the early actions a graduate takes during his ceremony is the burning of his mask. The mask is symbolic of the person he used to be. Like a snake leaving behind its skin, he burns the mask to represent he is no longer this person.

Ben’s graduation was filled with comments about his attention to detail. So, it is fitting that the process showcased here of creating (and destroying) a mask reflects Ben’s simple yet detailed reflection on the person he was and has grown out of. There are two short videos below. The first is of Therapist Carla Shorts applying the plaster casting to cast a mold of Ben’s face. The second is a quick slideshow of the complete journey from casting to burning.

Congratulations, Ben! We are proud of you and the hard work you have done on your journey of self-discovery!

Video of Ben’s mask being created (1:12):

Slides of the whole process (:29):

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Ripples in the Water

May 2011 FT Group

Twice a year at Cherokee Creek Boys School, about 10 families get together for a very different experience. They come together for 4 days of adventure, fellowship, family time, peace, fun…and a little bit of chocolate mixed with marshmallow mixed with graham cracker.

The outomes of the experience are like ripples on the water. They pulse outward extending far beyond 4 days of activities. Our May Family Trek just wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and a couple of unexpected ripples have made their way back to us. One of our dads, Jack, sent a link to his blog post inspired by the event (provided below).  Jack gives a wonderful perspective as a parent navigating through the experience of parenting a son at a therapeutic boarding school. And Oconee State Park, where the event is based, sent a thank you note for food donated at the end of the trip. The note was signed by all of the members of the prison work crew the food helped to feed in the days following the Family Trek.

You can see from the video below that, most importantly, our Trek family had a great experience filled with Love, Courage, Truth and Wisdom.

Stay-at-Home Dad: Kudzu

Slideshow of highlights:


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Change, Please?

Steven Graduates

David celebrates a student's graduation.

If there’s one things that’s predictable, it’s that things are going to change. And when a change occurs, there is often a transition that follows!

Another predictable thing is that changes create a time in between the ending of the old and the beginning of the new. Cherokee Creek Boys School calls this space a “neutral zone,” a name adopted from William Bridges work on the process of transitions.

We have all felt the “neutral zone.” It can be exciting or confusing. It can feel like chaos or be filled with anticipation. Whatever the feelings are, they are stronger than when things are just routine or predictable. I am a creature of habit as much as anyone, and those feelings that are associated with change sure can make me uncomfortable.

The question I hear (and sometimes ask myself) is: How can I get out of the neutral zone and into the new way of being? Another way of asking this question could be: How can I get past all of these uncomfortable and magnified feelings quickly?

Since change is happening all the time, chances are that you are in a neutral zone in some area of your life right now. What are you being challenged with in the neutral zone? Here are a few questions you can ask to help turn the neutral zone into a place of self-discovery…

What must I put down in order to move forward?

What point of view is shifting?

What is it that I believed that no longer fits me?

Before we are in a rush to the new place, let’s see what can be learned while we are in the neutral zone!

“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” – Robert C. Gallagher

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The Power of Tradition

The team at about 1:00 AM Thanksgiving morning.

Five members of the team at about 1:00 AM Thanksgiving morning. From left: Jon, Adrian, Daniel, Calvin and Drew.

It’s 12:30 AM Thanksgiving morning; it’s cold, dark and most people are sleeping. But 6 Cherokee Creek Boys School students are slowly waking, dressing and making their way into the dark to our turkey roasting pit. These 6 boys are the 2010 Turkey Roasting Team, who have eagerly volunteered to stay up all night feeding logs into a bonfire  to create a massive bed of coals. The fire must be carefully tended and fed for 5 hours to create enough coals to cover five turkeys…the main course for the coming Thanksgiving feast for CCBS students, staff and guests. Once the turkeys are covered with coals, the entire pit is covered with dirt to seal in the heat and allow the turkeys to slow-roast for another 5 hours.

It’s a lot to ask of any teen to give up sleep, be fully attentive and be self-managed throughout the night, but our team meets the challenge  with determination, enthusiasm and a large amount of fun. Pit-roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving has been a tradition since we opened CCBS…a ritual that has been passed on by each generation of students.

There is something comforting and meaningful that keeps us returning to the same traditions every year. Rituals, traditions and celebrations have the power to strengthen and unify families…yours, the CCBS family and the society at large.

At CCBS our mission is to, “challenge boys and their families to discover what is real and true about themselves and the world around them.” I imagine that, while quietly staring into a crackling fire, the members of our Turkey Teams have discovered something about themselves. No doubt they have thought about their families at home. And, maybe their thoughts were also that they are stronger than they thought, more focussed than they thought, or just more sensitive to the world around them than they thought. Their normal markers and priorities are shifted during this night-long vigil and they become more in tune with the rhythms of the world.

It is remarkable to watch the shift in myself and our students as the night slowly creeps along. This “CCBS family” tradition seems to feed our souls as well as our bodies. Just before dawn, with the job completed, these 6 boys make their way back to bed tired, happy and full of a sense of accomplishment.

As most of our boys prepare to return home soon for the holiday break, I challenge you to reflect upon the “real and true” traditions and rituals that define your holiday season and add meaning to your family’s celebration. And I wish you a wonderful celebration of discovery!

Check out this link to the CCBS Bear Tracks Newsroom for more pictures of the Turkey Team in action: Pit-Roasting Photos

Cherokee Creek Boys School is a therapeutic boarding school for middle-school boys, ages 11-15, located in Upstate South Carolina.

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Growth in Change

Residential Lead, Shawn Ziluck, shares a story about his own journey of self-discovery, paying attention to “what has heart and meaning” and embracing responsibility.

Residential Lead, Shawn Ziluck

Residential Lead, Shawn Ziluck

Like many of our students at Cherokee Creek, I had a very difficult time taking responsibility for my actions in my adolescence. My willingness to trust the criticism and advice the adults in my life gave me was non-existent and often fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until I was preparing to graduate from high school that the words I had tried so hard to ignore came back to haunt me. 

The thought of going to college was exhilarating at first, but quickly faded as I saw my father come home from his second job cringing in pain and barley able to walk. I began to realize the sacrifices he had made, and would be making,  to provide me with the opportunity to go to college. I knew in my heart I was not ready for college and would surely waste the money he had worked so hard for, and more importantly the blood, sweat, and pain he had endured to do so.

It was then that I learned what it meant to be grateful and what it meant to have a strong work ethic. It was the acknowledgement of his efforts and my feelings of gratitude that lead me to take responsibility for my life. I postponed college and joined the Navy, which also taught me integrity, leadership, respect, compassion, courage and committment in addition to responsibility.

Nearly 14 years later I find myself surrounded by the boys at CCBS as they face many different transitions that act as catalysts in their journey of self-discovery. I have found that change and transition force us to look again at the things that occur to us, within us, and around us.  This is how our students grow and gain insight into their own personal truths.

Many of our students embark on a new journey as they see their peers graduate and transition home. Though it is typically a happy and joyous time, the graduates leave the remaining students with a void to fill. The void that is left often sends their groups into disarray. As they struggle with the loss of leadership and friends, many students are thrust into to new and unfamiliar roles within their groups. 

Amongst the changes and challenges they face, an incredible thing begins to happen: followers become leaders, and boys become young men.

When in your life have you embraced responsibility and embarked on a new journey?


Cherokee Creek Boys School is a therapeutic Boarding School for middle-school boys, ages 11-15, located in Upstate South Carolina.

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River Lessons (Part 4)

River Lessons is a series of blogs from our students’ perspectives. Students recently reflected on their Treks experiences through writing and made connections to the Lessons of the Medicine Wheel and the 4 aspects of self they learn to explore while enrolled at Cherokee Creek: the Warrior, Visionary, Healer and Teacher.

Student: Mike
Aspect: Warrior
Statement: I am Courageous

“The Warrior is someone who shows up and chooses to be present. The I am statement courage was used more than any other skill on Trek. I used courage when I set up my tent in a difficult staking area, hiking Tallulah Gorge, sliding on the rock and talking to two girls, Danielle and Stephanie, and was able to ask for Danielle’s number in front of a big group of people. I had many self-confidence struggles before I came to CCBS and feel I made a huge change in one social conversation.”

Don’t you just love Mike’s courage and the way he stood up for himself!? He so clearly defines a rite of passage when he describes the, “huge change in one social conversation.”

Where do you stand up for yourself and declare your own value? When have you had to gather every drop of your own self-confidence to address a situation?

Lessons of the Medicine WheelCherokee Creek Boys School is a therapeutic boarding school for middle school boys, ages 11-15, located in Upstate South Carolina.

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