A little drama, a lot of growth at Asheboro Leadership Retreat

kjahner@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2014 

— – Garner’s high school students have been attending Camp Caraway for about four decades. In fact, Asheboro Leadership Retreat faculty leader Jill Cottengim took the reins from the retiring teacher in the role when Cottengim herself attended the retreat as a high school student.

Of course the faculty role was all but a demotion. The retreat to the camp about 80 miles west – from April 12-14 this year – puts the students in control as they work through a variety of life skills through discussions, games and other experiences that leaders say have a big impact. And leaders say this year’s trip stood out largely because of the groups inclusion and unity, and in part because of a brief scare at the end.

“Most of the kids end up saying that it’s a life-changing thing to do, that it really affects them a lot, and that it makes them want to do better and do more,” Cottengim said.

The 72 students were chosen this year from 130 that applied for the limited spaces, and they were joined by eight teachers there mostly to be loose guides offering suggestions to the student-run experience designed to produce school leaders and new ideas. The current form of the Blue Crew spirit group, for example, got its start in Asheboro.

This year’s theme was “Pieces to the Puzzle,” with an 80s dance theme. Each of four subgroups called “councils” prepared skits cracking on the problems at school. The retreat also includes Olympics-style events as the councils compete against each other over the course of the weekend.

“It helped me grow as a person, made me re-think a bunch of opinions I had on different things like love and hate and trust and friendship,” said senior Trevor Daeke, who like fellow event co-chair Amanda Hulmes had attended the event all four years.

Hulmes thought this particular group was unique.

“I really feel like this group, and I’m biased since I’m a chairman, but this group was better at trying to include everyone,” Hulmes said.

Learning from adversity

Students even turned a sudden spot of trauma on the way home into a unifying bond. About five minutes after leaving the camp just outside Asheboro in a caravan of buses and vehicles, teacher Jon Sherwin’s SUV, which was leading the buses, collided with another car at an intersection. The vehicle carrying Sherwin and fellow teacher Joanna Hetrick flipped onto its side and spun 180 degrees.

“When that happened our hearts sunk,” Hulmes said. “We were all really scared, and started praying.”

But Sherwin popped his head out of the window; neither he nor his passenger were seriously injured. Both went to urgent care briefly once back in the Triangle.

“First thing he said to me was ‘Are you OK?’ I said are you kidding me, am I OK?” Humes marveled. “That’s just the kind of person he is. We all respect him a lot.”

Sherwin said the emotions brought up by event drove home the bonds formed and lessons learned over the weekend.

“I’m not sure something like that doesn’t tend to solidify those things,” said Sherwin, who has gone on the retreat for the past nine years.

But even before the crash, he echoed Hulmes’ “biased” sentiments about the group. He siad each group has its own feel, and this one felt particularly unified and engaged.

‘Spirit of cooperation’

“There was a spirit of cooperation I haven’t seen in all of them,” Sherwin said.

For Sherwin, the camp’s core purpose is two-fold. The 15 student counselors, he said, get a great opportunity to become leaders. And the rest get to create class unity while working through various life skills and issues. Cottengim listed off friedship, forgiveness, trust, self-awareness, communication and leadership.

Daeke noted as an example a student in the group who finally let go of a 10-year-old family-related grudge. Daeke said his own views on friendship have evolved; freshman year a friend was a person he enjoyed hanging out with, but now it’s a person he trusts deeply and can go to with personal problems, closer to family than what he had thought of as a friend before.

Sherwin said the hope is that students would return to their various groups and become leaders, providing positive influence around the school. Daeke became senior class president among involvement in other extracirricular activity. Both he and Sherwin believe the retreat helped him get there.

Daeke admitted to being intimidated at first as a freshman and so he strived to make underclassmen to feel included. Sherwin said Hulmes was even less outgoing at first. Her older brother had loved the retreat so she got involved.

“She definitely had a servant’s heart, but wouldn’t go out front and do it,” Sherwin said. “She is definitely a leader among her peers (now).”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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