The day before Veterans Day, take some time to learn about one of our incredible partners and what they are doing to get veterans in the outdoors and why that matters, not just to these veterans, but to all people in our great country.
Each year in August, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) takes a group of men and women battling to overcome homelessness and addiction, many who are veterans up to the top of Mt. Rainier. UGM Special Projects Director, and ex-Army Ranger Mike Johnson says they climb “to establish a track record of accomplishment to counteract a narrative of failure.”
Watch the trailer here:
You can also follow along through connecting with the documentary crew and UGM team on facebook.
You can also always follow along with Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and partners on facebook or by visiting our website for updates.
Below is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Mike Johnson and some of the participants.
Mike, what is special about this climb and how many people make it to the start of the Rainier Climb?
“We started with 25 expressing interest, and from this group a stable crew emerged of around a dozen who all went on to summit Mt. Hood in Oregon and attempt to summit Mt. Rainier. The big message of the Climb for participants is that their future is totally open, as long as they attend to their recovery. One year ago, they were addicted, recently incarcerated, unemployable and on the streets without the faintest idea that one year later they would be atop Mt. Rainier! Anything is possible; there are no limits. This creates hope, and a willingness to dream again for the future-- to have goals again, maybe even big ones.”
What changes do you see in the climbers? Do you measure it or study the process in any formal way?
“We see changes in three main areas:
2) relationships, and
Climbers go through a year-long recovery program that includes 6 months of individual therapy with a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. They are tracked in their capacity to stay clean & sober for years after graduating. This crew has displayed the most stable recovery rates so far.
This team has learned better than any previous one how to lean on each other. We deliberately increased the exercise demand this year, which more effectively knit the group in the face of adversity. Their counselors track quality and depth of relating as a key predictor of a person's capacity to succeed in family and employment contexts.
The next mountain must now be climbed: getting a job, getting parental visitations restored, securing quality housing and rebuilding finances. Counselors track goal-setting and goal-progress in these areas. These climbers aren't just climbing Rainier.”
What do participants do after the climb? Do they clean up, get jobs, find homes?
“Yes. Climber Brad Cohen is back in the workforce and stably housed. Climber Shane Leitheiser started his new job two days after coming off Rainier. Christian Downs and Jason Reyes have secured internships in Youth Ministry at a large church in Bellevue. Chris Foss was offered the first job for which he applied. Others are on their way to graduation.”
If the success of the program is so great, why does it seem that the wilderness or climbing or outdoor experiences are so often left out of the equation for supportive services?
“Outdoor experience, and spending time in nature, is very therapeutic at an individual level. But it also very relationship-building for those who join together in these activities. It doesn’t have to just be mountaineering. Anyone can benefit from whatever outdoor experience is available to them. Such experiences are indeed often left out of the equation because they require support and a least some expertise that are additional to the already high demand of rehabilitative services. Community partnerships can help bridge that gap.”
Do you see any similarities between war and climbing?
“Combat operations and climbing have a lot in common, minus the bullets. Both are specialized activities with specific gear, practices and culture. Both are team-driven enterprises, and both rely on that team and on high-quality leadership to overcome potentially fatal obstacles. These kinds of teams achieve missions in all but the most impossible circumstances-- and sometimes even then too.”
“Everyone on the climb is overcoming; the vets and non-vets share this experience. But the sense of a close-knit team, forged through hard work and disciplined preparation for a challenging mission-- that is often new to the non-veterans. They report that the best part of the process isn't really the climb: it's the team.”
Climbers, what did climbing Rainier mean to you?
Wednesday Moore (Recovery Climber, Women’s Shelter)
The climb means a lot to me. It is one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life. I have never worked this hard towards a goal or wanted to do something this bad.”
Chris Foss (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)
The Mt. Rainier Climb has been central to my recovery. The grueling training and the overcoming of unknown obstacles has taught the value of teamwork and strong character. Most importantly, it helped renew my self-confidence. I am grateful.
Mark Berrier (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)
Climbing Mount Rainier means that I can conquer something, it means that I can persevere
Christian Downs (Recovery Climber, Men’s Shelter)
This program taught me to be an overcomer through struggles for good and for bad... I learned the importance of friends and teamwork.