Winter Camp 2014!

February 14-22nd, 2014, Winter Camp, Berkshire Outdoor Center at Chimney Corners Camp – one of (if not the single) greatest experiences of my professional life. My first experience as a residential Camp Director revealed itself to be, I hope, the first of many.

And what an incredible community! Sixteen staff, five Leaders-in-Training, forty-eight campers and one dog – each lending a little piece of themselves to our greater camp culture. We survived bumps, bruises, stomach aches and homesickness. We danced the dining hall spotless after every meal and wholeheartedly competed in Iron Chef, the Becket Winter Olympics, Gaga Ball and Minute to Win It. We attempted a Disco Igloo and failed. We attempted the Zipline and Giant Swing in three feet of snow and SUCCEEDED. We laughed and joked and built up each other’s spirits for six awesome days.

Several years ago, a good friend introduced me to the concept of “synergy” when the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Every so often in my life that resurfaces in me and I think, “This is it, THIS is synergy.” When we came together at Winter Camp, we created something bigger than ourselves. And though it’s so short – just one week – we’ll carry that synergy with us until it’s time to do it all over again in 2015.

So here’s to the memories of Winter Camp 2014 – we’ll share them forever!

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Spotlight on LACES

This week I interviewed Christine Brayfield, a full-time school teacher in Boston, a graduate of Springfield College and our Camp Director for a new partnership program we’re running in Springfield called LACES.

(Our new hero) Christine and I talked about how LACES started, where it is today and where she sees it going in the future. Read on to learn about a program that is making a tremendous impact on a community that desperately needs its help.

Our hero Christine (right) and a LACES student at BOC in 2012

Christine Brayfield (right) and a LACES student at Berkshire Outdoor Center in 2012


BOC: So LACES, huh? Like shoes and corsets?

CB: No, no, nothing like that at all. It stands for Leaders in Academics, Community Engagement and Service and is a program that reaches across all the areas of a kid’s life: school, after-school and summertime. In Springfield especially, there is a need for consistent oversight, accountability and enthusiasm in the lives of school kids.

BOC: How did LACES begin and for what purpose?

CB: Well, in the spring of 2005, Ted France (Associate Professor of Physical Education at Springfield College), Dale Allen (former Director for Community Relations at Springfield College) and Brenda Marsian (former Director of Development at Springfield College…now working next to you!) began this program in order to connect Springfield College students with the needs of the youth of Springfield.

Springfield College prides itself on community engagement and this is by far their best idea. Back in 2005, it was called Springfield Leaders of Tomorrow and gave the youth of Springfield an opportunity to spend 2 weeks on a college campus.

Leadership, Academics and Community Engagement through Service in action!

One Leader in Academics and Community Engagement through Service in action!

BOC: Wow, so it’s changed a lot over the years, hasn’t it?

CB: Yes, well, it started as a program that was focused on providing experiences to Springfield College students with the added benefit of positively impacting children in Springfield. The original purpose was for Springfield College students to create a such an effective, desirable program that it would be replicated in cities all across the country.

As we got into delivering the program itself each year, we made some changes to improve our impact and others so that we could continue to support the kids regardless of how much funding we got or who it came from. This is how we came to partner with Springfield Parks and Recreation, too.

Over the past two years, Parks and Recreation has come to our aid with funding from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. With these funds, we were able to keep the program running, providing jobs and student scholarships after Springfield College’s funding tapered off.

As the life of that grant has dwindled, Ted and Brenda put their heads together and got Berkshire Outdoor Center involved. The idea was that you could help us by applying for a new grant to keep the program running, but that you could also learn the ropes and address the program’s original purpose of duplicating LACES in other communities in need, like Pittsfield.

So between you guys, some funding from Springfield Parks and Rec and a smaller grant from the game company Hasbro, we’re able to offer 75 Springfield kids another LACES summer experience this year. You should hear the relief and enthusiasm from the kids and parents about this!

So since all of that came through earlier this year, your BOC staff have been working with Parks and Rec staff and teachers in after-school programs. Children who participate in those sessions get to go up to Becket for a retreat each semester. Now that they’ve done a couple of them, they’re getting to be a really big deal!

LACES + BOC 4ever!

LACES + BOC 4ever!

BOC: Tell us what’s at the heart of LACES. Why is it so important?

CB: LACES gives our Springfield youth the opportunity to meet and build close relationships with other students in the city in addition to working with committed adults who mentor them year-round. Students develop leadership skills, communication skills and trust among one another, all things that can help them achieve greater success as they grow.

BOC: This summer, you’ll return as the director for the 5 week Summer LACES Program. Tell us about that!

CB: Yes, it’s so exciting! During week one, our 75 students will be placed into groups based on their age. Students will work to build relationships through name games, small and large group games and other exercises.

During week two, we’ll introduce trust activities including prop initiatives, activities that require a relationship with others in their group and with their staff members.

Working together to get the job done!

Working together to get the job done!

Week three will be focused on communication and students will spend time at Springfield College using the low ropes course. This week celebrates two things: being on a college campus (something exciting and new to many children in Springfield,) and that after building relationships and trust, students will be able to successfully navigate challenges while building camaraderie with their friends and our staff.

This leads us into week four, which is all about positive risk taking. Here we will take the students to up to Becket for the high ropes course! Students will take a positive risk to step outside their comfort zone and climb! If you think being on a college campus is an eye opener for them, wait until you see their faces the first time the encounter the high ropes.

This is what we've been working toward!

This is what we’ve been working toward!

This is what we’ve been working toward!   During our final week, we will put their newly-minted leadership skills to the test. Students will identify a community based problem and will work together to solve it. Then, they will create a professional presentation that they will share with the rest of the group as well as invited friends and family members.

BOC: What are the biggest and best outcomes from the LACES summer program?

CB: The biggest and best outcomes of our program by far is seeing graduates and hearing about their accomplishments. These kids really go on to achieve! It also gives me so much joy when I hear students say they want to come back and work as a LACES counselor. It is after they tell me this that I realize we have done our job by creating a leader in each of these children who in turn will mentor their peers.

Support, camaraderie, personal challenge and fun intersect here!

Support, camaraderie, personal challenge and fun intersect here!

BOC: What is your favorite aspect of the program? And now that you’re no longer a Springfield College student, what keeps you coming back?

CB: Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to spend my summer than back with the youth in Springfield. I have realized that these children have a significant need and while they may not realize the opportunities in front of them at the moment, I know they will look back on their time with us as good, helpful and positive on some future day.

BOC: What were the biggest highlights from last summer?

CB: We had a great summer last summer. One of the most memorable things for the kids was probably the day we took them on a field trip to the ocean. Springfield isn’t far from the coast but so many of the kids had never even seen it, let alone gotten in, so we ordered a school bus and made it happen.

It was a hectic-but-great day! We put our toes in the sand, some of the kids waded in, we played a little beach-side mini golf and ate ice cream. Teachers who work with the kids who went on that trip still report that the ocean is a dominant theme in their creative writing assignments, so we know that a trip that is typical for a lot of us made a significant impact and really broadened their horizons. That feels good.

Lovin' LACES!

Lovin’ LACES!

BOC: What are you excited about for this coming summer?

CB: I am very excited to build on the partnership we have created with everyone at Berkshire Outdoor Center. I think it is amazing that we have a similar vision and want to provide these children with the best year-round experience. I am happy to have returning staff back at our summer program because we can build on what we accomplished last year, make changes and provide new experiences for everyone.

As you guys already know, we’re building on the success of last year’s ocean visit and are instituting Friday Fundays, which means we’re taking the kids somewhere new every Friday!

BOC: Where would you like to see LACES in 10 years?

CB: Many of our staff from the past couple years are now working in youth programs, in the teaching field or in the youth development/counseling field. It would be wonderful to be able to expand LACES and allow our previous staff to establish the program in their district, town/city or state.

We have created the vision and it is up to us to continue to deliver the program to youth, both inside and outside of Springfield. I’m so hopeful that our partnership with Berkshire Outdoor Center will really expedite that outcome. It’s exciting.

Changing Lives for Good...

Changing Lives for Good…

What a coil can tell you

Hello and welcome to Rope Coiling 101. You didn’t know you were enrolled, did you?

We have the largest educational challenge course in all of the Northeast. Can you believe it? We have more than 30 high (belayed) elements and another 30+ low ropes elements between our two campuses.

Snowy High Ropes at Chimney Corners

Snowy High Ropes at Chimney Corners

High Ropes Course at Camp Becket

High Ropes Course at Camp Becket

Alpine Tower at Chimney Corners

Alpine Tower at Chimney Corners

I don’t want to get bogged down in the numbers, but running that big, beautiful course requires least 85 carabiners, around 40 trango jaws and something like 95 helmets. All that gear, plus ropes, pulleys, SRDs, harnesses and rescue gear has to be taken care of in order for things to smoothly, perfectly out there.

And running our courses safely is our number one priority; one that we take very seriously. In everything we do, we look for signs that our staff are paying close attention to details and are doing the right things consistently.

One of my favorite indicators of thought and care in our high ropes gear sheds is how ropes are coiled. It’s a funny thing to choose to look for but it’s a telling feature – coiling a rope isn’t hard but it is probably the 37th thing you learn to do at the end of your first day of belay training and we like to make sure everyone working is on-point, right to the end.

In order to help new belayers learn their roles more thoroughly and absorb myriad (important!) details, we charged our winter staff with improving our Challenge Course Training Manual.

Below is an excerpt on coiling ropes. We think it’s interesting but of course, this whole post could be one big snoozefest to some of you.

However, others of you, like us, are fascinated by the hard-skills, the technical aspect of what our Berkshire Outdoor Center staff do. If so, welcome to class! Check out the 8 images below for a little “how to coil like a champ” tutorial with Will:

Step 1: gather both ends of the rope into one hand

Step 1: gather both ends of the rope into one hand


Step 2: Hold the rope so the two ends are dangling just above the ground. Drape the next section of rope across your back.


Step 3: Use both hands to continue distributing the entire length of the rope across your arms and shoulders. This part is tricky – try not to get tangled up!


Step 4: Finish distributing rope across your back to end up with two “lobes” of rope; one on each side of your body, with only the two original ends still dangling above the ground.

Step 5: Drop the rope so it hangs down and lift it off of your shoulders. Keep the lobes tidy and in tact.

Step 5: Drop the rope so it hangs down. Keep the lobes tidy and in tact.


Step 6: Take the rope off of your shoulders, holding it in the middle so that the two lobes fall evenly on either side of your grasp.


Step 7: Using the two ends you’ve been so careful to leave dangling just above the ground, wrap around the two lobes, making a tight coil upward, toward your hand.


Nice work, Will. That’s perfect!


Step 8: Put a loop of rope (called a “bight” in the climbing world) through the top of the bundle of rope.


Step 9: Now pass the ends of the rope through the bight you just created. You’re almost there!


Step 10: Admire your handy work. You just coiled a rope perfectly!

Well folks, now you know! Have a great weekend. We’re kicking off Spring Work Weekend here and can’t wait to see all of our BCCYMCA friends and family helping get our campus ready for the busy spring, summer and fall!

Good Neighbors

For the past year, Berkshire Outdoor Center has had the pleasure of working with students from Becket-Washington Elementary School, just four miles down the road, for regular science-based field trips and good old fashioned get-outside-and-play time.

Four Winds Nature Institute has joined our partnership, providing us with seasonally and locally-relevant curriculum to teach to the kids, which we have added to our repertoire of skills for helping people learn about and love the natural world, especially while here, on our gorgeous 1,400 acre campus!

Becket-Washington Elementary School students on the frozen Smith Pond

Becket-Washington Elementary School students on the frozen Smith Pond

When Berkshire Outdoor Center is crawling with guests (May, June, August and September,) we go see the students at their school, but in the late fall, winter and early spring, the children come to us. Since March is relatively quiet here in Becket, they were just here this past week and we had the distinct pleasure of teaching them about the beloved, historic, local tradition of maple sugaring!

Will drills a guide hole for a tap while his curious friends look on

Will drills a guide hole for a tap while his curious friends look on

Watching the kids learn to tap trees, examine and taste sap, sample different types of syrup and ultimately connect the dots that what happens outside their doors each winter is pretty amazing reminded us of what a unique and rewarding partnership we have with our neighbors!

We love that we’re building local relationships:
Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA is a life-changing organization, deeply loved by generations of people all around the world, but you’d be surprised at how few folks in the Berkshires even know we exist, let alone what we could be contributing to their youth, families, businesses, teams and schools…

As the year-round department at BCCYMCA, Berkshire Outdoor Center has huge potential for reaching local populations every season. Over the course of the last two school years, our staff have become recognized, beloved figures to the students, teachers and administration at Becket-Washington School.

"Everyone say PANCAKES!"

“Everyone say PANCAKES!”

Our staff are a mystery, neither teacher nor parent nor peer, and the children bask in the attention of these quasi-adult leaders who are passionate about building relationships between the kids themselves and between the kids and their environment. In nurturing all of those relationships, we are making a tremendous positive impact in a place that matters to us, our home town.

We love that the children GET OUTSIDE:
In the ongoing debate about what’s best for school kids, reading, writing and math frequently trump science, music, art and physical education – it’s a tough topic and sometimes it feels like a “no win” situation for kids and parents alike.

Through this partnership, we are meeting real needs at the Becket-Washington school. With our help, our community has affordable and abundant access to hands-on educational experiences in science, nature, leadership development and a fun, physically active context.

Healthy, active students on top of the world!

Healthy, active students on top of the world!

We love learning from the Four Winds Institute: 
A week before we see the Becket-Washington kids, our staff go to a training session with the Four Winds Nature Institute. There, we delve into the next week’s topic, studying a curriculum outline  and choosing what to incorporate during our time with the students.

The Four Winds training is a huge help, they supply a vast amount of background information and a variety of tools for teaching: puppet shows, games, activities, puzzles, crafts, songs and more. In addition to giving our staff an in-depth education on the selected topic, they help us develop new teaching strategies while exposing our staff further to the wide world of environmental education curriculum.

Checking out the big sap collector our other neighbor (Berkshire Berries) uses for his Maple Sugaring business.

Checking out the big sap collector our other neighbor (Berkshire Berries) uses for his Maple Sugaring business.

In this school year alone, the Four Winds Nature Institute has trained us to teach about Insect Life Cycles, Birds & Migration, Animals’ Winter Ways, & Maple Sugaring.

We love that it inspires our staff:
Winter is our quietest season here at Berkshire Outdoor Center. Our weekends are full but mid-week, we can get a little stir crazy; however, the Becket-Washington visits are a welcome break in the wood splitting, paper collating and program supply organizing we do to keep busy otherwise. We’re always excited to put some extra energy into making the Becket-Washington experience special but our staff outdid themselves during this last session about maple sugaring.

Happy snow shoe hikers exploring the woods with us

Happy snow shoe hikers exploring the woods with us

They put together a taste-test of “Pancake Syrup” (high fructose based syrup) and maple syrup. They whittled their own taps out of sumac branches and took the older students snowshoeing to actually tap trees themselves.

One BOC staff member, Chris, took the container he was using to collect sap away from the tree and let the children stand with their open mouths under the tap, catching sugar maple sap. For the kids, it was magic. For the staff, sharing their passion for the outdoors with these bright, open, young minds was satisfaction itself.

Sap straight from the tree!

Sap straight from the tree!

We’re looking forward to springtime and our next topic with the Four Winds Nature Institute: bees and honey. Since we learned that a lot of the kids confuse honey with maple syrup, the topics should flow nicely from one another. We can’t wait to see our neighbors up here again and are eager to continuing sharing the wealth of sweetness and beauty that our staff, our facility and nature itself all have to offer!

We’ve been in the woods. You?

Hi. Happy 2013 to one and all.

It’s late, I know. But just as I believe in spreading birthday celebrations out over the course of a week, I don’t mind wishing anyone a happy anything a little beyond the usual deadline. We all need to celebrate the good things more, longer, better, don’t we?

YES! And we have been celebrating the snowy woods here since ringing in the new year. Our lovely Berkshire Outdoor Center Winter 2013 Staff have been in training – learning to identify trees without the helpful hints provided by their leaves (!) learning to help squirmy kids buckle on snow shoes and learning how to teach a cross country ski lessons credibly even after having personally demonstrated a level IV wipe-out.

These are some serious skills, folks.

Since we know that Becket usually has a metric ton more snow than everywhere else in the world, we thought we’d share our outdoor adventures with those of you who are now down to a dingy inch of city or suburban snow. We’re not bragging. We’re celebrating – both our lovely campus and our acquisition of new teaching skills!

'Shoeing and learning!

Stephanie, Jess, Sarah, Andrew, Erin, Dom and Stevo doing Tree ID, winter tracking and mobile teambuilding!

Kelsey demonstrates the principle of “credibility after a fall” and teaches us about the Grey Birch, which is a pioneer species that grows quickly in newly-opened areas and has marks that look like black mustaches where the branches meet the trunk!


Molly teaches the gang about “her tree,” the Eastern Hemlock which grows in groves, has needles high in vitamin C and bears seeds in its tiny cones. Did you know you can brew tea from its needles?

Jake says "this is a big ash tree!" and explains that baseball bats and hockey sticks are traditionally made from White Ash and that its the first tree to lose it's leaves in the New England Fall.

Jake says “this is a big ash tree!” and explains that baseball bats and hockey sticks are traditionally made from White Ash. It’s also the first tree to lose it’s leaves in the New England fall and the last to grow them in the spring. Lazy? Maybe. Smart? Certainly.

Sarah teaches us about the Black Cherry Tree, which is valued for it's beautiful timber and is often used in the creation of musical instruments and furniture but is threatened in the Northeast by the Peach Bark Beetle.

Sarah tells us about the Black Cherry Tree, which is valued for its beautiful timber and is often used in the creation of musical instruments and furniture but is threatened in the Northeast by the Peach Bark Beetle.

Over the river and through the woods, right?

Over the river and through the woods, literally.

Andrew tells us about the Balsam Fir, New England's only native fir tree! Moose and red squirrels eat it's oil can be used as a non-toxic rodent deterrent. Handy!

Andrew tells us about the Balsam Fir, New England’s only native fir tree. Moose and red squirrels eat it and its oil can be used as a non-toxic rodent deterrent. Handy!

Jess's tree is the Striped Maple, also called Moose Maple, Duck-foot Maple or toilet paper tree! When young, the striped maple has a gorgeous bright green and white striped bark.

Jess’s tree is the Striped Maple, also called Moose Maple, Duck-foot Maple or toilet paper tree for its large, distinctively shaped, soft leaves! When young, the striped maple has gorgeous bright green and white striped bark.

Stephanie tells us about the Eastern White Pine, New England's tallest and longest living trees. The British Navy used them for masts on their ships and Maine names them as their state tree.

Stephanie tells us about the Eastern White Pine, New England’s tallest and longest living trees. The British Navy used them for masts on their ships and Maine names them as their state tree.

Trekking back to camp through Senior Unit, we were all excited for Mik's lunch of grilled cheese and tomato soup...just like Mom used to make!

Trekking back to camp through Senior Unit, we were all excited for Mik’s lunch of grilled cheese and tomato soup…just like Mom used to make!

We hope you enjoyed your virtual nature walk – come see us sometime, we’ll show you the real deal!

When you can touch the black cherry’s bark (feels like burnt potato chips,) smell the needles (Christmas!) hear the sap cracking in the trees (yes, you’re safe,) and taste the birch beer flavor (if that’s your thing, then yum!) the woods truly become a place to celebrate.

We are grateful that our celebration is just beginning!

Hot and fresh programs, delivered to your doorstep

This year we thought we’d add a little something new to our program menu: Berkshire Outdoor Center programs on your home turf.

Of course, we can’t duplicate all of our programs off-site; canoeing on the playground would be impossible and try as we might, we just can’t fit our Alpine Tower into the van, but we do have the capacity to run team building and low ropes, the Beast, Alpha-Beta and a whole slew of fun, meaningful activities in alternative locations.

Breaking the ice with a group at New York Harbor School

The first group to call up and order a little Berkshire Outdoor Center for delivery was the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island, a short ferry ride from Manhattan’s financial district.

Talk about a cool program – students can choose to study Aquaculture, Marine Biology Research, Marine Systems Technology, Ocean Engineering, Professional/Scientific Diving and Vessel Operations; all areas that provide ideal forums for learning and that equip the students with technical skills that most urban youth do not have access to.

Our relationship began in August, working with some of the NYHS senior class at our facility. This small group of young leaders in the school’s SAIL program, underwent rigorous training with our BOC staff.  The staff taught them facilitation basics, equipped them with a team building arsenal and introduced them to debriefing activities so that their future participants would understand the value in the challenges they encountered.

Physical support and a healthy emotional environment make the spider web a great success!

We next met on Governor’s Island in September (amid mist and rain from Hurricane Isaac,) sending nine instructors and a truckload of tents, portable low ropes elements and team building supplies. The BOC staff and a crew of NYHS juniors worked with the incoming freshmen to help them learn about each other, about themselves and about how to be a connected, supportive, positive class at their school. What a great way to start the year!

Eliza, Amelia, Lauren, Blair, Mullen, Lee, Anthony, Lindsey and Jill brave the elements to deliver a great program!

On our most recent visit, just this past Wednesday, we worked again with a new grade – the seniors (those not in the SAIL program.)  Our effort with the earlier programs was so successful, we just had to capitalize on it with more students!

This time, we had a quintessential fall day – clear skies, crisp air and warm sunshine. With the experience of our last visit to bolster them, the BOC staff taught the rest of the seniors how to collaborate with their fellow students. All around, it was a fabulous experience.


Spotters ready? Ready!

Lean out and let your team support you!

“Carefully step there and then stop.”

Lowering the Helium Hoop. It’s so much harder than it looks!