Ashley Carruth, far right, teaches her Animas High students how to find their way on a map during a backpacking trip near Hope Lake, between Silverton and Telluride, in the summer of 2013./Photo by Robin Austin.

S.O.L.E. sisters

Outdoors-based program seeks to turn today’s girls into tomorrow’s leaders

by Ben Brashear

The high school years can be tough for teen-age girls to navigate, let alone the years that come after. But now, a new program seeks to help local girls find their way in life by first finding their way in the wilderness.

Called “Sistas On Leadership Expeditions,” or S.O.L.E.S., the goal of the yearlong program is to hone communication and leadership skills through wilderness expeditions as well as civic engagement and mentorship. Open to ninth- through 12th-grade girls in the Four Corners, the program was the brainchild of  Ashley Carruth, humanities educator at Animas High School, and Rachel Landis, coordinator at the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College.

“The Gen Z’ers are change agents, they’re discontent with the way things are and want to see change,” said Landis. “And once they have been shown how, they will accomplish a lot.”

The program, with a foundation in experiential education and student-led inquiry, will kick off with a wilderness expedition June 19-25. Carruth hopes to have 10-12 girls for the first year of the program, which is still accepting applications. Through fundraising, the program is more than halfway to its goal of $6,000 – enough to pay for the entire trip.

Carruth has more than seven years of teaching and program development experience, and Landis is a 15-year veteran of the National Outdoor Leadership School and former instructor at St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack program (think of a semester-long homesteader’s utopia). The two designed the S.O.L.E.S curriculum to promote a strong sense of place within the community and self-worth.

The idea for the program donned on Carruth after a backpacking trip two summers ago with students from Animas High. Around the campfire at night, her students would confide in her the emotional turmoil and self-doubt they faced on a daily basis. “The students on the trip were high-achieving, highly driven girls but they struggled with anxiety, relationship conflict, depression and self-harm,” Carruth said.

What is so different about the current high school experience? Both Carruth and Landis agree that the emotions are the same, but the expectations on students may be greater. “Getting into college is harder now as a greater number of students apply,” Carruth said. “It seems that no longer can you just have a 4.0 and play the violin, you have to have started your own nonprofit and done a semester abroad.”

Without a positive outlet, this pressure can lead to negative patterns of eating disorders, anxiety and self-doubt. These are problems all too familiar to Landis and Carruth, who both have had friends struggle with such issues. “Every single girl with rare exception is struggling to know who she is; struggles to value herself,” Landis said.

It’s a matter of positive outlets. For Carruth, it was skiing and soccer, and for Landis, it was cruising a flat bottom boat on the Mississippi, rock climbing, and later selling her Christmas presents so she could go skiing out West. Carruth contends that it is harder for those in rural communities like the Four Corners to get involved in team sports or some form of positive community, and that’s where S.O.L.E.S comes in.

Landis said what sets this program apart from NOLS or Outward Bound is that it is a local program and not just an isolated, one-time experience. “It will continue on throughout the year,” she said. “It’s been shown that new values only change or last for about nine months. By continuing the program, it will really instill change.”

Carruth already has her eyes set on grander horizons. S.O.L.E.S. has applied for nonprofit status and plans call for at least two wilderness trips a year. At some point, they want to turn the program into a national leadership school for high school girls. “I am the big-picture thinker, the dreamer, and Rachel is the tactician who really knows what it takes to get from point to point. We make a great partnership,” Carruth laughed.

In addition to the wilderness outings, the girls will meet monthly throughout the academic year with mentors from community organizations, such as Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Women’s Resource Center, Manna Soup Kitchen and Southwest Conservation Corp.

“There is something in connecting people to place, experiencing it in groups, and having an immersive element,” said Landis.  “There is no curriculum in school that teaches you how to be a good human and to help you understand what you value, what you believe, your strengths and how we are to interact with the living world.”

According to Landis, to see the community and world change for the better, there must be confident, effective leaders – something S.O.L.E.S. hopes to produce. “Then just imagine what they can do,” Landis said.

To find out more about S.O.L.E.S., email To donate, go to www.gofundme.

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