A teenage boy went whitewater rafting down the Spokane River for the first time last month. Right before they hit a rapid, he freaked out and yelled to be let off the raft.

Usually, the raft would continue downriver. The kid would be expected to play tough. This time, though, the group pulled over to shore. The boy’s guide talked with him about the fear he was experiencing and motivated him to get back into the raft on his own volition.

Before the boy knew it, he was coming on the other end of Bowl and Pitcher with a giant grin on his face. A week later, he—a psychiatric patient diagnosed with schizophrenia and recovering from drug addiction—was back for another run of the river.

“He got out of the river and he was giddy,” says Loran Kerrigan, sponsorship coordinator for Peak 7 Adventures, a Christian non-profit organization that offers outdoor recreation opportunities to young people in challenging circumstances. “At the end, they have accomplished something huge that we take for granted.”

She adds, “That story happens countless times.” Then she embarks on a story about a kid for whom a backpacking trip with Peak 7 was his first exposure to adults he could trust. In five days, his self-declared hatred of fathers—due to his own father’s absence—gave way to a strong bond with a guide whose son was also on the trip.

Each story leads to an “a-ha” moment—conquering a fear, learning to trust another person, or finding a connection with God. In some cases, it is as simple as finding a drug that won’t kill them. “When the river is so high, they get a rush,” says Kerrigan. “It isn’t just a float to enjoy the sun. We want these kids to experience a natural high.”

Although the team’s emphasis on faith is strong, says Kerrigan, that means offering an extra dose of compassion, not forcing the issue. “We meet these kids where they are. We let them talk,” she says.

Peak 7 offers trips to groups from residential treatment facilities, group homes, and other non-profits serving youth. “Open” trips are available to individuals and families.

Whitewater rafting and backpacking trips for groups of young people comprise the bulk of Peak 7’s wilderness trips, but they also periodically take groups winter camping, rock climbing and kayaking.

At the core of its mission is Peak 7’s commitment to offering wilderness adventures to young people who might not otherwise be able to pay for them. Participation fees cover around 20 percent of the actual cost of a trip and the rest is paid through donations. Additional scholarships are offered to ensure nobody misses a trip because of lack of money.

Corporate and individual gear donations allow Peak 7 to equip each young person who signs up for a trip. “They’re outfitted from head to toe because they come with nothing. They come with their skater shoes and super big double XL t-shirts,” says Kerrigan.

Now in its fifth season in Spokane, Peak 7 has shown steady and significant growth. During its first year, in 2006, the organization served 137 teens. The following year, they reached 589. Last year, they took 1,784 kids on wilderness trips.

To add to its growth, the organization opened offices in Seattle and Portland this year. “We had Seattle organizations that wanted to do trips. They met us over in Wenatchee to do rafting trips.” Now Peak 7 has staff in the Seattle area to expand their ability to offer trips to west-side groups.
Peak 7 received the Portland branch as an in-kind gift from a non-profit organization called Discovery Outfitters undergoing bankruptcy.
Battling mental illness, abuse, neglect, poverty or drug addiction, most participants encounter their first outdoor challenge on a Peak 7 trip. “So often, the kids drop their pack and say ‘I can’t do this. I’m done, this is so hard,” Kerrigan says.

Aware of the particular backgrounds of the individual participants, Peak 7 guides offer support, guidance and prayer. Kerrigan says just this—an adult reaching out to them for support—often exceeds the resources available to the teen in his or her daily life. “To be able to trust, for what a lot of these kids’ backgrounds are, is huge.”

That new relationship does not have to end when the trip is over, says Kerrigan. “We have ongoing relationships. The aspect of mentorship is definitely there. Nicole, one of our guides, lives in the West Central neighborhood and sees those kids all the time.”

The Junior Guide program offers young people who were greatly impacted by their initial Peak 7 trip a chance to learn more. “Joe, Jesse and Alexian are junior guides who have been through our programs and who are making the outdoors part of their everyday lives,” says Kerrigan. Now, they help facilitate trips like the ones that first piqued their interest in the outdoors.

“They are given a new perspective on life and it helps them press toward more positive decisions and choices,” says Kerrigan. “Ultimately, nobody can ever take this experience back from them, and they remember.”

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

Volunteer: Photography/video, office work, driving, food preparation.
Donate: New or used gear for backpacking, climbing or whitewater rafting; A financial contribution.
Run: Spokane “Dirty Dash”10K on August 20. Enter promo code “peak7”to donate 20 percent of your race fee to Peak 7 Adventures.
Visit: Monthly open house events; trainings this summer for CPR, Wilderness First Aid, and wilderness instructors; and Peak 7’s Annual Bocce Ball fundraiser on Sept. 18.
For more information about Peak 7 Adventures and dates for upcoming events, visit Peak7.org.