Last week I was fortunate to accompany the 8th grade class and their other fearless chaperones on a three-night Wyvern Retreat to YMCA Camp Piomingo in Otter Creek Park, just southwest of Louisville. In other years, the 8th graders travel to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Oneida, Tennessee for a week of backpacking. The pandemic presented health and safety challenges for us in planning the same type of Wyvern Retreat; however, the creativity and problem-solving skills of our team kicked into gear! Parents eagerly transported their students to and from the camp experience, and students enjoyed three nights of solo-tent camping in a beautiful, natural setting with the added fun that comes along with being at a summer camp facility.

The core mission of the St. Francis School Wyvern Retreat Program is to conduct a safe and structured educational experience designed to inspire self-esteem, self-reliance, concern for others, and care for the environment. The program is intentionally designed to allow students the opportunity to meet challenges and move beyond self-imposed limitations through responsible risk-taking and hands-on involvement. Similar to the Big South Fork trip, students took ownership of cooking for themselves, menu planning in advance, and learning how to cook on small, portable camp stoves. They worked together to set up and tear down camp, weathering cold temperatures the first night and taking down camp in steady rain the final morning of the trip. It wasn’t all hardship — there was a great deal of laughter and fun, too. The pipeline slide in the pitch-black dark was an absolute blast, as were gorgeous hikes to the Van Buren overlook of the Ohio River and to Morgan’s Cave with dogwood and redbud trees in full bloom. Camp Piomingo also provided the students with great experiences on a high ropes course and zipline, in archery, and in fire building. Students practiced the concept of “leave no trace,” observing the various ecosystems around them at camp along with practicing mindful, self-awareness there, too. 

As always, campfire conversations did not disappoint. Students reflected on hilarious yet frustrating moments, like accidentally spilling an entire pot full of ramen after finally getting water to boil, and also the poignant and meaningful moments. Students shared how much they mean to one another — how they helped each other and supported one other throughout the week, having longer and deeper conversations with students outside of their usual friend groups. They remarked on the beauty and stillness of their solo time reflecting in nature and how grateful (yes, grateful!) they were to be unplugged from technology. They realized how that time gives their minds a chance to be still and notice, as Wendell Berry writes, “the peace of wild things.” 

That said, the students were all smiles (and ready to check their phones and have a hot shower!) on Wednesday afternoon upon parent pick up. All in all, it was a wonderful experience for our students, and I remain grateful for a school that prioritizes teaching our young people the principles of interdependence and seeking to live sustainably and in harmony with the natural world. And huge thanks to trip leaders Patrick Donovan, Christine Brinkmann, Angela Ponzio, Tom Skaggs, and Damon Powell for spending four days and three nights away from their families and creature comforts with these wonderful students in the woods!