Discovering Resilience Downstream

By Rachel LaFaso

On June 21st,  I set off on an adventure of a lifetime as a No Barriers expedition leader for 10 young women and two teachers from Naples, Florida on a 84 mile rafting trip down the San Juan River. During the course of a week the girls slept under the Strawberry Moon, conquered a class III rapid, swam in a canyon water hole, battled sand storms, and hiked to an ancestral Pueblonian cliff dwelling. All while learning how to live a life with no barriers and create meaningful connections through adversity, a commonality for these youth.

Growing up has been anything but easy for these girls. With many having been in foster care for most of their childhood, they have faced tremendous mental, physical, emotional, and social challenges. No one, especially no child, should ever have to go through the hardships and distress that these girl’s stories hold. I have witnessed the strength, kindness, and pure resilience that each of these young women possess to change the world. With the help of Grand Canyon Youth, No Barriers donor Ron McGinty, teacher Beth Barrus, youth mentor Rose Elarde, & peer leader Stephanie Walker, we were able to create a life changing Learning AFAR experience despite the impact COVID-19 had on planning and travel. This expedition represents the magic of No Barriers, the magic of the San Juan, and the magic that the next generation holds for the future of humankind and planet earth.

Rafting down the San Juan River is a front row seat to a symphony unique to the desert landscape of the American Southwest. Every organism, every boulder & tiny grain of sand, and even the tiniest drop of water, plays a part in the flow of the river, creating a harmony that brings peace to one’s soul. The twists and turns through red-rock canyons gleaming under bluebird skies, is an enchanting journey filled with petroglyph sightings, wild burros, and even a milky way appearance at night if you’re as lucky as we were. 

Our first morning waking up on the San Juan was composed of the aroma of fresh camp coffee & hot cocoa, the sound of sizzling bacon,  the comforting feel of soft sand under our toes, the fresh taste of river air, and the glorious sight of a fiery red sunrise over a canyon wall. We spent the morning exploring the landscape and taking a hike to the River House Ruin Site. As we made our way toward the cliff dwelling we decided to take a meaningful moment as we hiked  to be silent and reflect individually on our trip goals. Absorbing the sights and sounds around us, we made our way across the arid landscape. Once the river house  was in sight the sound of a flute could be heard from above, guiding us up the sandy steps. A Grand Canyon Youth guide who we called by the name “Uncle Walt” had secretly gone ahead of us so he could greet us with a beautiful composition of Ancient Anasazi flute melodies. Uncle Walt explained the significant archeological history of the River House Ruin and used the site as a prime example of the importance of practicing Leave No Trace. This hike was a special moment that inspired us to embrace the unfamiliar while moving forward on our extraordinary adventure. 

Each day we focused on a No Barriers Life Element as it organically appeared during our activities and the challenges we faced on the river. As the days went by, the 7 elements began to naturally find their way into our conversations, flowing together and helping create curiosity and unity among the group. During the last full day on the river, we were faced with a class III rapid by the name of “Government”. This rapid requires both technicality and patience, particularly when the water level is low like it was during our expedition. Not only did the girls paddle through Government like absolute pros, but they were quick to help our guides pull out the 18 foot gear & supply raft after it became stuck on a treacherous rock in the middle of the rapid. The girls formed a Rope Team (literally) with the 5 GCY guides and worked together to pull the rope in unison and ease the raft off the rock. Without the help of everyone’s strength and positive mindset the raft would definitely not have made it off the rock. 

As we de-rigged the rafts, slept under the stars one last night,  and said our final goodbyes, I reflected on the personal growth that each individual displayed throughout our remarkable journey. Each had taken monumental steps out of their comfort zones and allowed themselves to embrace what river life is all about: finding peace. The concept of peace is not easily fathomed, especially for teens facing adversity while also juggling high school and growing up during a global pandemic. I commemorate each of these girls for stepping out of their comfort zones every step of the way to allow themselves to discover what peace means to them personally. 

As these 10 young women continue to face the immense challenges of our world today, one of my greatest hopes for them is to remember the sense of peace that they found and take it with them wherever they go, through any barrier they face. I know that they each hold the power to climb great heights while changing lives and changing the world itself on their way up. My life has surely been changed by each and every one of their kind and open hearts. Forever, I will remember the remarkable journey of discovering resilience downstream. 

July 7, 2021 Change A Life - Give Today


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