Young people from across Montgomery County joined Identity staff for a weekend retreat at NorthBay Adventure Camp in April 2024. Retreats are a powerful way to expose Identity youth to the healing power of nature. For many, it is also a rare chance to be a kid for a whole weekend – a break from home and school stresses and responsibilities.

“Retreats give students a safe space where they can be themselves, have fun, and open up to their peers – things that are often missing in their personal lives,” said Paul Constante, Program Coordinator with Identity. “Many students are struggling financially and have had a lot of traumatic experiences. This is an opportunity to let them know that they’re not alone, that they have a support network.”

With full access to NorthBay’s facilities, Identity youth enthusiastically participated in ziplining, rock-climbing, soccer, ping pong and foosball. They swung on a giant swing and kayaked in the Chesapeake Bay.

Youth also participated in a range of introspective and creative activities including journaling and collage. In one especially emotional activity, they made masks showing the faces they present to the world on the outside, and then decorated the inside with words or images describing their true feelings. Many students decorated the exterior of their masks with smiling, happy faces, while the interiors expressed feelings of sadness, anxiety and self-doubt.

“It’s very rare that a young person tells you how they’re really feeling,” said Constante. “The mask-making activity gives them the opportunity to show you. It’s an important reminder that what you see on the outside may not always reflect what’s happening on the inside.”

The activities helped some of the more reserved students come out of their shells and make new friends. “Students are often hesitant at first – they might think the activities are a bit corny or feel nervous about sharing with people they’ve only just met,” said Jacob Ahnen, Program Manager of Identity’s Down-County Youth Opportunity Center. “But by the end of the retreat, pretty much everyone was participating enthusiastically.”

On the last night of the retreat everyone gathered around a campfire for an upbeat evening of s’mores, music, dancing and party games. Before heading home on Sunday, the young people reflected on the weekend, describing it as a fun, deep and refreshing experience with new friends. Identity staff look forward to helping the youth strengthen the new connections they made with each other and staff.

Forty-six young people attended the retreat, including students from eight Bridge to Wellness high schools and clients from Identity’s Youth Opportunity Centers in Gaithersburg and Takoma Park.