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By Zach Giordano
| May 31, 2017
The 8 a.m. ferry roars to life and starts its journey through the Seaport’s Reserve Channel before cutting tides across Boston Harbor. It’s a clear day, with the early-morning sun shining and the cool breeze propelling the ferry’s riders toward their destination: Thompson Island Outward Bound.
Established almost 200 years ago as a home and haven for the orphan boys of Boston Farm School, Thompson Island upholds its founding tradition of helping local children to this day—with one important change. No longer a refuge for children without families, it’s now an academic destination, where kids come to explore nature and learn how to become leaders in their communities.
“Our goal is not to just dump a bunch of information into the kids’ minds,” says Gemma Falivene, program manager for Thompson Island. “We hope instead to help them discover who they are and how they work best both as individuals and members of their communities.”
The children who visit the island all live in low income and underserved neighborhoods. Students from these areas are, on average, 6,000 hours behind in opportunities to learn outside the classroom—making the island crucial to their ability to catch up to their mid-income peers.
This is the “opportunity gap” researchers have documented across the country.
This is also why Thompson Island offers all of its youth programs for free: to give every kid the opportunity to discover new interests, gain new perspectives, and learn that there’s a great, wide world out there for them to explore—and help change.
Letting it come naturally
The island offers a multi-year path to success for its students. Its Connections program, designed for middle-schoolers, combines science education and Outward Bound character-building activities. Students explore the island’s salt marshes, beaches, and ponds where they measure salinity, catch bugs, and search for new species to study in the island’s classrooms. Thompson Island has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the Boston Harbor, making it an ideal setting for hands-on science lessons.
Day two involves more team-focused activities that teach the kids to rely on each other to achieve big results. They start small, with simple games, and graduate to more difficult challenges, like the climbing wall, giant’s ladder, and spider’s web, eventually working their way up to the ultimate test: the challenge field. Here, students work together to climb as high as they can up a six-story vertical obstacle course equipped with ropes and pulleys. Across all these challenges, communication is key, as well as respect and teamwork—all valuable life skills that each student learns to take with them off the island.
However, before any of these challenges can be met, students come together and decide which values to concentrate on during the day’s activities.
“We always try to practice trust,” says Eva, a sixth-grader and returning student. “We also show PROPS, which means ‘people respecting other people’s space, stuff, and speaking.’ I always love what I learn on the island and hope to teach other kids, too. That’s why my goal is to become a Green Ambassador.”
The Green Ambassador program is for high school students and focuses on reinforcing valuable life skills, practicing workforce readiness, and continuing environmental management, all in partnership with the National Park Service. The program builds on the skills acquired in Connections, with a specific focus on preparing students for the next steps they’ll take in the world.
Connection students can also expand their comfort zone through “expeditions”, which include sea-kayaking, backpacking, and sailing, all of them focusing on leadership and nature skills.
All hands on deck
The staff members on Thompson Island make it their mission to provide every child who steps off the ferry with an enriching experience. But their work starts before the students arrive. Staff members work with teachers to do in-class visits with students to make sure every program is as successful as it can be for every class.
“As a teacher, Thompson Island is a unique experience in the fact that I can step back and just watch,” says Meg Loughnane, a science teacher at Young Achievers in Mattapan. “The island has great facilitators. They get the kids to really come together and let them get frustrated until they realize that in their challenge, they’re being successful.”
And, according to a survey form 2016, the programs really work: Students who arrived on the island with a low interest in science not only showed a 17 percent increase in interest in the subject, but also a 34 percent increase in overall critical thinking skills and a 32 percent increase in perseverance.
Giving every kid the chance to visit the island at no cost is an integral part of Thompson Island’s philosophy, which makes the island’s other, fee-for-service initiatives all the more important. Thompson Island offers Outward Bound Professional programs for teams of adults to become higher performers in the workplace, as well as multi-day programs for young people in schools outside Boston to experience the natural world. It also has venues to host weddings, conferences, and other social or professional gatherings, each with hard-to-beat views of the city. Fees from these events and programs all go toward supporting the island’s youth programs.
To stay afloat, so to speak, Thompson Island also relies on a network of donors. It hosts two annual fundraisers, a 4K Trail Run and Evening Expedition Gala, to raise money for new equipment and resources. The island also welcomes corporate volunteers to help build, maintain, and beautify the island, with time and resources donated by local companies like New Balance, Eastern Bank, Brown Rudnick LLP, Turner Construction, and others. This volunteering helps save the island more than $200,000 a year in maintenance fees.
An immeasurable impact
Being sent to an island to learn its secrets and work with a team to complete challenges sounds like an episode of “Survivor.” But in reality, it’s the daily enrichment of a group of Boston students, led by a team of patient, devoted instructors. And it’s all only going up from here: The island’s Connections program is expanding to serve 20 percent of Boston’s middle school students.
“I would tell anyone interested in coming to Thompson Island to be willing to do anything,” says sixth-grade Eva. “Also, be prepared for any test that they throw at you—it may be difficult, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. I know I did the first time I came. Also, think positive. If you think positive, you’ll have a great time. “
What happens on Thompson Island reflects a quote from Outward Bound Founder, Kurt Hahn: “There is more in us than we know. And if we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
To learn more about Thompson Island’s work in support of Boston youth, visit ThompsonIsland.org.