Zipline catches up with alumni of the A/U Ranches and DiscoveryBound: Gwen Beacham, Scott Wendelberger and Steve May.
Gwen is a native of Boulder, Colorado, and her first summer at the A/U Ranches was in 1974. She was a timid, shy seven-year-old who frankly had not wanted to go. She was a horsemanship major, but in those days, you could sign up for any three-day trip you wanted to. You had to be fast to get onto the horsemanship trip, and Gwen was not. So she ended up on the only trip that had space left: Mt. Columbia. She was the youngest one in the group and didn’t know anyone else. She had never worn a backpack before, much less packed one, and was perplexed when the counselors pulled out the jeans and pajamas she had packed. She wondered how anyone was expected to sleep without pajamas. The group hiked out of camp, and by the time they got to the bridge over Frenchman Creek, she was in tears. She sat down on the bridge said she wanted to go home.
What happened next was the classic A/U Ranches story that we’ve all heard hundreds of times and will never get tired of hearing. The counselors were loving, supportive and encouraging. The group split up all the gear in her pack and sang hymns to her as they continued on. She ended up peaking Columbia with everyone else and came back to camp feeling proud and happy. She couldn’t wait to go back to camp the next year and many more years after that. She worked at the A/U Ranches during the summers she was in college, first as a ranch hand and then on the mountaineering staff. She met her husband, Gary Fleener, at the A/U Ranches in the summer of 1987, and this fall they will celebrate their 30th anniversary. Together, they enjoyed serving as cross-country ski staff during Christmas Camp for many years.
Gwen earned a law degree from the University of Colorado and practiced water law in Denver for three years while Gary was finishing his Ph.D in geography. They then moved to Illinois and taught at Principia College for 10 years, Gary in the Biology and Natural Resources Department, and Gwen in Global Perspectives and History. After their son, Sage, was born, they moved back to Colorado to be near her parents. Their career paths subsequently led them to Northern California, where they have been living for the past nine years. Gary is an ecologist at an oyster company, and Gwen has started a legal editing and proofreading business. Her primary hobby these days is trail running. In the past two years, she has completed races of every regular distance between 5 kilometers and 100 miles and is dreaming of many running adventures to come, both locally and internationally. Sage is finishing seventh grade and is an avid fisherman and outdoorsman. He is looking forward to his fourth summer at the A/U Ranches this year.
“Nobody would have guessed that the painfully shy camper I was in 1974 would someday become a camp director, but I had the privilege of serving as Sky Valley camp director from 1998 through 2000,” Gwen says. “I am certain that my experience at Frenchman Creek is what connected those two dots in my life. Getting over that bridge and up that peak put me in a new mental place and on a different path. It planted seeds of confidence, trust and fortitude that have helped me surmount many challenges in my life since. I still hike up to Harvard Lakes or Columbia Basin every summer, and every time I cross Frenchman Creek, I give gratitude.”
Scott lives in Boulder, Colorado and works at Imagine!, a non-profit that provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities. For seven years, he worked directly in services, leading therapeutic activities that promoted social skills, motor skills, self-help skills and independence. He says his experience as a camp counselor is what stood out on his résumé and helped him get that job!
A couple of springs ago, he transferred internally to Imagine!’s public relations department, exercising his bachelor’s degree in mass communications. He works with social media, videos, blog posts, flyers… “basically all the fun stuff!” he says. He adds that the best part is visiting with former clients while taking photos or shooting video during their services.
Scott’s first summer at the A/U Ranches was in 2003 as a camper in the rafting program. He worked his way up the ranks from counselor in training (CIT) to counselor and then program head.
His fondest memory is from the summer of 2008. He was leading a patrol of campers and staff up Mount Yale during a three-day backpacking trip with the Mosaics program. It was a long and taxing morning, trying to peak before 12:30 p.m. The higher they climbed, the less familiar the path felt. He later realized that he escorted his patrol up the wrong path, giving them more rocks to boulder and skirt around.
“The campers were excited to reach the top – for some, it was their very first fourteener summit,” he recalls. “But not that day. My leadership put us behind schedule and we did not peak Mount Yale. I felt foolish and disappointed. Some of the campers told me they signed up for that program simply so they could peak a fourteener. I was bummed out.”
Why is this his fondest memory? “I’ll never forget the loving and supportive culture at the A/U Ranches,” Scott says. “I was given the space to make that mistake and to learn from that experience. Not by coddling me or responding passively, but with respect and understanding. My co-counselors and supervisors had my back the rest of that trip, and it was a successful one. This put me on a journey of loving myself and not being fearful of making mistakes.”
Scott jokes, “That was the last mistake I’ve ever made….ha! No doubt I’ve made a handful of ill-advised decisions since then. Working at the A/U Ranches helped me develop the maturity and spiritual perseverance to feel at peace no matter the situation I find myself in, and to grow from my shortcomings.”
Steve was active in his local A/U chapter (now DiscoveryBound Outreach) while growing up and spent four summers at the A/U Ranches while in high school – first as a camper then as staff on kitchen and work crews. He returned a few years later for a summer to head the mountaineering program at Sky Valley and to help coordinate family and adult camp. Some of his favorite memories are of backpack trips into the backcountry, peaking fourteeners and evening programs. Highlights include playing bluegrass music at the talent shows and on the streets of Aspen on days off with his sister, Rusty, and Brooks and Craig Anderson.
After graduating from Principia College, Steve lived in Boston for a while. He then moved to the San Francisco area, where he played and studied music ranging from bluegrass and country to Brazilian jazz while working at a violin shop and later a folk music venue. Now living in Brooklyn, New York, he continues to play music in band and solo settings, having added composition to the mix. He writes music he performs in theatrical shows with his wife, Libby Skala. They have taken their shows across the U.S., to theater festivals in Canada, to Europe, and even the Republic of Georgia!
Steve feels that the experience of being at camp and expanding boundaries really helped him to expand his thought and continues to be a foundation for growth. Several friends made during camp sessions continue to be great friends to this day.
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