By Justin Swensen, AKA Black Wolf, Field Director
I first came to RedCliff Ascent in the Spring of 1997. One of the things that really drew me to working in the wilderness when I first started was just that it was an outdoor job where I had six days off. I really didn’t know what I was in for. Then, I started doing the work. It was not long before I started to realize what this work means. I realized that I was actually going to be working with these kids and that it was important work. In this job, I was dealing with other people’s lives, and people’s children. I quickly understood the sacredness of that work. Now, part of my job is to help staff members come to that realization too.
My Earth Name is Black Wolf. I was given that Earth Name in a Naming Ceremony during the summer of 1997. When the name was presented to me, they talked about the strengths that they saw in me. They also described things that they were hoping the name will help me overcome.
They said they chose the name Black Wolf because people are drawn to me as if they were part of my pack. Also, I have this strong sense of duty to protect people. That comes from the wolf. I am Black Wolf because typically black wolves are gray wolves with slightly different DNA. However, the difference in their color can quite often set them apart from the rest of the pack. They are still accepted but set apart.
Even after all these years, I haven’t outgrown my Earth Name. I don’t think I could ever outgrow a name like Black Wolf. Instead, it’s taken me quite a few years to grow into it and really be able to fully fulfill the name.
At RedCliff Ascent, we know the work that we do is important. Parents are putting a lot of trust in us. So, we are careful to only hire people can trust. Still, most of our field staff show up and they are pretty green, like I was when I first started. Some of them have some outdoor experience, but very rarely do we get highly experienced field staff. The field staff learn and mature just like the students. They really grow a lot while they are here, and we acknowledge that growth.
By giving staff members and students a Name Ceremony, we celebrate that growth. Often it is a name that they will grow into. Even the highly experienced field staff earn an Earth Name. They grow and mature in different ways than the brand new staff. Everyone learns something from working here. Giving people an Earth Name is a way of encouraging learning.
I personally help field staff learn and develop in other ways. I hold pretty regular skills and crafting courses for the staff that work here at RedCliff Ascent. Many staff members will come in on their off days to learn field skills. For example, I teach a class about making pucker toe moccasins. I have also taught woodcarving, flute making, and how to make wool coats out of blankets. Taking this time to invest in field staffs’ development is important because they are important.
I believe in our staff, our program, and our ability to help families. We help students have a brighter future. It's important for parents who send their kids to RedCliff to know that I personally truly believe in what we do here. I believe in the healing power of the wilderness, and all of the aspects of the program. For myself, everyone on the field leadership team, and for our field staff, this work is more than just a job. For most of us, what we do is part of our lifestyle. It is my passion and a big part of my whole entire life. I really, truly believe in it.