October 8, 2013
Category: Guest Bloggers

Trail Magic

McAfees Knob

McAfees Knob

Today’s moving post comes from James Hissong, a former teacher within the Kalamazoo Public Schools. James is our Quality & Evaluation Coordinator. He works within the downtown office and out at the CIS school sites, making sure we capture the right information. James assists us in using data to improve our programs, recording the services provided, and sharing the impact the community is having by working through CIS. This is his second appearance as a guest blogger.

For those of you who don’t believe in magic, all that I ask is that you keep an open mind for the remainder of this post. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a dreamer at times, but it wasn’t until a few years back when I truly started believing in magic. I’m not talking about a little sleight of hand or a disappearing card trick; the magic I am referring to is real. Let me explain…

In April of 2009, I set out on a trip that took me far away from the comforts of home. All of us have been on a journey of some sort in our lives and inevitably, we’ve all needed a little help along the way. This was definitely the case in my situation. You see, all through my childhood I was an avid lover of the outdoors, but I had never spent much more than a week camping or hiking at any one time. Somewhere along the line however, I became enamored with a hiking trail that ran from Georgia to Maine, covering almost 2,200 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery in the whole country – the Appalachian Trail. I’m the kind of person that, when I set my mind on something, I tend to dwell on it until eventually I find myself knee deep in whatever it was I was only dreaming about before. This was the case when I found myself on Springer Mountain, the southernmost point of the trail, with only what I could carry on my back and a guidebook in my pocket.

James (center) and fellow travellers

James (center) and fellow travellers

I must admit up front that I am not what people refer to as a “through hiker” or someone who hikes the whole trail in one shot. While I may believe in magic, even then I knew that the two and a half months I had that summer was not nearly enough time for such an undertaking. For those months I ate, slept, and breathed the life of a through hiker, but I did not set out to make it all the way to Maine in one trip. There are many reasons why people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. For some, they are looking for answers to a few of life’s harder questions; others do it for the physical challenge. If you would have asked me then, I probably could have come up with one of those reasons but the truth is I’m not really sure why I decided to hike. I believe I got caught up in the romantic notion of traveling across country by foot. I believe I was looking to get away, to experience something new and invigorating. Whatever it was, my initial intentions were thrown out the window somewhere around the third night of my trip.

On the third night, I learned a few hard lessons. Lesson one: although Georgia seems tropical compared to Michigan at times, the mountains can get snow in April. Lesson two: you can never pack enough to eat when you’re hiking. Lesson three: black bears are more active at night. However, the most important lesson I learned was: while it may be nice to hike alone at times, a little help from the people around you goes along way, especially when you’re cold, hungry, and there are bears in camp! That was one of the longest nights of my trip but with a little help from my fellow hikers, I made it through my first hurdle.

A little help–this was a recurring theme in my hike. I had a little help when it rained for two weeks straight and a kind stranger gave me a pair of dry socks. I had a little help when I was hiking on Easter Sunday (my first without friends or family) and a church group found me in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to give me a few chocolate eggs and some company. I had a little help when I came to a road crossing on a 100 degree day and there was a man handing out cold drinks to hikers as they went by, or when I had an omelet cooked for me one morning, or when I was given a knee brace by a fellow hiker as I was nursing a nagging trail injury. The immense kindness of the people I met along the way was truly magical. In fact, that’s what hikers call it, “Trail Magic.” Bags of food hanging from trees with a sign letting hikers know that we could help ourselves became a staple of the trail. Somehow, these seemingly small acts came at just the right times. Right when I was just about to really lose it, just when I thought I couldn’t take one more step, there would be a sign telling me someone was handing out ice cream only a few miles ahead (seriously, this happened!) From then on I was a believer, a believer in the magic and the impact that a simple act of kindness can have in the lives of others.

On-the-Road-300x198I eventually came to my stopping point, covering 1,200 miles in a little over two months. I was definitely excited to sleep in my own bed again and perhaps even gorge myself at the closest buffet restaurant, but there was also a part of me that knew I would miss the magic of the trail. I remember thinking that this culture of kindness could only exist in one place and unfortunately I was headed back to the “real world.” In the months following, I moved back to Kalamazoo and began teaching in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. I worked side by side with some pretty fantastic Hillside Middle School teachers and school staff who went above and beyond to ensure students were on the right path. And P.S. – If you think hiking for a few months sounds hard, try shadowing a teacher for a week.

I now find myself with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, an organization committed to removing all sorts of barriers for these same students. I get to see CIS site coordinators connecting students to a variety of community resources. I see volunteers passing out food packs each week to families in need, tutors not only helping students academically but also forming priceless relationships with the students they work with, community partners providing a range of services, from professional mental health services such as individual counseling and grief/loss services to dental and vision services, and lots more…

I guess what I’m trying to say is that trail magic is alive and well in Kalamazoo, it’s just the type of trail or journey that has changed. The Kalamazoo Promise® has given students the ultimate goal, the mountain off in the distance, but there is a long journey ahead for many students to get to the top. Fortunately, we have many trail angels in our community helping these students along their way. Hopefully our volunteers and staff will never have to step in front of a bear for our kids, but sometimes the obstacles for our students are just as scary. Thinking back on all of the people who helped me along my journey, I must admit that I don’t think I could have made it all that way on my own.

It’s a myth, really, to think we can succeed independent of others. Thanks to the generosity of the Kalamazoo community, our Site Coordinators are able to place just the right trail magic (resources and services) in just the right places for just the right kids. A little help, here and there, makes all the difference. I know it did for me.

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