| Caroline Kowalski | Septembre 2019 |
Ben has been walking alongside young people for more than 15 years, helping parents to make teenagers “self-sufficient, giving and skilled”. Or at least a tiny bit healthier… Here is why he wouldn’t want to see the Duke of Edinburgh’s challenge changed for the whole world.
Ben, how did you come to this activity ?
Until the age of 8 I lived in a little village in Northumberland on the Scottish border, with fields at the back of the house. It was just fantastic. My family loved walking, cycling and we camped a lot. I was involved with the scouts. The church youth leaders used to take us caving and rock climbing. All that sort of things just gave me a joyful passion for the outdoors and the countryside in particular.
You only deal with one section (walking and orienteering) of the four included in the whole challenge. What is your role ?
We run over a 100 expeditions every year because the schools haven’t got time, experience or expertise to run them. They organise the rest of the DofE’s program (volunteering, fitness and skills) and rely on us for the expedition section of it.
Once all the logistics, admin and training are dealt with – months ahead of each expedition – our staff’s mission is to meet the groups at pre-arranged checkpoints. We camp near the students and keep an eye on them but stay in the background so that the groups feel as thought they’re away on a walking holiday with friend. Before leaving the campsite staff check that the cooking stoves have been cleaned, that all rubbish is picked up and that the toilets are clean.
How many people work in your team and what sort of qualities are you looking for in the staff ?
Three of us work full time and we have 41 freelancers who work on a part time basis. When I meet a member of staff for a cup of coffee I ask myself : “Can I have a normal chat with this person? Are they going to be able to have a normal everyday conversation during expeditions with a teacher or young people they haven’t met before?” Although training is important – Mountain or Lowland Leader qualifications are required – it is the people skills that count at the end.
What drives you when you have to take grumpy teenagers away from the comfort of their homes under the worst weather Britain can provide ?
It is interesting nowadays ! Being completely addicted to their screens, some of them go into meltdown when we take phones off them… But I still love the idea of introducing these kids to the outdoors. We don’t often take people into the mountains but at least we can take them on the train from the middle of London into the countryside in an hour, camping together in a complete change of scenery. That definitely drives me.
Do you find teenagers different after an expedition ? Apart from exhaustion and pain, what sort of feelings do they express?
Very, very different ! We review at the end of each expedition what went well and what didn’t. And often they say: “I am really glad I didn’t have my phone”. Once they can sit in a campsite, they usually enjoy playing cards, chatting with their friends and looking at things differently.
They would have made some mistakes on their practice expedition, but would have had a chance to see the effects of improving a few weeks later. It might be the wrong clothes or the wrong food, but they learn and see the positive consequences of making better decisions the second time round.
Pain, tears and exhaustion prevail! Sometimes it even becomes a scarring experience: they’ll never forget the pain and the blisters. Sometimes it is like childbirth… The pain can be horrendous – as I understand it – but you kind of forget it because of the joy at the end.
I guess pride would be a feeling we can mention as well, especially when they complete a really tough challenge. We do have young people who pull out : they get in the car and say : “No, I can’t do it”. It is very rare but it occasionally happens.
Some are really close to pulling out but, then, they achieve it… Last year on a Gold bell-boating expedition where you have to camp on an island in the middle of the river, there was a girl who phoned me in tears in the middle of the night to ask me to pick her up. There was no way I could have come. It is far too dangerous to navigate to and from that island in the dark. I reassured her and told her : “You are going to camp and we’ll see how you are in the morning”. I knew she was safe. She slept on it and the next morning she thought : “Hang on, I only have two more days of this, I can do it”. And she did. At the end she was absolutely buzzing with excitement that she had managed it, even though she had been so close to pulling out.
Learning from my mistakes though, I am much more cautious now with teenagers complaints. I would rather take them to hospital if unsure about their wounds!
What have you learnt from the teenagers?
I certainly have learnt about parenting ! Sometimes we work with children who have been kicked out of school and reject authority. I used to really struggle with their rebellious behaviors. I learnt that they had been parented in such a way that they couldn’t always be blamed. The parents have a huge responsibility. It takes some will, energy and time to get involved in your children’s lives, take them on holidays or even on days out like simple walks in the countryside. And it makes a huge difference I am sure.
When we grew up, we went off without phones. Now we’ve become used to constant communication. It makes us all feel more vulnerable maybe… When my daughter did her Bronze DofE last year, I saw things from the parent’s point of view, suddenly unable to reach my child for several days ! It was horrible ! I wanted to know how she was getting on… I apologise to you parents for putting you through that !
Apparently Kurt Hahn’s ambition – as the main inspiration for the award – was to offer young people opportunities to nurture perseverance, openness and compassion. Is that something you witnessed ?
More in some students than others, but definitely there are times when you see empathy in action. In “open expeditions” particularly (individuals joining from anywhere), kids don’t know each other to start with and by the end you can see some true friendship grow! It is such a teambuilding experience that within a day or two, I have forgotten who knew who beforehand because they mix so well.
Is your job filling you with a particular vision about tomorrow’s society?
I am quite hopeful. We have young people learning loads outside of school. Of course I worry sometimes about what looks like a self-centered, singular society. At schoolteachers are often expected to deal with individuals and struggle to interact with the group as a unit. Teenagers tend to use social media to show how wonderful they are – on a picture. But life is much more about arguments, and constant battles to find one’s place alongside others, isn’t it ?
All that said, I meet some amazing young people and I think : “Gosh, you are going to go a long way in life!”
Have you ever had to discourage someone from doing the DofE’s Award, for whatever reason ?
I don’t think so. Some need to be more informed, they are just told to do the DofE and they turn up with the wrong clothes or food. But even then I would rather see them through it than discourage them from coming.
I think you can set an expedition to be a challenge for everyone. We are potentially going to be running expeditions for kids with disabilities.
It will happen thanks to a girl in a wheelchair – who uses a computer to express herself, like Stephen Hawking – who wants to do Gold. It just means we are planning new routes – obviously not on an island in the middle of the river… It is going to be good for her. But is not just about her either. We want it to be a shared experience with kids from mainstream schools. It is going to be a challenge for them as well as a challenge for her. And it is about finding an expedition process that will do just that.
Is there something you would like to change in the frame of the DofE as it has been thought in the 50’s?
There is a discussion about removing the practice expedition. I believe children make mistakes during those practices, which allow them to adapt and improve their activities on the qualifier experience and it might be a shame to take that away from them.
But here is a reality: the award is 60 years old, it grows every single year, more and more young people want to take part in it. It benefits society. My daughter helped at the Brownie pack last year, she is volunteering for the local park run now…
All these young people are helping society, learning new skills and practicing some kind of sports… As a structure and a program, I think it is fantastic ! I wouldn’t want to see a change to that. It is relevant today as it was 60 years ago. It is even more relevant now than it was then! Our kids would happily sit in front of a screen but when they are doing their DofE they have a purpose to go out, volunteer, and be active. A good start for learning to grow up together
Interview led by Caroline Kowalski
Ben Bullen Adventures work with the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, the Lycée International Winston Churchill, the German School in Richmond and many different schools in UK.