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Youngsters learn survival skills

SHARON — It seemed like a simple task: Tie your shoes. It took the first volunteer 21 seconds on the stopwatch. “Now do it with gloves on,” said Ashley Sylvester, leader of the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau’s (HYSB) Outdoor Leadership workshop Saturday, Dec. 10, at Silver Lake Conference Center.After two minutes, the young volunteer gave up.“That’s what happens when hypothermia sets in,” Sylvester said. “You know that numb feeling you get when you’ve been playing outside too long with your gloves off? That’s the beginning of frostbite.”The group discussed the three things you need to survive: food, water and shelter. “And air!” added one youngster.Then Sylvester sent the 16 middle schoolers off into the woods to construct shelters that would keep them warm and dry if they had to spend a night in the woods.The Outdoor Leadership Program is the brain child of Nick Pohl, executive director of the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau, and Anne Hughes, co-director of Silver Lake. Hughes, who is working on a Master of Social Work degree, is also an intern at HYSB, which has its offices in Falls Village on the campus of Housatonic Valley Regional High School.“Nick came to interview me here at Silver Lake as an intern and he saw our ropes course and said, ‘Can we do that?’” Hughes said.Hughes said the idea of the program is to give local youngsters an opportunity to learn new skills in a community-based program. In addition to the middle schoolers who come as participants in the program, Mike Sherwood of Lakeville, a sophomore at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, helps out as a facilitator. He hopes to work as a counselor at an outdoor skills camp in Colorado this summer. The shelter-building and fire-making workshop was the second in this year’s series. The next workshop will be in February and will cover hiking and tracking. Sylvester, who runs the ropes courses at Silver Lake over the summer, will return as the leader. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education from Castleton State College in Vermont and a master’s diploma in outdoor education from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She also holds certifications in just about every sort of wilderness training — from wilderness first responder to dingy boat certification level 2.And she has a passion for working with young people. When she’s not at Silver Lake leading groups into the woods, she is the youth group leader at Southbury Congregational Church.“Usually we would tear down these shelters and scatter the branches around and make it look like we were never here,” Sylvester told the group. “But we’re going to leave them up until February and see how they hold up.”After building their shelters, the group headed back to camp to learn to build a fire. As a reward for their work, they toasted quesadillas over the blaze and enjoyed some hot chocolate.For more information about the Outdoor Leadership Program, go to www.hysb.org or call 860-824-4720. Signup forms for the February program will go home with the sixth- through eighth-graders in Region One early next year.

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