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Middle-school girls learn to survive in the wild

Mountain Shepherd Survival School teaches more than just outdoor survival

CRAIG COUNTY, Va. – Not many of us can say we could survive out in the wilderness if we had to.

Those survival skills are a lost art for the majority of people. But not for a group of middle school girls, who are learning how to survive not only in the woods, but excel as women in the day-to-day world.

It’s part of the Girls Empowerment Mountain Shepherd Survival School in Craig County. Referred to as GEMS, girls from the region as well as all over the country learn lessons best taught through nature.

As Dina Bennett, who owns the survival school along with her husband explained, girls are learning what it means to survive in the woods, and live off the land.

"Survival skills are not only transferable in the back country, but in the front country," Bennett explained.

Bennett explained they host all types of survival-skills camps for all ages. The GEMS are her specialty. Many of the girls slept in these tents and lean-tos they made themselves Tuesday night.

They started the morning with a quarter-mile hike uphill, with the day's flag keeper leading the way. They all had a backpack stocked with survival tools they've learned how to use, like a fire starter and even a knife to gather firewood.

"Safety always, right? So I'm going to use this part of the blade," Bennett explained to the girls. Bennett teaches the campers what to look for in the woods.

"Middle school is such a critical time in our lives as young women growing up. It's an opportunity to take the priorities of survival and focus, and help them build parallels and metaphors about what's going on in their front country lives,” Bennett said.
The camp is the first time out in the woods for many of the girls, but you wouldn't guess it by watching them interact with nature. Bennett explained that's all part of being a GEM: girl empowerment.

Azalea Twining is an 11-year-old camper from New York City. This was her first time out in the woods. She said the small, all-girl group is exactly what she needed.

"It's really nice that it is all girls, because it feels like a really safe learning space, and I feel like in school I'm not as ready to go do things that I would totally do out here. Like, I ate a bug today... and I would never do that if any of my classmates were watching,” Azalea said while laughing.

Bennett explained the bug eating is optional. Regardless, the girls learned how to find wood cockroaches and, in the instance of an emergency, how to cook and eat them to survive.
The most important lesson, Bennett said, is teaching the girls to maintain a positive mental attitude.

"That they feel more confident to stay true to who they are. That's really the key,” Bennett said.

And some pretty impressive survival skills they'll take with them along the way.

More youth camps are available this summer. Adult survival lessons are also open. To learn more click here.


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