Q&A with Meramec Adventure Ranch’s Brett Bailey

Great Circle’s Meramec Adventure Ranch Director Brett Bailey is committed to providing transformative outdoor and wilderness experiences for kids who haven’t had many opportunities to believe in themselves. Tackling physical challenges and embracing opportunities for leadership have a profound effect on these young people, and lessons in resilience become a part of their daily lives.

With a focus on trauma-informed care, Bailey and the Ranch’s highly trained staff help kids replace ingrained doubts and fears with courage and self-confidence. In this interview, Bailey shares the many ways the Ranch can be such a life-affirming and life-changing environment for young people.

What can campers expect from the Ranch?
BB: Our pledge is to meet kids where they are and help transform the brokenness brought by trauma into meaningful purpose and direction. What they experience outside – camping, climbing, biking, paddling rivers, tackling obstacle courses, enjoying nature’s peace and stillness – is just as incredible as what they experience inside themselves.

They learn to stop defining life by the past, to find new and authentic respect for themselves, understand they have what it takes, and grow in confidence, courage and a sense of belonging and purpose.

What kinds of perspectives do campers typically bring to the Ranch?
BB: At different points in life, we all find ourselves “stuck”. But feeling absolutely alone, overwhelming feelings of helplessness, utter isolation, and loss of meaning – those elements are present when trauma we’ve experienced becomes traumatizing. Many of the kids Great Circle works with are from environments where their daily existence is simply about survival. They’ve never been able to just be kids in a safe, structured environment. They often think, “Nobody understands me; I’m in this by myself,” or, “Even if I could do something about my situation, why even try? I’m already damaged goods.” That’s when trauma becomes continually traumatizing.

At the Ranch, campers start to realize that while anger might be a part of their lives right now, it’s not part of their permanent identities. Skills learned at the Ranch give them incredible power to start changing that script.

How does the Ranch make a difference in their lives?
BB: I always look forward to that expression in a camper’s eyes as he starts to realize his ability to accomplish things. Maybe he’s never been given credit for his hidden strengths, or maybe can’t even give himself credit for them.

By intentionally guiding campers through real-life experiences, they begin to see they are not alone, which counteracts their sense of isolation. They discover they can make an impact on their situation and aren’t helpless). A camper starts thinking, “I have something to offer. I’m not the sum of those negative words that cycle around in my head two minutes before I fail at something” and that brings meaning to their life. Watching that spark light up and happen over and over during a camper’s time here is amazing.

What new beliefs do campers take away from the experience?
BB: We talk about the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is part of the rollercoaster of emotions we experience every day, but joy is deeper.

Kids learn that even when they are having the worst day, they still can have joy because they know in their cores that somehow, the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They see good overcoming evil. And they believe things will be set right. That allows for resilience against whatever life brings us. That’s hope.

What characteristics do you look for in a Ranch staff member?
BB: We get passionate people from all over the country who want to do this for a living. They come from a wide range of college majors – outdoor recreation and adventure management, biology and social science, along with counseling, social work and psychology. Our philosophy is that we can always train people for the skills needed at the Ranch, but we can’t train for heart. Our staff members already have that in spades. What makes these programs healthy and productive for the kids we serve is having healthy people to lead them.

What are some highlights of Great Circle’s Ranch experience?
BB: During the day, everyone is doing all kinds of adventure activities. We use these not as an end in themselves, but as a catalyst to inspire growth, healing and hope.

In summer, kids can participate in front-country camping, where they learn to cook in cast iron skillets and make things like fajitas and beef stew over an open fire. Back-country camping is much more primitive. They are backpacking with everything they will need for five to 14 days, setting out into a wilderness area and following maps and trails.

What is the most important effect of a Ranch experience?
BB: Our mantra is, “The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity,” especially in times of crisis. Bigger challenges present more of a chance for growth, healing and change. Watching kids light up and start to evolve as they learn what they are capable of and the strength they have inside them – that’s everything.