At Open Sky, we recognize that being away from home for the holidays, often for the first time, is significant and can bring up a lot of emotions for students. We work hard to incorporate special activities into the holiday season to help students feel welcome and supported while spending this time of year in the field. Holidays are a particularly memorable time at Open Sky; the traditions we create help connect us to one another and imbue this time of year with special meaning.
As the major holidays arrive at Open Sky, we find simple but meaningful ways to mark each occasion, such as resourcing students with special supplies to help them celebrate the holidays most important to them. For example, students who celebrate Hannukah receive menorahs, candles, and dreidels, as well as an informational guide on the story of Hannukah. Students who celebrate Christmas have access to art supplies, such as brightly colored construction paper, to decorate trees around base camp.
Field staff also embrace the festivities by donning seasonal attire. Leah Dworkin, assistant field director, recalls visiting the field during the holiday season last year and observing the staff work to make everything feel a little merrier.
“I dressed as a holiday reindeer, and a lot of guides had brought themed onesies to wear. Our Field Medic and operations person also had on Santa hats,” said Leah. “These gestures may seem small, but it makes everything feel more joyful. The guides and staff really get into it and encourage the fun atmosphere.”
No holiday celebration is complete without a delicious feast. Students at Open Sky already enjoy a healthy, organic diet each day. During the holidays, their usual, healthy fare is supplemented with seasonal foods to celebrate the occasion. On Thanksgiving, the holiday most associated with scrumptious meals, each team receives a turkey that they slow cook in Dutch ovens throughout the day. An array of autumn vegetables, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie also grace the menu. Christmas and Hannukah offer further opportunities for special dishes. On Christmas, students cook a big ham and green bean casserole; on Hannukah, they receive the components necessary to make traditional potato latkes.
Not only do the holiday feasts taste wonderful but preparing them also provides a chance to slow down, tune in, and practice mindfulness, teamwork, and wilderness skills. Cooking in wilderness requires more effort than cooking in a typical kitchen. Teams must work together to chop vegetables, dig cooking pits, kindle fires, tend coals, and monitor the cooking process. Anyone who has been through each of these steps can attest to just how satisfying the intentional effort makes the resulting meal taste.
Typically, students at Open Sky live in small teams comprised of around eight to ten peers. This model offers a distraction-free container where students can foster emotional safety and focus on their therapeutic work. On certain occasions, however, Open Sky holds outdoor community-wide gatherings to help students deepen their relationships and remind them they are not alone in their struggles. One of these special gatherings is an annual holiday talent show.
On the evening of the talent show, all students and field staff gather in a meadow at the Utah base camp. Teams sit together among the sagebrush and, one by one, stand up before the group to share their contributions to the event.
“Teams and students might share stories and skits or games and songs,” said Alex Molo, Field Director. “There was even a musical about wag bags one year. People get very funny and very creative. We see a little bit of everything from humorous to heartfelt.”
Once each team participates, students can use the remaining time to share solo acts. Past acts have included singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. The talent show is a great way for students to take risks, explore their strengths, practice courage, connect with peers, and support others.
Another hallmark of the holiday season is giving and receiving gifts. Open Sky often celebrates this tradition by organizing a gift exchange for guides and students. The simplicity of living in wilderness requires students to get creative with what they choose to give. For instance, students might make art from objects they find in nature or mold figurines and beads from clay. Leah notes that hand carved spoons are also a popular gift, as are spindles for a bow drill set. She has also seen students share original poems or rap songs with one another.
The intention and creativity that goes into making a unique and meaningful gift for another person offers an important opportunity for students to explore values such as empathy and generosity.
“I once saw a student paint what she imagined to be a portrait of another student’s dog who he missed very much,” said Alex. “Another student gifted their favorite top rock for bow drilling. Students come up with all kinds of special things.”
Removed from typical holiday distractions, students have space to reflect on what they are truly celebrating. Alex, who in addition to the Field Director, is also a former Open Sky student, describes how spending Christmas in the field elevated the meaning of the holiday for him.
“I had a safe, connecting experience that helped anchor me to the essence of what the holidays are,” he said. “I was able to create something and give it to someone, and in turn, I was able to feel really appreciative for the small gift that was made for me. It was the most connected I had felt in years.”
Ultimately, the holiday season at Open Sky is all about honoring values. We understand that each student may be guided by a different set of values, and it is important to us that we hold space for everyone to celebrate in a way that is meaningful to them. Students are supported in creating their own traditions to celebrate their unique personalities, backgrounds, and upbringings. In fact, many of Open Sky’s more celebrated traditions, such as the gift exchange and a formalized process for recognizing Hannukah, have come from student suggestions.
“Open Sky field staff are always open to receiving feedback and finding creative ways to help students celebrate what’s most important to them,” said Alex. “We really want to be informed on how to honor the diverse set of students we treat.”