We started the Beyond Akeela program in 2011 and for its first three summers, it was quite different from the travel experience we’re offering now. At the time, participants lived at Akeela, our children’s summer camp in Vermont, for the full three and half week camp session (with the exception of a 5-day trip towards the end of the session.) It was kind of a hybrid between an oldest camper summer, a counselor-in-training program and post-secondary skills practice experience.
Beginning in 2014, based on lots of feedback from past participants, we transformed Beyond Akeela into a true travel program. It was clear that we could make the experience much more fun – and achieve our goals more directly – if we took Akeela “on the road!” It’s been a huge success and a really exciting thing to be a part of.
One question that I’ve been wrestling with since the moment we started talking about the “new” Beyond Akeela is whether or not to call it a Teen Tour. Frankly, it’s a term I’ve been avoiding as much as possible. On one hand, there is clearly a need for more teen travel programs that understand and accommodate kids who learn differently or need some extra social support. We’ve done lots of Google searching for terms like Special Needs Teen Tours and Asperger’s Teen Tour … and there’s not much out there! So, in a sense, I think Beyond Akeela is filling a much-needed niche for independent and smart, but “quirky”, young adults who don’t want to pile into a bus with 50 other teenagers with whom they don’t have a lot in common (not to mention lower staff-to-camper ratios and less attention paid to helping participants succeed socially.)
On the other hand, the term Teen Tour (even when combined with words like “quirky” or “autism spectrum” or “special needs”) connotes TO ME something far different from what’s happening on Beyond Akeela. I picture bus tours and flights to fantastic destinations with amusement parks and fancy hotels. Of course, I know that the best teen tour companies are also offering a variety of outdoor adventure and community service trips – and those are awesome opportunities for teenagers to learn, grow and give back. Yet, I still shy away from that association for Beyond Akeela. We also visit incredible places, do our share of sight-seeing, and even offer an option to visit an amusement park! However, all of that is wrapped in a very intentional focus on building friendships and preparing teens for life after high school. The Beyond Akeela staff uses each component of their itinerary to challenge participants in new ways. Sometimes that’s as simple as facilitating conversations while en route to a destination; other times is takes the form of game or challenge that builds executive functioning skills, money sense, health awareness, college choices, job readiness … and I could go on and on.
So is Beyond Akeela a teen tour? I’m working on being okay with calling it that … but I’m hoping that we can agree it’s much more than that, too!