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A Gateway to Class Unity

Ninth grade students bond over three-day Shenandoah retreat
Convincing 126 high-school students to play a game of “Simon Says” would be a challenge for most people, let alone most teachers. But for the staff of the Horizons Outdoor Learning Center, it was all in a day’s work. Within minutes of rolling off the bus from Richmond, Trinity’s 9th grade class spread out gleefully across the hillside outside of Harrisonburg, Va.

A beloved Trinity tradition for the past three decades, the Freshman Class Retreat returned this year to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Camp Horizons (formerly Camp Sheridan), featuring first-rate facilities, an enthusiastic and experienced staff and an array of team-building and traditional summer-camp-style activities. Over three days and two nights, Trinity's 9th graders were encouraged to challenge themselves, meet as many other freshmen as possible and build class unity.

“I like to think of it as the gateway to Trinity as a new student,” said Chris Markunas ’01, guitar and theatre teacher and the retreat’s coordinator for the past 10 years. “I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews from kids and parents alike,” said Markunas, “which is a great feeling, because we’ve put a lot of thought into making this experience the best it can be. We feel like this is a sustainable model for the future of the trip.”

Divvied up into small groups of 12, the students cycled through a dozen engaging group activities with a mix of teamwork, challenge, learning and fun. In addition to bonding through trust falls and other classic low-ropes team-building activities like the “Islands” and the “Spiderweb,” the class also enjoyed a hide-and-seek game called “Instincts for Survival,” where each student had to play the role of an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore in a fast-paced simulation of the food chain.

“I watched one group struggle with the islands element for about five minutes, and I was convinced they were going to give up,” said David Ready, Trinity staff member and one of the trip chaperones. “Then, finally one student decided he had to be the leader and showed them them way. It was impressive to watch a team grow in matter of minutes.”

Each group also got the chance to learn to canoe, shoot a bow and arrow and feed baby animals in the camp’s working farm. “Everything you eat and find in the grocery store started at one point on a farm,” said “Farmer Bobby,” the camp’s resident agriculturalist. “We want you to leave here with an appreciation for the work that farmers do to feed the world.”

By far the most pulse-pounding moments came during one of two high-ropes elements, the “Giant Swing” and the “Leap of Faith,” each of which required willing participants to face their fear of heights and swing through the air while clipped to a safety harness. After conquering the giant swing, a group was asked to consider the difference between “perceived risk” and “actual risk” in evaluating how the experience made them feel.

On the last night, the entire group convened for an evening of s’mores, singing and silliness around the campfire. “I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like,” said one 9th grader at the conclusion of the trip, “It was way more fun than I expected.”

Each year, Trinity’s freshman class is made up of a unique blend of students from over 60 different feeder schools — representing more than three dozen ZIP codes across the greater Richmond area. One of the major goals of the trip is to build a platform for every member of this diverse class to feel included — and to bring the group together with a set of experiences they will share throughout their Trinity careers and beyond.

Chris Williamson ’00, a frequent chaperone on the trip as well as an alumnus of the original “Sheridan” experience, saw the connections being built before his eyes. “The teamwork exercises they went through made a real impact,” he said. “They may have come from a lot of different middle schools, but when they left, they felt like a united Trinity class.”
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