Chehalis Community School challenging youths

Amy Adamson (middle) leads students (l to r) Cassie Vernon-Clarke

A sign on the corner  as you turn right off of Morris Valley Road welcomes you to the community of Chehalis, proudly proclaiming the tiny First Nations band of approximately 1,000 people to be drug and alcohol free.

Factually accurate?

Probably not.

But certainly not wishful thinking either.

This is what the Chehalis want to be, and they are taking steps to get there.

Leading the charge, a small but dedicated group of youths who are using physical fitness as a gateway to healthy living.

Since 2008, Chehalis Community School has offered an athletics program that challenges teenagers to be better — better athletes, better students and better leaders for the generations that will follow them.

“Before 2008 there were a lot of kids wandering around doing a whole lot of nothing,” said Cassie Clarke-Vernon, a three-year member of the program who has parlayed the experience into a spot on the B.C. Aboriginal Girls hockey team.

Greendale native Amy Adamson is one of two instructors, along with Chilliwack’s Rick Webber, who were hired by the school to oversee the program.

Nicknamed the Princess of Pain by one of her personal training clients, Adamson’s students feared the worst before meeting her for the first time three years ago.

“I was pretty scared when I heard that nickname and I was like, ‘Oh no! I’m going to be so sore!’” Clarke-Vernon recalled. “I imagined someone really big and intimidating. Not someone small like Amy, who turned out to be really fun and awesome.”

Adamson wasn’t sure at all what to expect that first day.

“I had no idea, and the first week I found them to be quite quiet,” she said. “But I was confident I could get them into it and get them having fun and after couple weeks they started to get excited about this.”

Adamson started out strong and earned her nickname in the early going.

“I thought I was in shape, because I did hockey three times a week for about five hours,” Clarke-Vernon said. “The first couple weeks were an eye opener for me. My legs have always been pretty muscular because of hockey, but the upper body exercises really kill me.”

Sensing her young charges were getting overwhelmed by those initial sessions, Adamson wisely throttled back and found a happy medium.

“They seemed like they were getting exhausted, which surprised me because I was thinking teenagers were going to be fit and full of energy,” she recalled. “I knew early on we had some work to do to get them where we wanted them to be.”

Adamson still shows her Princess of Pain side from time to time. But three years later her students have learned to love the chatty, energetic instructor.

“It was definitely tiring at first, but after you get the hang of it it’s not too hard,” said James Antone, an 18-year-old who signed up last year.

The program is simple but effective.

From 8:30 to 9 a.m. every morning the group meets in the gym, powering through a fitness routine that focuses on cardio, core strength and flexibility.  Once or twice a month, Adamson takes advantage of the area’s natural splendor, taking the group hiking through the wilderness.

They do rock climbing and twice they have gone on trips to Vancouver to tackle the intimidating Grouse Grind.

“I thought it would be easy, but as soon as I got half way up that hill I was asking myself why I did this,” Antone laughed.

His first time on the Grouse Grind was actually pretty good by most people’s standards, with Antone finishing in 45 minutes.

But the benefits of the athletics program were apparent the second time he went up when he roared to the top in 33 minutes and 36 seconds.

Everything they do is gruelling, challenging them physically and mentally — they are guaranteed to feel it when they go home at night and feel it even more if they miss a session or two.

But it’s a good sort of hurt, and it is the variety of activities that helps to keep the teenagers engaged.

Keeping them engaged in athletics keeps them from getting engaged in less desirable pursuits.

“When I was hired, it was with the idea that I could help these kids use their energy in a positive way,” Adamson said. “And a big part of the program is the expectation that they will live a healthy lifestyle. No smoking. No drinking or drugs.”

The original group was eight strong and the highest enrollment at any one time was 17 last year.

There are 12 currently.

Some students struggle have struggled and eventually dropped out because of the commitment the program requires, which goes well beyond simply showing up for a half hour workout weekday mornings.

Students are expected to maintain a certain level of academic achievement (C+ average or better), and they are expected to volunteer in the school and in the community.

“If they’re not keeping their grades up, if they’re not participating every day, they will get the boot,” Adamson said of a nearly zero-tolerance policy.

Both Clarke-Vernon and Antone said they embrace the volunteering aspect.

They relish the chance to work with younger kids and pitch in at an annual soccer tournament.

And what they’ve learned from Adamson and Webber certainly carries through to their lives away from school.

Antone said he has attained his own workout equipment and takes regular runs after school.

Both activities help to keep the positive energy flowing.

“You feel 100 times better when you go for a jog than when you have a cigarette,” Adamson noted.

Still, even with all the positivity surrounding the program, it remains a tough sell for some Chehalis youths.

“They say, ‘Eh. Maybe. Not this year, maybe next year,’” Clarke-Vernon said of her procrastinating peers. “It’s frustrating because I know how much it’s helped me, and I know it could really help some of them.”

Chilliwack’s Cheam Sports has helped immensely with the donation of gift certificates that are given annually to the male and female athletes of the year.

Government grants and help from Nike have helped with the procurement of equipment.

Anyone who wants to get involved can give Adamson a shout by e-mail at amymadams@hotmail.ca.