On our three-part trek through the Girls Empowered by Mountain Shepherd “G.E.M.S.” acronym, we first skipped, danced, and sprinted triumphantly across the gender-equality playing field in “‘G’ is for Girls.” Then, we built courage, confidence, and compassion on a metaphorical climb up the “‘E’ is for Empowered” incline. Now, here we are, atop the mountain on the final part of our expedition. Mountain Shepherd Survival School is the perfect base camp for the G.E.M.S. experience, and you’re about to find out why!

1. Mission
Mountain Shepherd believes each person, regardless of life experience, can learn to navigate the outdoors and respond to unexpected challenges. G.E.M.S. embodies this belief with an experience tailored for middle school-aged girls from all backgrounds, with all sorts of skills, passions, and plans. There are plenty of unexpected challenges in adolescence, from maintaining friendships and trying out for new sports teams to navigating changing family dynamics and academic expectations.
Hand-in-hand with the G.E.M.S. values of courage, confidence, and compassion is the Mountain Shepherd mission: Prepare. Practice. Prevail. The G.E.M.S. no-judgement zone prepares girls to open their minds, be themselves, and take on new challenges. During the experience, girls
practice both backcountry skills, like firecraft and navigation, and “frontcountry” skills like critical thinking, independence, and interpersonal communication. All this preparation and practice gives girls the tools to feel empowered and ready to prevail in the face of outdoor challenges and pesky middle school problems, too!

2. Wilderness Survival Priorities
Mountain Shepherd’s courses focus on seven survival priorities and their accompanying practical skills. The priorities, from first to seventh, are: positive mental attitude, wilderness first aid, shelter, fire craft, signaling, water, and food. These priorities are also part of the foundation of G.E.M.S. experiences, as they provide opportunities to practice new skills and to build courage and confidence. Additionally, these priorities provide some exemplary parallels to the “frontcountry” for G.E.M.S. girls to explore. Read on for some examples!

  • Positive Mental Attitude: Girls are encouraged to identify attacks on their day-to-day positive mental attitude and how to combat those things to stay optimistic.
  • Wilderness First Aid: Girls learn to show compassion and ask for help through a survey of basic wilderness first aid practices.
  • Shelter: Through development of practical skills like layering clothing for outdoor activities and building improvised shelters, girls learn to be prepared and to protect themselves from the elements. They can then connect natural elements, like precipitation, darkness, and dramatic temperatures, to some negative elements of adolescence, and they’re encouraged to plan ways to protect themselves from those things.
  • Fire: Girls not only learn several ways to build a fire, but also how to keep their own inner fires fueled through goal-setting and self-motivation.
  • Signaling: Mirrors, smoke, and arrows crafted from sticks are just a few ways to signal for help in a wilderness survival situation. During G.E.M.S., girls discover those signaling methods and create their own in the practical application of this priority, while discussing and exploring body language, bullying, and cyber interactions as forms of “frontcountry” signaling.
  • Water and Food: These final two priorities may be at the top of most people’s personal lists, but G.E.M.S. girls and other Mountain Shepherd students learn to let small nibbles and sips sustain them while they take care of the previous priorities to get themselves out of a survival situation. Girls discover sources of backcountry snacks, ways to purify water, and how to connect some hidden dangers in wilderness food and water sources to underlying problems in their social lives.

3. Location
Mountain Shepherd Survival School is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Craig County, Virginia. The facility sits on a secluded 100 acres, bordering the Jefferson National Forest with the Appalachian Trail for a neighbor. The area is welcoming to girls with little to no outdoor experience, with well-marked trails and parachute shelters over the outdoor classroom circles, while still challenging to the recreational go-getters with small streams to rock-hop over and steep hills to climb.
During G.E.M.S. weeks, Mountain Shepherd’s “Pitchwood Pub” dining area becomes a gallery of art projects and personality posters, and the stage overlooking the pond hosts talent shows, campouts, and impromptu yoga classes. With just enough “frontcountry” comforts to inspire some backcountry “challenge by choice” adventures, the Survival School is the ideal place for girls to begin or continue their empowerment journeys through G.E.M.S.

Do you know a middle school-aged girl looking for an adventure, yearning to feel empowered, or craving some time with Mother Nature? Register her for a week of empowerment here. You can also ‘like’ G.E.M.S. on Facebook to send us a message, read reviews, and flip through photos.