STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 06/14/2010

La Vida: Celebrating 40 Years of God's Faithfulness in the Wilderness

Heather Trapp '10

Begun in 1970 at Saranac Village in upstate New York, La Vida (“The Life”) got its name from an early group of campers who saw the connection between their wilderness experience and their life in Christ. Hundreds of alumni later, it’s a connection that continues to bear fruit. 

Her first La Vida experience was so moving that Cay Anderson-Hanley ’88 later wrote her doctoral dissertation on the effects La Vida has on its participants’ identities and spiritual development. La Vida revealed to her that “true community is ‘raw and real.’” On her trip she dealt with challenges and struggles but through it came to realize she could overcome them with the help of her peers and her faith. What she learned, in fact, has helped her press on through life’s challenges, including graduate school, the birth of a baby, and holding her grandfather’s hand as Alzheimer’s stole his mind.

“I never forgot the words spoken at the final celebration about how La Vida wasn’t really ending, but rather it, ‘the life,’ was just beginning,” Hanley says. “I have realized how important it has been for me to look back on my experiences so I can move forward in facing life’s challenges.” The sense of community Hanley found in La Vida became a goal for her in her relationships, molding who she is today.

Hanley was excited to learn that this October the La Vida Center for Outdoor Education will celebrate its 40th anniversary during Gordon’s Homecoming. Adapted from Outward Bound, La Vida came to Gordon in 1978 through Rich Obenschain, who continues to direct it today. Since then it has grown into six programs, including the Adirondack Expeditions, Discovery, GORP, the Rock Gym, Adventure Camp, and an outdoor education Immersion Semester, offered in conjunction with the Recreation and Leisure Studies Department.

La Vida’s purpose has always been to offer Christian community to students like Hanley, to help them overcome personal challenges, develop skills as servant leaders, study and apply Scripture, and meditate on God’s calling for their lives. La Vida still offers opportunities for students to appreciate and enjoy creation while developing stewardship and relationships that lead to teamwork, trust, support, vulnerability, and personal and spiritual growth.

“In a busy world it’s hard for people to find time to clear their heads of distractions and of all the messages in our culture that define who we are,” says Obenschain. “La Vida takes people away from distractions and puts them in a community where they can witness God’s creation, experience His love, and grow through the silence, solitude and simplicity.”

La Vida started in 1970 at a Young Life Camp called Saranac Village. A group of teenagers from the lower East Side of New York City were the first to participate. La Vida’s name took hold as the group sat around the campfire talking about how their trip was “the life” because they were away from the gangs and violence at home. They continued to connect their wilderness experience with their “life in Christ” and to understand that the Christian life is “The Life.”

From 1970 to 1980 Scott Dimock, Jim Kielsmeier, Dean Borgman, Steve Oliver and many others had a significant impact on the program. Because of their vision Rich Obenschain was able to carry its philosophy to Gordon, where La Vida eventually became a component of the Core Curriculum.

Because of his persistence and faithfulness La Vida grew into the program it is today. And as 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of La Vida’s existence, many acknowledge this benchmark with gratitude. “Kids need adventure in order to discover, grow, and reach their full potential,” Obenschain says. “La Vida’s staff has been well-equipped to encourage students and model that adventure through Christ-like lives, which is why I think La Vida has been successful at impacting the thousands who have participated in the program.”

In the future La Vida hopes to continue to work more with international organizations to develop adventure ministries. Building on their partnerships in numerous countries including Ecuador, South Africa, Kenya, China and Romania, the program hopes to expand in new regions just as alumni Brandi (Anderson) ’92 and Dana ’93 Bates have done by creating Romania’s largest youth service organization, Viata (“The Life”).

“Students in La Vida dig down deep and find out what they’re made of. They begin to work on their character by being out in the wilderness setting,” Obenschain says. “La Vida has always helped young people to be problem solvers—to persevere under challenges, work together, communicate, be team members, and to be people who can serve others. That’s what keeps us going.”

Heather Trapp is a business administration major and communication arts minor with a passion for the outdoors and La Vida. She also loves the North Shore, running on the beach and Captain Dusty’s ice cream.

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La Vida archive photo
Heather Trapp