BTR: More than just a cabin in the woods

By Angele Maraj

Angele Maraj is our guest blogger and first year corps member. Below is her reflection on our annual basic training retreat.

    When I first heard that we would be attending a two-day retreat in upstate New York as part of our corps member training, I didn’t know what to think. My last retreat was in the 8th grade, and memories of it consist mostly of a poorly constructed tent falling down on us while we were sleeping, questionable shower spaces and the relentless itching of mosquito bites. I didn’t remember developing any particularly useful life skills, but I decided to follow the encouragement of the team leaders to not base any expectations for the City Year Basic Training Retreat on past experiences.

I was excited at the idea of getting to bond with and know my own team, but I wasn’t so sure about the concept of being open with people from the entire corps, some of whom I still considered to be strangers.

“I don’t really want to share personal details about myself with people I don’t know,” I thought. Besides, we only had two days — how much growth would we actually accomplish in such a short time? Many of my fellow corps members shared the same concern.


Instagram photo by @Tamaloalalia

 Bleary-eyed and still somewhat unsure of what we were getting into, we all boarded the bus to Iroquois Springs early Tuesday morning. The day felt jam-packed, with plenty of school team meetings, discussions and zone time. Normally, zone time consists of team-building games and activities that are fairly lighthearted, but the BTR zone time took a more serious, personal turn. We did a few rounds of “Step Into The Circle” — for those of you who aren’t familiar with that activity, it starts with everyone standing in a large circle. The game leader (in this case, my program manager Dalia) gives a statement, and if the statement applies to you, you step into the circle.

I watched as my fellow corps members, many of whom I’d only gotten to know at a surface level at that point, stepped forward and revealed things about themselves that showed their endurance in the face of a variety of struggles.

 “Step into the circle if you were bullied. Step into the circle if you ever felt like you didn’t belong. Step into the circle if you feel as though you didn’t grow up with enough.”

With each statement, my empathy for everyone in the room was strengthened; I was so moved by everyone’s honesty that I found myself stepping forward on things that I otherwise would not have shared. The silence in the room was powerful. This was a safe space, a place where you could be who you were, where you were not just corps members, but a person to these other people. I was starting to get it.

Later that night, we attended a session on the City Year value of ubuntu, and I found myself reflecting on the events of that day with a newfound clarity. I could see everything laid out in front of me like a map: we were all corps members, yes, but we were people, too, and that ability to understand ourselves and each other as people would strengthen us not just as teams, but as individuals and as a whole corps. We ended the session by meeting someone completely new from a different zone and taking a long walk with them to talk. As I walked with my newfound friend Melissa, I looked around at the different pairs strolling around, deep in animated conversation. They didn’t seem like strangers anymore.

The last event of that first day was a talent show, which I was lucky enough to be able to participate in. There were dancers, singers, musicians, a step team and spoken word, and let me just say that there is an overwhelming, diverse and humbling level of talent in the City Year New York corps — I think everyone there that night would agree.

BTR Talent Show 2013

BTR Talent Show 2013

We ended the night by each taking a glow stick, breaking it and holding it into the air, representing our commitment to the program, the students and each other over the next 10 months. Under any other circumstance, I might have found the exercise to be cheesy, but as I looked back at the hundreds of differently colored lights glowing in the darkness, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the city lights. Just like the population of the city, we were a diverse group of people bringing together our collective backgrounds and experiences in order to connect with others and overcome a struggle. We were one city, one corps.