An Experience of a Lifetime
Sleeping under the stars. Watching the sun come up from a mountain top. Making friends from around the world and sharing a once-in-a-lifetime experience with them. That’s what Avon Old Farms junior Max Miller will remember most when he looks back on his outward bound trip to Oregon. But, it’s the character development that happened along the way that will be present every day.
“I am such a fortunate person to have had this experience, thanks to the Woodwell Leadership Scholarship at Avon Old Farms,” said Miller about his five-day journey in the wilderness. “This trip was something that I will always have, and I am very grateful for that.”
Now in its 16th year, The Woodwell Leadership Award is presented to a rising junior who demonstrates leadership potential and a desire to give back to the Avon community. Each year, all sophomores are invited to submit an essay explaining why they would like to participate in an Outward Bound Wilderness program, what leadership characteristics they possesses that will contribute to the program, and what they think they will take away from the trip.
“The men who receiving this award often become real leaders in the school,” said Peter Evans, chairman of the committee that reviews all submissions. “There have been many young men who were chosen as sophomores for this opportunity, and later became wardens their senior year.”
This year, the committee selected Max Miller as the award recipient. Miller chose to go on a week-long journey backpacking through the wilderness of Mount Jefferson, in Oregon.
“I flew by myself to a small airport in Bend, Oregon where all of the participants in the excursion slowly began to gather,” he explained. “That was the most nerve-wracking part of the trip. We were all in an area waiting for a van to come pick us up, and no one was talking. I remember that one of my lasts texts before heading out was to a friend saying that if this is what the next ten days were going to be like, it was going to be really rough.”
But, Miller says that night everyone started to come together.
“We had to – we were going to be relying on each other so we had to make it work,” he continued. “Some people were happy to talk, some were a lot quieter. But, I saw the importance in reaching out to the quieter folks. I wanted them to be comfortable. I wanted them to know that they were welcome. And I knew it was an opportunity for me to step up, as a leader.”
Making others feel safe and welcome isn’t new for Miller. In fact, in his submission essay Miller wrote about an experience he had in grade school when a classmate reached out to him for help, instead of the more commons topics of captaining sports teams or participating in student council.
“We weren’t close at all – I said hi to him in the hallway, but that was about it,” Miller recalled, the memory clearly weighing on his words. “But he was in trouble – having suicidal thoughts, wanting it all to end, and he reached out to me. I helped him through it. He’s still here today, which I take as a sign that I was able to help when he needed it.”
Out in the wilderness, Miller again became someone’s safe haven.
“One guy in our group was notably shyer than everyone else, and eventually he opened up to me,” said Miller. “He shared that he had been bullied back home, and he was still trying to learn that not everyone wanted to hurt him. He was on the trip to see that there were other kinds of people in the world, and to learn his own strength.”
Through the whole trip, when the group was on the move, that young man always stayed by Miller’s side.
In the course of the trip, the group slept through chilly nights bundled in layers of clothing and sleeping bags, hiked daunting inclines, and learned to depend on people who had been strangers just a few days earlier.
“In all, the experience was completely eye-opening,” said Miller. “I had never done anything like that, and it certainly pushed me to dig deep and allowed me to discover how mentally strong I can be.”
Back on the Avon Old Farms campus, Miller hopes to apply the lessons learned on the mountain to life at school – in Pelican Dorm as a hall monitor, in Student Council, and in his clubs.
“I hope to not only be a stronger leader – which is what this trip was all about – but also to be a better teammate,” he said. “On the mountain, I didn’t want to be the one holding anyone else back, and the same applies here. Sometimes, as hard as the path ahead looks, you just have to keep pushing forward, because on the other side of that peak is your ticket home.”
In the fall of 2001, the Woodwell Leadership Award was established by Al O'Connor '75 in memory of his fellow classmate and friend, Richard "Woody" Woodwell '75, who lost his life in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. More information on the Woodwell Leadership Award and past recipients are available on the Avon Old Farms School website.