Friday, June 29, 2012

Jennifer Mackey: A life of gratitude

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Even before Jennifer Mackey heard of Outward Bound, life brought her challenges that seemed insurmountable. The two-time alumna had been abandoned by her family at age 12 and due to her age and behavioral issues, no foster family wanted her. With nowhere else to go, she was placed in a group home under the ward of Children's Aid. It was a situation no pre-teen should have to face.

Fortunately, at age 14, Jennifer's supportive and encouraging case worker, Judy Moir, connected her with the generous funds of the Royal Bank of Canada and Jennifer was offered the next challenge of her life: Completing an Outward Bound youth challenge program.

This program saw Jennifer portage a canoe in black-fly infested humidity over a one-kilometer densely forested course. It was her and her portage partner, neither able to carry more weight then they already bore. At one point, collapsing from exhaustion and frustration, Jennifer dropped the canoe and it thudded heavily against a tree. She shrugged off her heavy pack and cried out in frustration. 

But through this experience, Jennifer learned her true power: to carry on. She suited back up and picked up the canoe. 

"And when the forest cleared and my destination finally came into view, I unclenched my jaw and gritted teeth and smiled my greatest smile. I’d done it! The victory was that much more glorious because it hadn’t been easy."


Fast-forward to June 11, 2012 when Jennifer was invited to share her story at the Kurt Hahn Leadership Award Dinner. Joining her at the event were Outward Bound board members, staff and supporters gathered to recognize the leadership and commitment of Jamie Anderson, former board chair of Outward Bound Canada and Outward Bound International.

In showing her appreciation for Jamie, RBC and Outward Bound, Jennifer shared how this challenging experience served her well even seven years later. It was 2002. She was frustrated by her dead-end job and, having dropped out of college the year before, was at an all-time low. Wanting more for herself, she once again suited up and...carried on.

"And when the forest cleared, I was a two-time college graduate at the top of my class, with a bright future as a career counselling professional."

In the following selection from her speech, Jennifer expresses gratitude -- a theme introduced to her through Outward Bound and a theme she has found relevant and appropriate through her whole life.

One of my three-day Outward Bound solo experiences also had a profound impact on me. It had poured rain nearly the whole time, leaving everything on my private little island soaked. I could’ve been miserable, what with my inability to light a fire, my meagre supply of food I couldn’t cook, and my makeshift tent made up of a measly sheet of plastic draped over a thin piece of string tied between two young trees bowed by strong winds. 

I could’ve been scared, what with the heavily rumbling thunder and piercing cracks of lightning. I could’ve been bored, what with nothing more to do than think, journal, or explore. Yet I wasn’t miserable or scared or bored. 

“How could that be?” you may be wondering. 

Because I chose instead, as had been modelled to me at Outward Bound, to be grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to even be there; grateful for my new friends and teachers; grateful for the wondrous adventure; and grateful for the chance to reflect. Here’s an excerpt of the letter I wrote to myself during my solo: 

“It’s so beautiful out here with the only noises those of pure nature and your only thoughts being yours and having all the time in the world to modify your behaviours and grow as a person. Take care of yourself both physically and mentally and don’t judge others for their differences. You are a free woman. Free to choose who you want to be and what you want to do and who you want to share your choices with. Keep an open mind and when frustration sets in, evaluate the situation and ask yourself if it’s worth your energy. Love is beautiful. Hate is meaningless and time consuming. Be peaceful in your ways. Empty what’s full. Fill what’s empty. And scratch where it itches!” 

The remembering of this solo experience served me well in 2010, when I was laid-off after five years of dedicated service due to government-funding cutbacks in employment services. I was completely shocked and devastated. It took nearly a year and a half to secure new employment due to the labour market and economic situation. 

In that time, my greatest solace was gratitude. Gratitude for what I did have. Gratitude for what I believed earnestly would come my way again. Just as on my private little island at Outward Bound, the storm eventually passed, the clouds dissipated, and the sun shone once more. Gratitude had seen me through.

Before Outward Bound, I was broken. During Outward Bound, I was empowered. After Outward Bound, I was powerful. Outward Bound not only changed my life; it saved my life. Debby, Danny, and Kelly wrote this about me following my Youth Challenge: 

“Jenn is a lioness who knows her beauty, her strength, and compassion for others. She glides through the jungle, watching and learning, accepting each new challenge with a positive spirit.” 

Thank you, Outward Bound, for showing me myself. You saved my life.

-- Jennifer Mackey, 2012


  1. Shawna, we're very happy you were touched by Jennifer's story as much as we were :)