About a month ago, our team just returned from an amazing experience. We held our first ever DUDES Retreat! After months of planning and hard work, our dream came to life.
It all started months ago when we threw around the idea of bringing some Vancouver DUDES up North to meet some of our DUDES in Smithers, Moricetown, and Prince George. We thought it would be excellent if guys could meet each other, so they would have the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences, both in terms of personal well-being and their own versions of the club. We went through many renditions of the retreat – different locations, different activities (from skits to music videos) and multiple areas to focus on. We ended up with a memorable and very meaningful experience.
The retreat was held at a Bible Camp, called Rough Acres, in Houston, B.C. – about half an hour from Smithers. From October 1st to 4th men were able to share their experiences and support each other while sharing communal meals and fun activities like kayaking, canoeing, and of course sitting around a fire pit. The Vancouver crew, including elders, DUDES, research members, and a film crew flew up on the afternoon of the 1st. In Smithers, we met up with the Smithers DUDES, did a bit of shopping, and hit the road to Houston. When we arrived at the camp, the Prince George team was already there, just as excited as us to get started.
During the planning phase of this event, we were concerned with how all of the guys from the different sites would get along, and our research assistant spent a fair bit of time planning icebreakers. To our relief, the guys hit it off completely fine! No icebreakers needed, the fact that all of them were there for the same reason, being passionate about the DUDES model of well-being, was a much better introduction than anything we could have provided. Shortly after we arrived we ate dinner (the food, by the way, was absolutely amazing during the whole trip, with the cooks even accounting for a particularly tricky attendee with multiple dietary restrictions).
After sharing our first meal, Henry Charles, one of our Vancouver elders, said a welcoming prayer, and one of the local men from Smithers welcomed us to his territory. Then Henry and Sandy Lambert, the Vancouver elders, presented the other site elders with blankets, as thanks for them inviting us to their territory. We also presented all of the elders with vests – a very important part of our retreat – more on this later. We were just finishing with some tedious administrative work, when suddenly, out of the mist, our Moricetown DUDES arrived. We had heard that it would be unlikely they would be attending, so it was a wonderful surprise! The Moricetown DUDES facilitator had brought two teenage boys with him. This made for a diverse dynamic, with our attendees ranging from 14 to 75, both indigenous and non-indigenous, from remote to urban metropolitan sites.
Later, we watched a film created by the documentary producer from the film crew who accompanied us for the weekend. This film served as a way to introduce our film makers to the group of men, and to make them feel comfortable with each other. The film was related to the Liberian civil war and the aftermath, carrying themes of grief, brotherhood, struggle, and friendship. The men were sincerely impressed by the movie, asked many questions, and got to know each other even better. Finally, we went to bed.
The next morning breakfast was served at 7:30 – after eating we dove right into the work, with all of the guys being very eager and enthusiastic. We started off with a research update, and got feedback on our qualitative analysis from the guys (as we work from a community based participatory action approach). After a quick coffee break, our guys broke into two groups – one to do a focus group with our team researchers, and one to work on patches for our vests.
“Leave your armour at the door” is a motto of the Vancouver DUDES club. This motto effectively means that the DUDES club is a safe place for men to interact, to be vulnerable, to share experience, and to seek peer support, help, and consequently, wellness. The armour represents the “mask”, per se, that men wear when they face the world. The world today often dictates that men must be a certain way – they must be stoic, strong, unemotional, independent. Living in adverse circumstances, such as on the street, these societal rules are even more pressing, and sometimes necessary for survival. So, to symbolize the armour men wear, we decided to bring up leather vests that the men could adorn with hand-made patches. This would serve as a bonding activity for the men, and the vests themselves would be a reminder of one of the fundamental aspects of the DUDES club (solidarity and brotherhood). They might even be used in the clubs for the “DUDE of the day” or something of that nature. The four vests were embroidered with the DUDES logo over the heart, as well as the words “DUDES Club” and the community name on the back.
In order to decorate the vests, we needed an artist. Our elder/external liaison/community research assistant, Sandy Lambert, used his amazing community connections to accost an artist from Vancouver a few days before we left to help the men create vests. Allanah, our artist, did amazing work with the men. She taught them to bead, carve, draw, and paint. She was incredibly kind and patient with the men, giving them helpful tips and talking them through the art work. The men used this time not only to create art work, but also to bond. They were able to talk openly about their life experiences, both good and bad.
While half of our guys were working on the vest patches, the other half were participating in a focus group. The goal of the focus groups was to get feedback on the content of an online tool kit. The idea is to create some type of document or interactive website that explains all of the necessary ingredients to have a successful DUDES club. We received some very insightful feedback from the guys that will be very useful for the creation of the toolkits.
We broke for lunch, and then the two groups swapped. After another quick coffee break, guys had some free time. Some went out on the lake on canoes for some serenity and quiet time. Some continued to work on their patches for the vest. Others just hung out around the firepit or coffee pot chatting about whatever came to mind. After a delicious dinner, we had our first night out by the firepit. Elders told stories, men laughed and shared over many cups of tea and coffee. Afterwards, we went inside to watch a movie and wind down.
The next day was very open. We started off by watching a movie called “The Mask You Live In” (generously lent to us by UBC for screening on the weekend). It was an incredible documentary on masculinity, and what it means to grow up as a boy in the modern world. The movie was definitely a tear jerker, and impacted many of our men deeply, as they could see themselves, or people close to them, in those situations. Some of the men had to excuse themselves from the room, as the messages in the film hit too close to home. After the movie, we had a very moving, insightful and healing group discussion. Many of the men shared their experiences with the group, really opening up about the struggles of growing up in a society that restricts expression of self. However, one man took a different view.
After the movie was done, he said “I feel elated… I feel lifted up.” He was referring to the fact that this conversation has been started. The fact that all of us were sitting in that room together, talking about masculinity, talking about societal restraints, talking about men’s health and wellness, and being open and vulnerable with each other. This man’s stance really lightened the mood, and we finished the discussion with laughter, hugs, and a prayer.
After this, the rest of the day was mainly free time during which the men fished, canoed, worked on their patches, networked, shared stories, ate together, and ultimately, healed together.
With woe, our last evening steadily approached. Many of them men spoke of keeping in touch, some handing out email addresses and other ways to contact each other. After dinner, some men stood up to share their stories with the whole group. The evening ended on a note of intense inspiration, in a room brimming with hope and optimism. We ended the night with a sit around the firepit, and then scooted off to bed for the early start the next day.
Up at 6:30, ready to go at 7:00, we still managed to leave late, with all of the hugs, last minute goodbyes, and photographs being taken. Men didn’t want to leave – many said they hoped for this event to be annual, for more DUDES to have this experience, and to maintain the links created that weekend. At long last, the Vancouver DUDES departed in their rented minivans to the Smithers airport to catch a morning flight. With heavy but optimistic hearts we left Rough Acres, our minds filled with inspiration, hope, and happiness.