Be tough, yet gentle. Humble, yet bold. Swayed always by beauty and truth. -Bob Pieh
The photos on the left are from the photo album “Mom’s Extraordinary, Outstanding, Personal, Adventure.” These treasured memories feature VOBS alumni and donor, Deb Billings’ time on course. These photos were affectionately organized by Deb’s devoted daughters (pictured in the collage, top right). Last month, I had the pleasure of talking with Deb and learning all about her life adventures and challenges. These adventures and challenges included an 8 Day Boundary Waters Canoe Expedition she took with us in the 90s. I have never laughed so hard or cried so much in one conversation. Here are some highlights of the tremendous story of self-discovery Deb shared with me:
Inward and Outward
Deb refers to herself as “a late bloomer.” She married earlier in life and decided to go back to school to become a teacher at the self-assured age of 40. During her studies at college, Deb stumbled upon a WWII story highlighting Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn. She was immediately inspired by Hahn’s words to experience life “inward and outward,” so set her sights on experiencing her own VOBS Expedition by age 43. She began to save and prepare for the next couple of years.
Deb had a lot of support from family and friends to go, but she remembers her father cautioning her. ‘A 43-year-old woman should not go trouncing off into the woods. You have a family, responsibilities,’ he warned. Deb simply countered with, “some things, you just have to do.” For a year, Deb worked with a trainer, and for the first time in her life learned to swim. She reached her fundraising goal after just two years, and was set to go on course as planned.
In college, Deb befriended a couple, parents to five children. They had both recently lost their jobs and decided to go back to school. One day the wife of the couple arrived at school in tears. They had just lost their Medicaid and had no idea how they would afford to feed their children for the summer. Deb was about to enroll for her Expedition, and the amount the family needed, was almost what she had saved. She saw this as a sign and anonymously donated her savings to the family. Deb explained to me, “all this meant was a postponement, I saved once, I could save again.” Little did Deb know, that this act of compassion would be as life-changing as an Outward Bound course itself.
Meant to Be
Just a year later, Deb received a letter from VOBS telling her she was confirmed to take a course that August. Baffled, because she hadn’t yet saved up the money, her daughters confessed a plan they had put into action. August 1st happens to be Deb’s birthday. As a present, her family and friends came together to secretly fundraise. Now Deb could go on course by 43, like she had originally planned.
I think this is the end of Deb’s story, but then she excitedly discloses to me, “Courtney, it gets better!” During the Expedition enrollment process, Deb learned that her medical records had expired. She had to go back to the doctor to get them updated. Deb went in for a routine visit and to both of their surprise, the doctor discovered a tumor on her ovary. The tumor was pre-cancerous, but because of the early detection, they were able to safely remove it. After fully recovering from surgery, Deb embarked on her VOBS voyage the following year. Deb recollected,
It always felt like to me, that all of this, was meant to be. If I never would have found Outward Bound… I never would have donated that savings to that family… and I never would have had that medical appointment when I did…
Lessons for Life
When I asked Deb about her favorite memories on course and she immediately responded, “the quadrant activity.” If you are a VOBS alum, this probably sounds familiar. At the beginning of a VOBS course, course instructors map out a quadrant on the ground. The sections include: Analyst & Architect, Driver, Relationship Master and Spontaneous Motivator. At VOBS, we call these quadrants the “No-Doze Leadership Styles.” Each brigade member is asked to place themselves on the quadrant they identify with. The goal is to recognize the strengths of the group and understand how each individual has a role to play.
Deb tells me that one of her strengths is “planning.” Not only does she “always have a plan, she has an A, B and C plan.” She’s also a “helper” (pretty obvious given her story). However, Deb recalls her first days on course as pretty difficult, and her strengths didn’t play out as planned. She tried to prevent crew mates from stumbling, before they stumbled, and she rolled out everyone’s sleeping bags. An instructor carefully pointed out, “sometimes, when you rush in, you deny someone the chance to learn.” “It was in that moment,” Deb recalled, “that I wondered how often in life I was over-stepping when I felt I was helping. I wasn’t prepared to look at myself this way…and I will never forget it; I learned a lot.”
Another strength of Deb’s is her wonderful ability to write and tell a story. During her solo time on course, Deb wrote poetry inspired by her crew and their journey. Here is one of her delightful pieces on “portaging,” dedicated to her instructors, Rogene and Carol.
As a Special Education teacher, Deb told me that she used the “No-Doze Leadership Styles” lesson often. Both in the classroom with her students, and now retired, she teaches it to her eight grandchildren. Deb encourages everyone to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses in others.
Deb went on to share her experience of the end-of-course Graduation and Pin Ceremony. During this time, each crew member is asked to reflect on his or her experience. Every student decides for themselves if they deserve an Outward Bound pin of “Excellence.” “Earlier that week, our last activity was the Ropes Course. Up until then, I had participated in everything, wholeheartedly,” she explained. “But for this particular activity, I was afraid of heights. After taking three attempts, and not being able to fight off the nauseous feeling of being so high up, I decided not to do it.” During the pin ceremony, Deb’s crew mates asked her, ‘Do YOU think you completed your course?’ Deb very calmly and confidently answered, “considering everything I’ve gone through on course, been challenged to discover about myself, I didn’t need the Ropes Course to feel complete. I already feel that way.”
Deb accepted her pin and a crew mate said, “given your answer, it sounds like that challenge wasn’t something you needed to overcome.” This lesson comes back to Deb often. “Sometimes you feel like you have to be #1 at everything. There’s a guilt that you have to be the best and you should never give up. But where do you want to go? What are the right goals for you to reach in order to get there? In that moment, I didn’t need anything more, I felt I had already accomplished something tremendous.”
Challenge and Self-Discovery
Four years after she completed her VOBS course, Deb graduated college. At her graduation, her brigade surprised her and flew into town to help her celebrate. They celebrated their 5-year reunion together too and many of them continue to keep in touch today. Deb still refers to herself as “a helper and a planner” but she’s clearly changed. As she describes it:
Once you know yourself better, you work from that center which allows you to help others better. When you’re strong, you can help others be strong.
Thank you Deb for taking the time to share your story (and amazing poetry!). You remind us that Outward Bound students are “crew, not passengers,” and that you never know where a new challenge or an act of kindness may take you.