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Alternatives to Incarceration: 12 Young Men Go Into The Woods with Wild Earth

Published May 23rd, 2017


This May, a group of 12 young men living in an alternative to incarceration group home outside of NYC, spent a day in the woods with Wild Earth. Below is a reflection from, Michael Ridolfo, Wild Earth’s program coordinator for the day.

Where to begin?

Well… Jonathan Gonzales and I were the ones tasked, more like blessed, with the opportunity to work with a group of young men who have evidently made some bad choices in their lives but have been given the chance to turn things around by living in a group home as an alternative to incarceration. If they choose not to, or are incapable of abiding by the rules and regulations of their living situation they will be escorted back to jail. Thud.

Disclaimer: There will be run on sentences and jargon and misspells but I wanted to get something out quickly before the window of opportunity closes. It’s a very busy time of year for me and this year even more so. I suspect everyone reading this can relate.

16-21 Year Olds & I’m Pushing 60 Winters

The fact that these boys are even in this program says something about the hope these 16-21 year olds have for redeeming themselves. This is a big step.

What a gift for us to work with them, right at this critical time. If I drop my emotional guard for even a moment it can bring tears to my eyes cuz they’re just an inspiration to be around. The system that got them there however…

Now – I like to think I can track people pretty well, and these young men just seemed to me like normal, high energy, wrapped in the maelstrom of hormones and society and just the plain ol’ challenges of growing up kind of young men in an urban jungle.

From here on out I’ll simply call them kids cuz it’s easier and I’m pushing 60 winters and I even call 30 year olds kids. Jonathan and I spent a good bit of time scouting and prepping the physical site but more importantly prepping our internal landscape.

Neither of us had to say out loud how much this meant to us, how easily it could have been either one of us, and how right it felt for he and I to be there for these kids. By the way, kids whom we hadn’t even met yet. But we already KNEW. We were already connected.

To preserve their privacy, we won’t discuss the specifics of their life/journey/challenges or to reveal what jonathan and I shared with them (all that we shared was shared in confidence [in their counselors’ presence, of course]) so here I’ll simply chronicle what our devious strategy was for the day and how we went about gaining their trust and respect.

Looking Us In The Eyes

I’ve worked in the past with this demographic and am very much at home with them. Typically when the so-called-troubled-kids arrive they are nervous and awkward but these dudes came right up and introduced themselves and shook our hands and looked us in the eyes.

What’s the next thing I did after this introduction? I looked around for the counselors, Winston and Patria, who are the caretakers for these kids. Without ever having met them before I knew they were incredibly generous human beings and effective role models.

By the end of the day, after hearing their stories, learning of their dedication, their frustration with the system, their commitment to giving a piece of themselves for these kids, my admiration for the whole clan of them grew and grew.

Survival, Awareness, Integrity & Hazards

They carried in a yyuuuge cooler which was a hoot to observe.

We could have easily spent half the program right there on the access road -nibbling plants, tracking animals and jumping right into a conversation about fears, both rational and irrational. Neither the kids nor the counselors had any idea of what was to come. But we did.


We drew them into a place of reflection and analysis of what true survival means.

We talked of hazards, real and imagined. Of how important it is to remain aware, and to stand in integrity. Lessons that can be and are learned on the street.

Here we needed to tie them to pure need and the deep connection with our ancestry and our evolution. Now, understand that much of this subtlety is sleight of hand and is conveyed and understood deeper than the logic. And when it sticks, it’s obvious.

We broke the non-existent ice with a spirited game of stump. Ah…and so many metaphors with that one.

Fire With Friction

When jonathan framed the firemaking piece, he wove a great need into the equation, one that they could all relate to. Like magic, all of the boisterous (or boy-sterous) behavior came to a grinding halt. I affirmed with Patria how quiet it got all of a sudden.

And their attention was not wasted cuz their percentage of success with their bow-drills was higher than ANY group I’ve worked with in 25 years. Nice work gentlemen. Huh…I wonder where their limit is?

Tracking Freedom

We did a tracking exercise where the boys were split into two teams and when we set them loose they galloped into woods following a trail. The counselors gasped as they saw their charges vaporize into the forest with fragile hope that would all return.

But they were out of their element, while we were deep in the heart of ours. Their return was assured.

Expectations and Adoption

At some point I felt it was important to talk to them about the archetype of adoption. That we as humans are less likely to let someone perish than to try to help them in some way.

I told them that I see this circle right here as an adoption – that now I’m their uncle and they are now my nephews and jonathan is now their cousin – and that from now on, if they need us, and we can be of help, then, dammit, while it may be inconvenient, we’ve gotta drop what we’re doing and be there for them.

But that means we would also hold them to a higher standard to and expect them to step up if there was a genuine need.

From that point they started calling me uncle mike. Checkmate.

I could write seemingly forever.

Gratitude, Blessing

The work we do is complex and vast and even beyond what we realize, yet profoundly simple.

Sometimes we just have to ride the wave and teach from our hearts and our experience…and love…. and let the laws of nature, the temples of creation be the guide. For kids like these in this life stage and with the challenges they face? Well I think these are among the greatest gifts we can give them.

And thank you mother earth. For the classroom, the unassailable truths that you inflict upon us and your deep compassion for your children. Blessings one and all,


Huge shout out to The Youth Shelter Program of Westchester. Your staff’s commitment to the young men that you serve is incredibly clear. The world is a better place because of your work.

And big thanks to Robin Hood for connecting Wild Earth and The Youth Shelter Program of Westchester through their Grant-Ready Insights and Training (GRIT) program in 2016.


Wild EarthWild EarthWild Earth, Staff & Board of Directors

Wild Earth joins inspired leaders in offering multi-generational programs and events that strengthen connections with ourselves, others, and the Earth while building ecological, social and cultural resilience. Located along the Shawangunk Ridge in New York’s Hudson Valley, Wild Earth is a not-for-profit that runs nature-based programs for children, teens, families and adults. More about Wild's work.

14 thoughts on “Alternatives to Incarceration: 12 Young Men Go Into The Woods with Wild Earth”

  1. So so happy to read this. Your work is profound and the ripple affect will be huge. This is where this work needs to go. To heal. To inspire. To shift perspectives.
    Yay for you both; Michael and Jonathan. My heart bows to your hearts.
    Keep it going.

  2. Compassion, trust and understanding are great teachers. A wonderful opportunity for everyone. A touching project in so many ways.

    Wild Earth and everyone involved in this project will grow like seedlings. Thank you for reaching out to our youth.

  3. Dona Ho says:

    YUUUUUUGE BRAVO applause to the 12 young men and their willingness to jump out of the box and YUUUUGE bow to Michael and the Wild Earth heart Team for creating a new foundation for these willing Souls~ Inspiring!!! Thank you !

  4. Louisa Finn says:

    Thank you for your work and your writing, beautiful and profound all of it!

  5. Lily Claire Bergstein says:

    I am so inspired by this piece of writing. I hope and want to create more programs like this through wild earth. Thank you so much for sharing. Major gratitude and honor to be apart of the W.E. community.

  6. Clara Kramer-Wheeler says:

    thank you for sharing! So exciting.

  7. Matt says:

    So, touching. I watched former classroom students of mine drift into the space those boys now occupy. This program was a brilliant idea.

  8. Jason Lord says:

    This, is yuuuge! Blessings to all those responsible for this. Changing young minds changes our world.

  9. Micheal and Jonathon and Wild Earth… I am so grateful to all of you for this creation. Looking at the photos and reading your words it was so clear these young men were invited to stand in their integrity and presence in ways that our social systems negate and undermine. Your work brings true power to the fore. Thank you….

  10. Michelle Tommasi says:

    So wonderful to be able to share the experience through your writing Michael….Yuuuge hugs to you and Jonathon….proud to know yaz! Important work :)

  11. Thank you, Micheal, for sharing this beautiful and inspirational experience. Giving those boys a chance to understand the interconnectedness of the universe beginning with themselves, each other and Mother Nature is where we begin to make the world a better place and all too often it is not recognized or simply overlooked. I also am incredibly hopeful when I hear about alternatives to incarceration and programs like Wild Earth that assist in helping to pass these profound lessons on to young men(and woman) that are so receptive and brimming with potential if only they are given a chance. Keep up the phenomenal work!!

  12. Hope Mauran says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad that Wild Earth is branching out in so many powerful and important ways. Thanks for this, it brings hope to this world. We live in an area of many prisons, if there are ways to keep your people out in nature instead of behind bars, it is really worth whatever effort and time and money it takes. It makes me think of that story of the person throwing sea urchins back into the ocean, that had been stranded upon the beach, and the companion said something like,” how can that possible make a difference?”, and the person throwing them back said “well to that one it did!” Each of these lives is precious. Thank You.

  13. Sheena says:

    Beautiful work and life pathway. Glad to read that story of the day and share in the experience of people coming together to change the system, or the larger web one small community at a time. I hope more of this happens.
    Many blessings

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