Wild Swans from Essex take flight to Africa

Women’s leadership gaps in business have been in the press over the past few years. The question is what stops more women moving into leadership positions and is needed to address the gap? Working with this in mind, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, Jo Roberts, developed a programme called Wild Swans*  to grow the strength of young and older women to learn about the world around them, to make a difference to others is a social context and to a sustainable planet in an environmental context. ‘Building knowledge and understanding through experience and training is a key to creating change and making a difference in a range of fields’.
Several Essex young women have taken part in a range of expeditions to South Africa and Scotland since 2010 where they have taken part in wilderness trail programmes and leadership training. In May this year a new programme was established with the added bonus of one of our young graduates from our youth at risk programme, TurnAround, being a key member of the facilitation team. Shianne Witt joined five other adult women in a programme that worked on personal growth and resilience building with a group of young women drawn from a rural, coastal town called Sedgefield on the South African Garden Route.  The participants came from backgrounds of extreme hardship and poverty and were selected for the potential they show but the lack of resources to move themselves forwards.
Over four days they walked through a range of wild places from remote beaches to forests, learning about themselves, how to motivate themselves to carry through personal change, how to support each other and invest in their communities. It was heart breaking to hear their stories and yet equally uplifting to see theircourage and determination to take opportunities and not give up.
It was hard to say goodbye at the end after really touching relationships were built over the days – but the Wild Swans invested in an outcome whereby the Sedgefield Wild Swans could support each other and continue to build their own futures together, independent of outside help.
From Sedgefield, the programme moved from people to nature and the group spent three days on a rhino programme – learning about what is required to prevent the horrendous tidal wave of poaching of these iconic species. First days were spent tracking rhinos in the wild, and observing their behaviour and learning about the environment they live in. The next days, took them into the emotional terrain of taking part in ceremonies put on by the anti-poaching teams and scientists working with the animals, which included a rhino blessing on the site of where two cows, with calves, were recently discovered dead and de-horned.
The numbers of rhino poached now matches those born…so the tipping point of moving towards extinction is now breached.
Wild Swans were involved in the darting and scientific monitoring of a young female calf, darted so her ears could be notched for future identification. The opportunity to run ones’ fingers over a wild rhino’s skin and horn, feeling the softness of their noses and folds of skin whilst they are sedated,  was a life changing experience for everyone involved.
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The programme has a focused on women helping women to grow and achieve. This thread runs through the work into the future. We are now seeking other women to grow the project – women who are willing to explore new areas outside of their comfort zones, learning new about new aspects of their potential that they were not aware of and also to share their skills and knowledge and passions with others.
Shianne wrote a poem about her experience in Africa:

Wild Swans

Everybody has a right to believe
They can do anything they set to achieve
We had an opportunity to help change lives
We knew our hearts would grow as soon as the plane arrives
Overwhelming feelings begin to take place
Many dreams have wondered what I now face

South Africa is a tourist destination
But what lies beneath needs explanation.

The girls we met are so strong inside
They’ve had an uphill battle roller coaster ride
We took them out and showed them hope
We showed them faith as they learn the ropes
They have so much respect you wouldn’t get here
They took risks and showed no fear

Their dreams are what kept them alive before
Waiting to step through the unknown door.
They live under the line of poverty
Every day is a struggle in the 3rd world we don’t see
They don’t have no schools to build futures
No direction like us 1st world polluters

A community of hope in the worst of wear
We’re too ignorant to see, why doesn’t this world care?
There’s so many lives that are filled with potential
But the society in their town are so influential.

But for all this bad comes a shining light
A group of givers that can help them fight.
We show them ways of making things right
And give them hope to keep holding on tight.
Taking them places they’ve never seen
Giving them a chance for them to redeem.
Being taken into nature to seek their answers
To block out society and everyday glancers.
A time to be at one with themselves and mind
To seek support of a different kind .

There’s a world out there we’ve never seen
There’s places out there that we’ve never been
There’s a past before us that we can wipe clean
There’s direction that shows us what way to lean.

Shianne Witt – June 2015
To contact the Wild Swans programme please contact jo@wildernessfoundation.org.uk.
*The project name came from the notion that often women do a million tasks and try to remain a sense of calm around them whilst paddling madly under the surface.