By Lance Shearer | Naples Daily News
It would be the experience of a lifetime for just about anyone. For these girls, it’s a dream come true.
Eleven teenage Southwest Florida girls embarked on a five-month odyssey that will culminate with a trip to the Peruvian Andes and climbing on foot to Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan city high in the mountains. The fitness, wellness and empowerment program for at-risk teen girls, called the “Wellfit Girls Challenge,” is also the subject of a documentary film being shot as the experience unfolds.
On a recent Tuesday, the girls got together as they have every week since the beginning of the year, getting to know each other, and themselves, better. Wellfit Institute founder and CEO Jill Wheeler worked with the girls on a variety of exercises and workshops.
“There is nothing you can say that’s going to make me mad. There’s nothing you can way that’s going to make me not like you,” Wheeler told the students. Many of the girls come from difficult family situations, and straitened economic circumstances, so meeting with unquestioning acceptance and being told they can achieve whatever they set their minds to is new and liberating.
Throughout the five-month journey, the program is designed to teach the girls about health, wellness, fitness, nutrition, leadership and team building. The curriculum includes weekly workouts with personal trainer Andrew Miranti, helping to build the physical toughness they will need to climb with heavy packs in the thin mountain air. At the same time, they do exercises in pairs and small groups, learning to trust and depend on each other.
“Doing things together, we are a lot more effective than when we try to do things alone,” Kendall Klein, 13, a Pine Ridge Middle School student and the youngest of the group, said when asked what she had learned in the program so far. “This is an amazing opportunity and I’m going to take advantage of it to the best of my ability.”
Wheeler, who leads a variety of classes and trips with a focus on women, said the germ of the Wellfit Girls Challenge came from a vision she wrote up five years ago, and she is as excited as any of the teens to see the idea come to fruition.
“I love bringing people out on adventures. It’s really empowering to take kids out into the backwoods. I love being in remote places where there’s no people,” she said.
While the Peru expedition will see plenty of remote places, there will also be other people along. The Southwest Florida girls will meet up with a dozen Peruvian girls when they reach Cuzco, work with them and share the experiences, and gain the advantage of seeing the country through the eyes of local inhabitants, young girls their own ages.
The Southwest Florida girls, most of whom have never gone abroad, flown on an airplane, or in many cases, left the state of Florida, range in age from 13 to 18. Alexis Buhelos, 14, a freshman and a cheerleader at Lely High School, lives on Marco Island. Bullying issues have caused her emotional problems, but she looks forward to the chance to be of assistance to others.
She is most excited, she said, about the chance to work with the Peruvian kids.
“I think it will be so amazing to help them,” said Alexis. She wasn’t sure just how the course would help her, but is eager to see. “I think it’s going to be more of an adventure. There’s nothing scary about it.”
Some of the students are feeling some anxieties. Selana Tello, a senior at Estero High School, said she is “afraid of everything. I hope this opportunity will help me face all of those fears that I have.” She wants to use the program to open up and become a more social person.
Wheeler has her sights set on challenges beyond just this one expedition. By filming the group as they go through their odyssey, she hopes to lay the groundwork for a continuing program, reaching many more young women and helping them set their lives on a better course.
“We want to set up a foundation, establish scholarships and really reach out to these girls, especially when so many come from really impoverished backgrounds,” she said. “This isn’t just a trip, it’s a movement.”
While they have money in hand to get the girls to Peru and back, fundraising continues to create the film documentary, meet future expenses and make the program self-sustaining. Both Wheeler and Miranti, in addition to mental health therapist Debra Frankel, are donating their services. Wellfit Institute is working with the Peaks Foundation, a nonprofit organization, to make this dream into reality.
For now, the girls continue to prepare. On May 28, they fly to Peru, and new heights.