By Laura Tichy-Smith | News Press

In mid-June, a group of 11 Southwest Florida teenage girls went on a journey of a lifetime intended to prepare them to be successful while journeying through their own lives.

Now in its second year, the Wellfit Girls program provides empowerment for young women through five months of fitness and leadership training in preparation for a cultural exchange service project in a Peruvian village as well as a transformative adventure trek to Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel in the Andes Mountains.

The program uses the challenge of hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain as a metaphor to symbolize that, through the leadership training, girls can aim for high goals and overcome obstacles in life. The journey of the first group of young women was made into the documentary “Warrior One” (named for a yoga pose) that was shown at the 2014 Naples Film Festival.

“We are teaching these girls they can do anything they put their minds to,” said Colby Robertson, program director for Wellfit Girls. “By putting them on the mountain, they learn they can climb high. Anything in life, they can push past. These girls come home with confidence, self-esteem and a passion. They’re no longer stuck in classrooms and then nine-to-five jobs — they look beyond the norm. A lot of times the girls sign up for the trip to Peru and Machu Picchu and don’t realize what they will get from the training until they get home.”

This year’s group of Wellfit Girls and the program staff traveled to Peru from June 8 to June 19, completing a three-day service project to refurbish the exterior of a school in the village of Ticapata and other service in the village prior to climbing Machu Picchu Mountain. Eighteen-year-old Cassandria Emmerich, a student at Palm Acres Charter High School in Lehigh Acres, said that doing the service work was the most important part of the Peruvian trip to her.

“We went to a lady’s house to give her groceries because she didn’t have a lot of money,” Emmerich said. “Seeing her kitchen made me feel grateful for what I have. I knew there were people who have less, but this had more impact than seeing it in pictures. I wanted to cry.”

Emmerich said the group of young Floridians adjusted to the altitude change during the service project and a hike up another mountain prior to ascending to their goal.

“Machu Picchu was amazing,” she said. “Out of all the climbing we did, I pushed myself more there than when we climbed the other mountain. Before Machu Picchu, I took it slow because of the breathing. When we got to Machu Picchu, the breathing was not so intense so there was no reason to go slow. I was one of the first girls at the top.”

The Wellfit Girls program was designed by Jill Wheeler, a licensed therapist who owns the Wellfit Institute in Naples, a business that offers yoga, wellness coaching and adventure travel for adults. Wellfit Girls is a nonprofit spinoff from Wheeler’s for-profit business. The program curriculum includes yoga, fitness, wellness, leadership training and social entrepreneurship.

“What I liked about throughout the five-month program was I learned about pushing myself in the workout program where I thought I couldn’t,” Emmerich said. “During the program we had a day where we did goal setting. I have a learning disability, so I never thought about setting goals for myself because I felt people doubted me because I’m slow. This helped me realize I can reach goals.”

Originally aimed toward at-risk young women, Robertson said that the formation of the spinoff nonprofit allows the program to serve all girls. It will also allow for the possibility of expanding the program beyond Southwest Florida in the future.

“Becoming a 501(c)(3) obviously is huge for us because now we can serve any girl in this community,” she said. “We dropped the words ‘at risk’ because, in reality, all teen girls are at risk. Whether they go to the Community School or Immokalee, they are all susceptible to things like eating disorders.”

Although fewer than a dozen young women are admitted to the program each year, Robertson said the positive impact extends further.

“Yes, we serve about 10 girls, but they come back to the community to be leaders,” she said. “It’s one-to-one mentoring instead of a basic generic program for hundreds of girls. It’s a leadership and fitness program, not therapy. We’re training these girls to be leaders. It’s experiential leadership training.”

Robertson said applications for the following spring and summer’s program are accepted in the fall. Applicants must be between the ages of 13 and 18. The cost of $5,000 per participant is funded through private donations, sponsorships and fundraising events.

Training begins in the spring with two meetings a week — one for fitness training and one for leadership training — followed by the 12-day trip to Peru in June. Leadership meetings take place at the nonprofit House of Gaia, and the fitness sessions take place at Total Athletic Performance. Robertson said a new component to the program this year is that the weekly fitness sessions will continue as a fundraiser in which the public may make a donation to work out along with the Wellfit Girls, allowing people to learn about the fitness component of the program.

“I think the experience is going to help me never give up,” Emmerich said. “Part of the reason I joined the program is I never thought I would travel to another country, but the most valuable thing was pushing myself. That’s how it was for me.”