When Teachers Give Troubled Kids A Snorkel, A Camera, and the St. Croix River, Two Extraordinary Things Happen

Young people create stunning underwater photos as the river washes away problems.




4 minute read

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Even people who love the St. Croix River and think they know it well are baffled by some of the photographs from “In A New Light Under the Surface.” One such image is of a freshwater sponge, green and soft and bulbous. Count this writer as one who had never seen such a creature before, despite being curious about all things related to the river.

The sponge is just one of many incredible images created by a band of teenagers who have found in nature photography respite from their troubles: mental health, drug abuse, and otherwise. From around the country, they arrive at a residential therapy program in northern Wisconsin. There, in 2010, “In A New Light” began on dry land, and quickly gained momentum.

The program taught the kids nature photography, under the guidance of program leader Ben Thwaits. By focusing their attention on the natural world through a viewfinder, they found respite from inner demons, the beauty of the St. Croix River, and the feeling of creating something.

“Photography is teaching me to see things I never saw before.
There is amazing life all around us, and all you have to do is look.”

– A 15-year-old participant

The group has quickly developed captivating pictures of everything from water rushing over rocks to eagles and dragonflies. And people have started paying attention. They published a book of photos, and opened up a gallery in Webster, Wisconsin. Last year, Wisconsin Public Television profiled the program. The photos have been displayed at the Wisconsin State Capitol and the visitors center of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.

This spring, the young men and Thwaits received a prestigious stewardship award from the Wisconsin Lakes Association, and the magazine of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources published an article about their latest journey: under the surface.

That award and the story focused on their latest endeavor, a journey “Under the Surface.” Last summer, Thwaits teamed up with Dr. Toben LaFrancois, an ecologist from Northland College, to take the kids and their cameras into the rivers. Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service Youth Partnership Program, they got waterproof cameras, wetsuits, fins, and other equipment.

 “It makes me feel like I am in a different world and that I am just untouchable for the time being. I feel relaxed and spiritually with the world and my surroundings. I also feel that there is another power stronger than me and that’s Mother Nature.”
– Anthony, underwater explorer

At last week’s Protecting the St. Croix Summit in Stillwater, Thwaits spoke about the program. What he said resonated with anyone who understands “Nature Deficit Disorder,” the mental health plague affecting kids who live too much of their lives in safe, structured, human environments. We need nature for the health of our very souls, and “In A New Light” gives heaping doses to kids who need it most.

But, Thwaits said, “Under the Surface” has taken that idea deeper.

It turns out that contact with water specifically is important to our health. He pointed to the concept of water as the “Master Switch of Life.” The relationship was recently explored in a BuzzFeed article that began, “The next time you’re at the beach your body will undergo the most profound transformation you can naturally experience.”

It turns out that even when we simply place our faces underwater, blood instinctively rushes to our brains, our heart rate drops, and we enter a “meditative, almost dreamlike-state.”

Although the BuzzFeed article was written by the author of a book about free-diving hundreds of feet down into the ocean, it applies exactly to what Thwaits observed in the shallow waters of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers.

“Troubled kids were totally calmed for hours by the river. They became different people in the water,” he said.

“Most of these young men and women have never been recognized for anything positive that they’ve ever done. The only recognition that they’ve ever gotten has been for things that they’ve done wrong.”
– Ben Thwaits

Thwaits and LaFrancois want to expand the program this year, to offer the opportunity to girls from Northwest Passage, to venture to Lake Superior and other lakes, and to publish a coffee-table book of the photographs. They don’t have the funds to do all that though, so they have launched a Kickstarter campaign that gives photographs and books and other awards to people who donate to the project. A contribution of five dollars earns a 4 x 6 photo, while giving $60 gets a copy of the “Under the Surface” book.

“Durable, quality equipment and high quality publishing are expensive,” the crowdfunding page says. “Your contributions will enable us to get great gear and publish a beautiful book of underwater images.”

It will also allow In A New Light to keep helping kids learn their own strengths, and for the world to see it through their lenses for a change.

“Hundreds of thousands have seen their photos and read their reflections in exhibitions all around the country,” Thwaits wrote in a blog post last July, shortly after the kids took their first trip underwater. “Yet, an enormous piece of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway’s story has remained untold. An essential dimension of its character has been hidden. Until now.”

Master diver LaFrancois sees to the science, sees that everyone stays safe, and sees other powerful results.

“Whatever brought the team members to us, is washed away by the river. They focus, work hard, work in teams, get results and come up with better questions than graduate students,” LaFrancois told the DNR magazine.

Twice as much trouble could be washed away this summer. Click here to check out the Kickstarter campaign.