“In the woods, all alone, it was stormy, and I would get wet and crazy,” Don’Zeal recalled.
And yet, when asked to compare his time in the desert with life in his hometown, there was no argument.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” he said, “except to say Wyoming is a lot less stressful.”
Much of this is due to what Don’Zeal didn’t hear in the woods. There were no gunshots, no shouting, no sirens. None of the agonizing, unnerving bloodshed that happens daily in parts of DC and urban America.
“I try not to think about it,” Don’Zeal said of the increase in shootings and assaults in the city. “Except when I walk alone.”
Two teenagers shot and killed during violent weekend in DC
The annual outing is a collaboration between two DC-based nonprofits: Horton’s Kids, which helps children in underserved neighborhoods graduate from high school and succeed in college, and the City Kids Wilderness Project, which hosts the Broken Arrow Ranch camp in Jackson Hole. Both help children develop life skills to broaden their career prospects.
There is also a focus on healing trauma, which is more prevalent than you might think.
A report released in June by the DC Policy Center noted that simply being in close proximity to repeated criminal acts can have a deleterious effect on mental and physical health. The study found that 80% of residents in the district lived within half a mile of a homicide in 2021. However, in affluent and predominantly white Ward 3, there were only two homicides, and no one lived within half a mile of either murder.
In the predominantly black Ward 8, which includes the Don’Zeal neighborhood, every resident lived within half a mile of at least six and as many as 30 homicides. There were 226 murders last year.
Citywide, 89% of black children lived within a mile of a homicide, compared to 57% of white children. It’s thousands of children arriving on blood-stained sidewalks, bullet casings, yellow police tape, chalk marks describing bodies and survivors walking around like the walking dead.
“I don’t like my kids going out,” said Donithia Davis, Don’Zeal’s mother.
She had become particularly concerned in 2015, when a woman and a boy were shot and injured outside the building where they live. Then, in 2016, a 6-year-old boy was shot in his lower leg while in a playground next to their house. Don’Zeal was 9 at the time and also played there.
In 2017, a toddler who lived in their compound was shot dead when a gun other children were playing with went off. In April this year, a woman was shot and injured in the same block. And so on.
At Horton’s Kids, which operates in the apartment building where the Davis family lives, Don’Zeal has a tutor and mentor. He learns social and emotional skills – how to identify his feelings, like anger, through physical manifestations such as a fist or a clenched jaw – and how to calm down before doing something he may regret later.
Camping in Wyoming gave him a new perspective on life, he says.
“At night someone would pull out a telescope and we would stargaze,” he said. “And I came up with the idea of going to college to study business so I could open a family retreat in DC called the Midnight Palace.”
He spoke with awe and wonder about getting to know the world the way some boys talk about sports. He could do it too. At camp, he had won a prize for his climbing prowess and his persistence in learning to handle a kayak. A second award recognized his pleasant personality and sense of humor which lifted the spirits of the group on a 15 mile trek.
After returning to DC a week ago, he began preparing for school. He is in grade 11 at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights.
“I’m actually a little nervous,” he said of starting school. “I have to continue my game. I can’t mess with the same people.
His mother said she hoped Don’Zeal, who is the eldest of five children, would finish high school, go to college and be successful in life. “I don’t want him to end up with the wrong crowd and lose focus,” she said.
In the past, Don’Zeal sometimes cut classes to be with his friends. They even came to his class and encouraged him to go out.
“If I was bored, I would go,” he says. “But I have to find a way to do what I need to do in school.”
In Wyoming, he had learned to kayak through rough rapids. During the climbs, he seemed to know intuitively where to step, which crevices to slide his fingers into, and how to climb to the top.
Now he just has to learn to do the same with his friendships – when to reach for the next rock and let go of the next.