Can do attitude for youth

Summer Programs Instill A Can-Do Attitude
In Disadvantaged Youth

By Linda Mornell
Founder of Summer Search

How do we create grit in our kids? I read recently that character development is now considered as important if not more so than learning the hard skills like reading and math. But how can we as parents teach character development… especially grit?

Years ago, long before someone invented the term helicopter parenting, my husband and I sent our children to summer programs away from home. These were traditional camps where they lived with a group of new kids and learned to deal with problems on their own. Then after their freshman year of high school, each one participated in a three-week mountaineering and white-water rafting trip in Oregon with Outward Bound.

Our middle daughter was sensitive, with an artistic side. Sandwiched between two athletic and competitive siblings, she had learned early on to say, “I can’t,” and to give in to her many fears: heights, the dark and extending herself athletically. The idea of doing any kind of wilderness program was anathema to her. We told her she had a choice: she could go voluntarily or involuntarily.

 She chose to go involuntarily. I still remember that angry silent drive to the airport.

When she returned home she had a new name, “Sara Can!”

Those rigorous adventures had the intended effect, which in those days I called, “going for hard.” Today the word is grit. By making hard choices in places where no one knew them, my children had the chance to stretch themselves and experiment with different identities, and build self-efficacy — the belief in their ability to succeed in challenging situations. Children with self-efficacy move toward challenges rather than away from them. They lean in.

Because these programs were so instrumental in helping my children find their voices and embark on successful paths, I started Summer Search, a non-profit that provides similar opportunities to low-income high school students. We give ongoing mentoring and two full scholarships for our kids to participate in summer programs. The first, some kind of wilderness expedition after their sophomore year and the second, a family home stay abroad, community service, or academic experience on a college campus after their junior year.

Twenty-five years later, thousands of adolescents have been willing to take the risk of leaving home, and like Sara Can, expose themselves to the unknown and to be miserable. To be wet and cold all night, struggle with bruises, strange bug bites and to never quit. And they participate with kids from affluent families who, to their surprise, are not that much different. Everyone smells the same after the first week.

They return home more resilient and more self-assured as they too have learned that they can – that they are, indeed, strong enough to do anything.

About Linda Mornell

Linda Mornell is the founder of Summer Search (, a nonprofit organization that provides disadvantaged young people with life-changing and challenging summer opportunities. She is also the author of the book “Forever Changed: How Summer Programs and Insight Mentoring Challenge Adolescents and Transform Lives.” Mornell was born on a farm in Muncie, Ind. After getting her RN and bachelor’s degrees from Methodist Hospital and DePauw University, she headed west on a Greyhound bus. She received psychiatric training from Langley Porter at the University of California in San Francisco and married a psychiatric resident, Pierre Mornell. She has three adult children and seven grandchildren. Mornell divides her time among family, writing and consulting. In 2014, she was blessed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama for her efforts to empower disadvantaged youth.