Student Says Honda’s Eagle Rock School Saved Her Life
Courtney Osterfelt describes her teen years as the most traumatic of her life. She was bullied, assaulted and suicidal. She thought her life didn’t matter. Then, at age 17, she enrolled at Eagle Rock School in Colorado and the experience changed her life. Osterfelt credits this brief sojourn in an otherwise tumultuous period of her life as the anchor she needed right at that critical moment. She now serves teens as executive director of her own non-profit dedicated to boosting teen confidence and empowerment and shares her story with HondaWeb.
Editor’s Note: Portions of Courtney’s story includes information of a sensitive nature.
How did you come to enroll at Eagle Rock?
I tried to overdose when I was 17 years old and was hospitalized and put in treatment. I was there for three weeks and was not allowed to return to school. I got to a place in treatment where I decided I wanted to go back to school, but my family could not afford an expensive boarding school; I wasn’t welcome in my public school, and I did not want to just get my GED. One of the counselors at the treatment center told me that if I got my act together, I could possibly attend Eagle Rock School.
Explain a bit more about what was going on in your life at the time?
I grew up in a middle class, predominantly white town. I had a wonderful set of four parents, who although divorced and remarried, were all friends. I matured very early and started getting unwanted attention from a group of privileged and entitled boys and a few of my male teachers in school.
I never felt intelligent in school, but being reduced to the sum of my parts by male teachers and my peers, certainly did not help me feel like much more than an object to be desired. I was raped by two boys at a high school party and everything went further south from there.
I had experimented with drugs and alcohol before that, but it merely escalated after that. One of the boys who assaulted me said he would kill me if I ever told anyone, so I kept it a secret. The secrecy was literally killing me, I did not want to exist, and I tried to kill myself. The police found me one night and turned me into my parents and I was put in a mental hospital the next day.
During treatment, they placed me with the adults for group circles, even though I wasn’t technically an adult yet. I think this was incredibly strategic and smart because listening to grown men and women talk about all their failures and struggles woke me up, I did not want to be like them. It was the first time in a long time that I felt a fire inside me. I decided that I wanted to return to school in some way.
How long were you at ERS?
I was at Eagle Rock for a little over a year.
What were your initial impressions of the school?
I fell in love with the campus from the moment I set foot on it.
I remember that they had a student give me the tour of campus, her name was Melanie. She was incredibly nice, intelligent, and confident. I wanted nothing more than to be like that. She talked about how students worked in all the departments of the school, helped run community meetings, helped hire new staff, and helped orient new students. In contrast to the teachers I had in my previous school, the boys that made me feel powerless, and the silence that was crushing me, I wanted nothing more than to find my own voice and my own power. What she was describing seemed like a way to do that, and to simultaneously find a loving and healing community.
Founded and fully funded by Honda, Eagle Rock School will celebrate its 25th anniversary in June 2018.
Can you explain the impact the school had on you?
It is hard to find words to describe the impact the school had on me. In short, Eagle Rock saved my life.
Before Eagle Rock I thought I was stupid. Sometimes I literally thought that I had some major disability and my parents had just chosen not to tell me, because they didn’t want me to be held back by a label. Sometimes I thought that I had not been diagnosed with a learning disorder yet, and that was why I was so inexplicably unintelligent. It hurts me to even write these words right now, because I run a teen center and an amazing program for teenage girls, where we encourage them to lean into their strengths and their intelligence. However, when I was a teen I did not have any concept of what I would be leaning into when I first went to Eagle Rock, because I thought I was inherently a failure. With the loving guidance of Philbert Smith, LaTanya Perkins, Robert Burkhardt, and all the staff at ERS, I figured out for the first time in my life that I was smart, that I had something to offer, and that my life was one worth living. It was through ERS that I finally told my family I had been assaulted. After that I filed a police report, took both of the boys to court and won my case. This opened the door to so much healing and removed a huge obstacle to my own ability to learn and grow. I was no longer as afraid as I was before.
I remember the moment I realized I was smart. I gave my first Presentation of Learning at Eagle Rock and I talked about my trauma and its relationship to all I had learned at ERS in only one trimester.
I got a standing ovation after my presentation and for the first time in my life that I could recall, I felt intelligent. That moment is so clear, I can even recall what I was wearing and what room I was presenting in. Transformational moments like that have the power to stay frozen in your mind like a special artifacts preserved in time.
Is there another memory of Eagle Rock that stands out in your mind today?
Another memory was during our first meeting as new students with Philbert. We were in the conference room at the Professional Development Center and we were talking about the community at ERS. Philbert singled me out and started giving me a hard time. After a minute or so, he turned to the rest of the students and said, “Were you just going to let me pick on her like that?” Everyone in the room stayed silent. He said, “Was no one going to stand up for her?” Still there was silence. Then he said, “In this community we hold each other accountable, we watch out for each other, and we love each other.” That memory is at the root of all the programming and curriculum I build in my youth empowerment programs today.
What need do you see a school like Eagle Rock fulfilling in society?
Eagle Rock instills in every teen that they are capable of success and greatness no matter what. They instill this with such conviction that you cannot believe the opposite. In the short amount of time I was at ERS, the very foundation of who I believed myself to be, changed dramatically.
The Launch Pad Teen Center, Women’s Empowerment Breakthrough Conference for Teenage girls, my graduate work in Critical Pedagogy … every achievement of mine in my adult life, can be traced back to my experience at ERS.
Not a single day goes by where that school and their philosophy doesn’t appear in my mind, set foot in my organization, and bleed from my heart. We are tethered; those of us who went to ERS; in the best way possible. We are reminded everyday through that tether, to love and to pay it forward. The majority of teens who pass through Eagle Rock are fundamentally changed beings, who have no choice but to positively impact their communities either passively, through the way they live their lives, or actively through their work and their careers.
The ripple effect of Eagle Rock and the support Honda has given it, is very likely, changing communities for the better, all over the world.