Rachel Thomas – “Waneta” (2011)

As I said during Casey’s court of honor, this is both a moment of great joy for me and one of dread. As I’ve said many times, if you spend more than a few months in this crew, I eventually will adopt you as a surrogate daughter or son. I love each of these youth. And the longer they stay, the harder it is for me to say goodbye when they start the next chapter of their life in college.

There is much joy to be celebrated here, of course, in reviewing Rachel’s time with us. Hilarity, in fact. Whether it is her infamous lack of navigational skills or her various acts of daring and “exploring,” she has made me smile like no other.

Even when she and another Venturer snuck to my house one night and left eggs all over my car. Not broken eggs, mind you, just whole eggs. When I looked at the back windshield and saw a branch used to garnish the last egg, I knew exactly who had been responsible. She has a sense of style, even in practical jokes.

There was the time, which I still tease her about, when she asked me to pour hot water for cocoa in a plastic cup, despite my warning that it likely would melt. “It will be fine,” she responded. Seconds later I laughed as the cup curled up into a melted glob.

There is a host of emails and texts I keep for the smiles they bring me. Like the one earlier this year in which she announced in all caps she had caught her first ever fish from the ocean and was going to eat it for dinner or the time she contacted me after my alma mater defeated Clemson, her new home this fall, in basketball.

“YOUR TEAM SUCKS,” she wrote in all caps. Then continuing, “How was the hike?”

Rachel’s personality is sort of an all-or-nothing approach. There is no middle ground with her. If she goes after something she does so with full force, whether it’s caving – and I still remember her endless slides down a muddy slope she thought was the most fun in the world – leadership – I still remember her asking if she was prohibited from running for first vice president of the VOA while holding the same office in the crew. She ran and was elected. Whatever she pursues she does so fearlessly and head-on. There is no subtlety with Rachel.

As I’ve said, one of the biggest thrills for me in this job is watching youth mature and it has been sheer joy watching Rachel blossom. But it has not come without pain. Despite all the laughter and good times, she’s also had her share of bad. Some of her lessons have been hard ones, bringing her to tears.

But her experiences overall have been grand, as she told me recently when I asked all the seniors to give me a favorite Venturing memory:

“I’m sorry I’m not giving you a definite answer, there are so many. Not only the trips and experiences outdoors but the people and the friendships and relationships through Venturing. Even the ones that went up in flames left me with some good memories. Haha sorry, didn’t mean to get all nostalgic and sentimental on you but its more or less inevitable when one leaves a group that has helped her in so many ways. My favorite memories with crew don’t come down to how beautiful the scenery was or how much we had just accomplished, they come down to who they were shared with. :)”

You might have noticed that last line and how similar it is to Tyler’s reply from three years ago. It is not sheer coincidence that both this year received the national Venturing Leadership Award.

When it came time to name her, there were many possibilities. One that pops up first is the Indian name for talks a lot. Anyone who knows Rachel knows she tends to fire words out like a machine gun, especially when she gets excited. So much so that a former crew member nicknamed her NASCAR because she talked so fast she seemed to be racing to get the words to leave her mouth.

Then there is her favorite animal. We actually have the same one, the river otter, which she told me holds hands at night on its back to keep from drifting apart. A nice image but there is far more grit to this girl than a playful river otter.

There is the Indian name for independent. Her parents would probably vote for this one. She is a textbook example of the teenage girl phase of yearning to live on her own and to do everything by herself, and also to demonize authority figures in the process.

One of those who knows her well suggested warrior. There were female warriors. In fact, one reason Geronimo eluded the U.S. Army so long is a female warrior with him was so good.

And then I thought about one of the greatest plain warriors ever. His tribe was a branch of the Sioux, based in Minnesota. He was fearless and became famous for head-on attacks, even alone. He helped the British in the War of 1812 and in one famous battle, was wounded nine times, including multiple shots to the chest, while he killed seven soldiers. The British were so impressed with his leadership and bravery that they commissioned him a captain and took him to meet King George.

He later became a great warrior chief on the plains, leading 1,300 warriors, cooperating with Americans and signing numerous peace treaties. He was so respected among all warriors that many Sioux subsequently named their children after him, both male and female. His name is synonymous with leaders willing to accept risk and tackle any and all challenges head-on.

So it is my honor tonight, Rachel, to award you the Sioux name Waneta, which means, “the charger.”


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