“I Used to Worry All the Time”

by Amy Carpenter Leugs

Recently, as I was working on my computer on the couch in the Gathering Room at Open Doors, one of our members came in and sat with me as she ate her lunch.  Cecilia had just come back from studying with a naturopath, Angie, with Continuum Healing in our building.   As we sat and chatted, she shared with me what she’s been doing since she left high school a few months ago.  Here are some snippets from our conversation.

Amy:  Last time we talked, you were looking for a long-term research project.  How is that going?

Cecilia:  I found one!  Fifteen years ago, my Grandma had a rare type of cancer in her throat, and due to the surgery to remove it, half of her tongue is paralyzed now.  We’ve contacted her surgeon and we’ll have a chance to refer to her records and see exactly what has been damaged and what the treatment was.  With so many medical advances over the last 15 years, plus the knowledge available from a naturopath like Angie, I want to see if anything can be done to help her.  There are other projects I want to do,  too, but this one is a good place to start.  Maybe there’s nothing we can do, but on the other hand, I might actually help someone.

Cecilia with heart diagram

Amy:  That’s great.  And you’ve found some other interesting projects, haven’t you?

Cecilia:  Yep.  This summer I’m going to do a six-week surgical internship with the horse veterinarian that I shadow, so I’ll learn a lot there.  I’ll also be going to the Grand Tetons with David Buth from Summer Journeys — it’s called a leadership adventure and we’ll be horsepacking in.

Amy:  What have you learned about your own learning style since you’ve been here at Open Doors?  I remember when you first started, you thought you wanted to do a dissection every week.  But then you realized you needed some time to diagram and write things out, to process it, right?  What else?

Cecilia:  I also need to keep searching out mentors in the fields I’m interested in — I really like to learn with people, and especially with people doing their jobs.  I want to do more internships.  So that will be a challenge for next year, to find people in the fields I’m interested in.  Over the last few months I’ve learned what works for me, and I can use that next year.

Amy:  Now that you’ve been out of high school for a few months, are you glad that you left?

Cecilia:  I am pretty glad.  The only thing I miss — I loved being with a large group of kids my age.  So next year I’m going to take yoga and choir at my high school, and have lunch period there as well.

Amy:  That’s true.  We do have more teens here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you have different interests and so you’ve been here on Monday and Fridays, when we just have a couple members here at a time.

Cecilia:  And even now I still get to see my friends after school and on weekends.  In fact, I get to enjoy my time with them even more, because I’m not stressed out about my own homework.

That’s the weird thing — sometimes I help my friends with their homework, and I realize that it’s mostly just busy work.  I can figure it out without having been in the class. But my friends are so worried about grades and GPA and getting into college.

I used to worry all the time, too.  Even though I didn’t believe in the system — I didn’t believe that good grades meant you were really learning — I still wanted to get good grades and go to college.  And now I’m just out here, learning things and doing things.  I’m doing dissections, I’m seeing how a naturopath works, I’m helping a vet.  The other day a group of teens and I did biology in the Grand River with David Buth — we identified specimens we found in the water, and checked for mutations due to pollution.

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Amy:  That sounds fun.  And I agree — grades don’t reflect much about learning, though they might show how good a student is at memorizing.

Cecilia:  Yes!  I used to just cram everything in my head for a test, and then forget it all afterward, so I could cram the new stuff in.  Now I don’t forget as much — I keep building one thing on another.

Amy:  Right — I notice that you keep asking questions, and those questions keep leading you to new places.


Soon our conversation drifted onto other things.  Our talk about college placement tests led Cecilia to ask questions about my own college experience.  I explained that though I loved college and learning, I also found it quite intellectual, when I often wanted to seek out the more emotional and relational side of life.  When Cecilia asked if I ever considered going back for a higher degree than my Bachelor’s, I reflected that I had always found ways to meet those learning needs outside of college — whether through unschooling my own three boys, writing children’s books or other pieces, or working with a Jungian community in Three Rivers.  Life has always presented me with an integrated way to “live the questions,” to use Wendell Berry’s phrase.

It is always such a pleasure to converse and reflect with our teens — they are each so different and each finding their way, and I know I speak for all our staff and volunteers when I say that witnessing it all is a huge honor.

Amy Carpenter Leugs is the Outreach Director at Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens.  A former teacher, Amy unschools her three boys, reads and writes widely, plays with people of all ages, and speaks about life learning every chance she gets.

As in Princeton, So in Eastown

The Princeton Learning Cooperative is based on the same learning model as our center at Open Doors here in Eastown, Grand Rapids.  Sit back with a cuppa and watch all the happy learning going on!

To see how it works in person, come to an event, or give us a call.  If you love what you see and want to help, you can donate here.

New Outreach Director

Open Doors recently brought in a new Outreach Director, Amy Carpenter Leugs, to help us get the word out about the great things going on at the center.  Amy is a longtime unschooling mom with three boys of her own, ages 19, 16, and 10.  Below are Amy’s first impressions of the center.

Walking into Open Doors, I see first a couch, a coffee table, chairs, and a computer.  Yes.  In my experience, this is a great environment for real life learning — lounging, thinking, conversing, joking, a quick hit of Google, and thinking some more.  I’m glad to see space for it right away.



I meet Rebecca, and she shows me an informal classroom with a big round table and an interesting timeline for the civil rights movement taped to the wall — a study initiated by Open Doors teens.  We see a couple of art rooms, a library corner, a movement and music room, and a small kitchen.



Strewn about are bits of love:  little wire doodles, a wide selection of teas, cheery handmade signs, art, supplies, quotes and words of wisdom.





Located in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the space is soft, fun, and nurturing.


Rebecca and I sit on the couch with our tea and talk, like humans do.  She tells me about some of the students at the center and about her internship at North Star in Massachusetts, the model for Open Doors. (Follow the link for her story about happy teens.)

Rebecca is in her late fifties, petite with shoulder-length neat gray hair and a kind face. Her quiet warmth slowly fills the room and the conversation — she really listens when I speak.  A former teacher, she is clearly and solidly passionate about empowering young people with life learning.  But, she says, marketing is not her strong suit, and word of Open Doors is not yet reaching many of the teens who need it.  We talk about the teens we know are suffering — those with different learning styles; those at high-pressure schools; those are losing their sense of themselves in a sea of peer pressure and expectations.


The Open Doors staff works with each teen to develop their own flexible learning plan — a plan that can often calm the parent who is new to life learning.  Here are two of the staff, Rebecca and Adena, getting excited about the possibilities.


The center then gives the teen a place to take classes of their own design and choosing, explore interests, do projects, and meet with other teens.

The family pays the center according to the number of days the teen hangs out there instead of at home.  As I look up later, Instead of $8000-$12,000 for a private school that may still be too structured for the miserable teen, the family pays only $1000 – $4000 for a safe and fun place for the teen to hang out, take some classes of interest, and connect with an confident staff who can support their shine. All interested families are welcome; families who cannot pay the full fee are invited to make proposals for alternative contributions

After hearing about Open Doors, I tell Rebecca about our unschooling lives and our homeschooling group (WMEHS, or West Michigan Eclectic Homeschoolers).  I tell her how my kids have found their own confidence and a deep sense of themselves through unschooling, and how I enjoy coaching families as they find these new ways of relating and seeing the world.

Sipping my tea on Open Door’s couch, I can feel the possibilities.  Rebecca and I talk more, and I do not realize that she is doing some financial calculations behind that quiet smile.  Somehow, through that conversation, I am offered the job I was made for.  To coach families toward an education that better fits their child.  To hold their hand and reassure them in the way that only an experienced unschooler can.  To share my own early fears and our eventual confidence and success.  To pay forward all the support I’ve received over the years.  This is an outreach job that doesn’t feel like a job to me — it feels like a lifeline, for me, for teens, for their families.  This is what I do.

This has always been a calling for me — working with families new to life learning.   I know for a fact that certain teens’ lives are made better — certain teens’ lives are saved — by any move they can make toward claiming their own education and their own lives.

In his TEDx talk, former teacher and North Star founder Ken Danford says this:  “At North Star, we have, at the very least, done no harm to our teens.  I could not say that when I was a public school teacher.”   There are so many families who just are not able, for whatever reason, to commit on their own to unschooling.  Centers like Open Doors and North Star open each teen to those moments in which she can feel completely like herself, and her parents can see it.

So I made arrangements to meet more Open Doors staff, and eventually teens.  I nailed down the specifics of the offer and a start date.  In short, I did all those jobbish things I needed to do.

And then Rebecca, Adena, and I celebrated my new position with a gluten-free granola bar and a candle.


Yep, I think I’m going to like it here.


Choose Your Own Learning Adventure

cave of timeRecently, while I was cooking dinner, my husband read an article to me from one of his many sailing magazines about a family who chose to spend 5 years sailing the open seas. What most caught my attention were the first few sentences:

When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books.  “If you think Mary should open the spooky door, turn to page 16.  If you think Mary should turn away from the haunted house, turn to page 23.”  I always read my way through all of the possible outcomes, cheering for characters who escaped the monsters with treasures in hand, and shaking my head at those who stuck to safe choices, too afraid to take a chance at the spooky door.  Now that I live my own Cruse Your Own Adventure, I have mastered the agony of choice in the real world as well; although, in the end there is really only one fundamental decision in cruising: If you want to stay home, turn to page 48; if you want to move onto a boat, turn to page 11. I still remember how immense that choice felt when my husband and I were first kicking the idea around.  As soon as we turned to page 11, though, we realized that we’d just jumped off a skyscraper only to land on a ledge three feet down.  We were safe.  We had signed on for a frustrating, exhausting and rewarding life, only to find that every page we turned to was a good one.  The hard part wouldn’t be escaping the monsters – it would be having to let so many good choices go.

Immediately I thought of how closely this parallels choosing to “Opt Out and Jump In” to choosing and creating your own learning adventure.  Because School is such an ingrained part of our culture, to most folks choosing a different option feels VERY risky.  Though in many ways very rational and logical, it still feels like “jumping off a cliff”.  It is, in fact, an immense, life changing decision.  Yet, rather than jumping off a cliff, it is much more like plunging into a pool….. of enlivened learning, free to swim toward those wonders which draw you… encouraging you to Be you and explore the best direction for Your life.

You truly can Choose your Own Learning Adventure.  Just turn the page.


desolation 304 phil's place

What Makes You Come Alive?

Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
–Howard Thurman


I remember when in college, many of us were herded into teaching because there seemed a need in the job force.  But by the time we graduated, teaching jobs were scarce. The same thing happened fifteen years later when I was teaching college. Many of my students were herded into the study of business. But a few years after graduating, there were very few jobs.

This is another way that scarcity can direct our lives.  Often when we shape our interests around what others need, we wind up selling our chance at happiness for what we think will be secure.  But while supply and demand may work on paper, it can build a loveless life in the  world.

This is why finding what we love, though it may take years, is building a life of passion. for what makes you come alive can keep you alive, whether you are paid well for it or not.  And beyond the fashion of the job market, a life of passion makes us a healthy cell in the body of the world.

Why waste those precious teenage years, when this is such a natural developmental period for exploring who they/you are and what they/you want to bring to the world?