Dina Bennett



  • Hiking
  • Learning
  • Teaching
  • Traveling
  • Creating new experiences
  • Quilting (aka mastering the art of imperfection)
  • Dogs – All but most important to my heart are Holly, Scout, Levi and Riley
  • Music
  • Slacklining/Unicycling – brand new and somewhat scary


Why Create GEMS?

GEMS is a 10 year dream in the making!  My first course at Mountain Shepherd, Survival 101, was in March 2006 with Reggie, then my boyfriend and now my husband.  The course immediately sparked the idea of empowering women through similar experiences.  I shared the information packed weekend wilderness adventure with 10 terrific men who helped inspire my vision.  As the fire I built grew brighter and more powerful, so did my dream.  Survival training is the perfect opportunity for women of all ages to learn skills critical to outdoor life that parallel life at school, at work, with family and with friends!

The first development step to GEMS landed me at Hollins University creating and teaching a January Term course “Survival For The Modern World”.  This course uses the priorities of survival to parallel college life, leadership, teamwork and personal development.  With two successful years under my belt, I felt ready to branch out to younger women.  Middle school is a critical time for young people, and students often feel like they live three years of “survival” – I finally had the experiences and tools to make a difference.

With Survival Priorities would be the core, I knew the front country parallels needed to meet the needs and understanding of girls facing the challenges of middle school.  I knew the camp needed the experience and talents and skills of Dani Derringer and Kayla Deur to pull all the pieces together!  What a partnership and curriculum we developed!  And here we are, empowering young women.


Dani Derringer



  • Alphabetizing
  • Backpacking
  • Hiking
  • International travel
  • Learning new languages
  • Learning to unicycle
  • Running
  • Slacklining
  • Stand up paddle boarding (SUPing)
  • White water canoeing
  • Yoga

Why create GEMS?

Middle school is a strange time, isn’t it? I remember the polarizing effect of gym class: girls who “forgot” their gym uniform in order to avoid playing sports, talented girls who hid their skill in order to appear less intimidating, and girls who played at full steam to prove their strength – often only to be ostracized by the very people they were trying to impress. Without knowing it, we were figuring out how much we wanted to buy into our peers’ expectations of femininity. What a challenging task for any person, let alone people who have barely begun puberty. Later in life, I surrounded myself with intelligent, strong women who had thought deeply about their own expectations of femininity. Even so, I discovered that girls and women too often do not recognize their own strength. For example, I contrast the culture of two of my teaching posts – both teaching high school math to mostly 9th and 10th graders. My first teaching post after finishing graduate school at Hollins University was a males’ boarding and co-ed day school. During the second year at this post, the school opened its doors to female boarders. Even with the addition of female boarding, the school population was still majority male. Here the female students stood up during assembly, ran successfully for school leadership positions, and participated in class with little hesitation. At my next post, a much larger school with a nearly even male to female ratio, females rarely spoke during assemblies and frequently stopped participating in classroom debates. I was amazed at the cultural differences at the two institutions. By building GEMS with Dina and Kayla, I am acting on the observations I made at those two schools. GEMS is designed to give any girl from any background the confidence to be her unique self in whatever social dynamic she finds herself. I am excited to help girls stretch their comfort zones, explore their strength, build confidence, and recognize their support network.


Kayla Deur


  • Organic gardening
  • Hiking
  • Botany
  • Horseback riding
  • Yoga
  • Crafting
  • Reading memoirs
  • Nature journaling
  • Hammocking
  • Vegetarian cuisine

Why create GEMS?

I often draw inspiration and motivation from nature and the effeminate, elusive being that is Mother Nature, and, similarly, from feminist poetry. Millennial Canadian poet Rupi Kaur writes “what’s the greatest lesson a woman should learn? / that since day one. she’s already had everything / she needs within herself. it’s the world that / convinced her she did not.” Mother Nature, too, has everything she needs within herself, and despite any sabotage humans manage to impose upon her, she recovers. Sometimes recovery requires a process of adaptation, first, before the original state can be regained. Sometimes the original state is never to be seen again, as adaptations lead to a new form to be embraced.

While in middle school myself, which was not all that long ago, I recall feeling helpless, as if I did not have the tools I needed to navigate a changing body, academic environment, and life. My passions for nature and for learning about the world around me – first near the Chesapeake Bay and then in central Appalachia – were things I fell back on time and time again. Still, I struggled to walk the tightrope between being a confident and independent girl and fulfilling others’ expectations of me. Not until I was halfway through my undergraduate study at Hollins University did I feel truly able to balance those traits and expectations, and to adapt to changes, all using the tools I already had within myself but had never been taught to use. I was finally convinced that I did have everything I needed, since day one.

In creating the GEMS experience, I, and we, hope to remind young girls that they have everything they need within themselves. This is a space for girls to discover what is within and what they have to offer from there. GEMS gives girls a time to recover from sabotages in their lives, no matter how big or small, and to create adaptations for themselves. Girls enter this experience already prepared – they have everything they need within themselves – and I hope they leave convinced of that.