Blackberry River Retreat History

The Blackberry River Retreat started in 1986 as an idea...was once a location and is still both a noun and a verb. In essence, Blackberry is a three day retreat that is both remote, quiet, introspective, and mindful of creature comforts and also the opposite, in that it involves mental challenge that is intense, self-directed, and focused. “To Blackberry” is to take action In a way that includes an odd combination of highly focused deliberateness masquerading behind an outwardly relaxed and seemingly passive state. Thanks to the efforts of many who came before, the Blackberry River Retreat remains a unique opportunity for college counselors to tend to this important skill.

On a college tour in 1985, three counselors – Sarah Heckscher from Springside School, Jake Dresden from William Penn Charter School, and Robin Mead from Salisbury School – came up with the idea of a retreat focusing solely on the secondary side of the college admissions process. Conceptually and practically, Blackberry was modeled closely on the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute, which has been teaching counseling skills to school teachers, administrators, and staff during their summer programs since 1963. When Sarah, Jake, and Robin first began to conceive of the idea of Blackberry, college counselors were feeling enormous pressure from anxious parents and school heads due to an increasingly competitive admissions scene. Counselors felt an urgent need to develop new skills in order to deal with a changing, complex environment.

Two esteemed King Institute faculty, Jane Leavy and Pres Munter, agreed to take on the challenge of adapting the program to college counseling, and Blackberry was born in January 1986. The first session occurred at the Blackberry River Inn near Salisbury School. After several moves in search of a suitable home, Blackberry landed on the campus of Mount Holyoke.

As with any meaningful enterprise that is 30 years old, Blackberry has experienced changes and growth. At the very first Blackberry River Retreat, the tug between advising and counseling actually became a bit of a tug-of-war between the secondary level college counselors and the then faculty, who worked for both Stanley King staff and Harvard Health Services. At the time, given their daily work with college-aged students, the staff pushed the college counselors to always counsel, never advise. The college counselors pushed back, arguing that: advice is necessary for the logistics of the college process; not all students need counseling; and, sometimes there is no time for anything other than the quick fix!

When Jane Leavy’s own daughters went through the college search, she recognized the tension reported by the college counselors and the Retreat shifted to become more nuanced in its understanding of the need to move between advising and counseling in order to be an effective college counselor.

The original Blackberry group and staff grew to include another Stanley King faculty member, Irving Allen, who pushed the conference to examine counseling from a more culturally diverse perspective. The three original faculty all gave many valuable years and insights before eventually retiring, with Jane having put in the longest service – 27 years!

We will add here that many who have attended BRR over the years feel that it is important to remember Bill Poirot, who was the only college counselor to become a Blackberry staffer. Bill died suddenly and unexpectedly in November of 2005. The Blackberry of 2006, accordingly, was a very difficult meeting. With his signature sensitivity and frankness, Irv helped Blackberry attendees that year understand loss as a fundamental piece of the college search for students and their families. An aha moment came: “the college process is about family separation – no wonder it’s fraught!”

Our current faculty carries the spirit of Blackberry from 1986 while also adding their own special energy to this retreat. Paula Chu, who has a private practice in psychotherapy, arrived in 2009; yes, she’s on the faculty of Stanley King, but she’s also deep in the independent school world, serving as academic dean and then director of counseling at Ethel Walker School for 16 years and now living on the campus of The Masters School. Roland Davis, another Stanley King faculty member and former Bates College Dean of Students, was pulled into the vortex of secondary school administering for a while, as Assistant Head at Middlesex. Now, he is the Interim Director of DEI at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

On the secondary side of the Blackberry staff, in three decades, changes have occurred as well. Sarah retired and Jake went on to be a Head of School. Sadly, Robin passed away early in her retirement. Carl Bewig, once of Oberlin and then a long-timer at Andover, served on the secondary side, along with Megan Harlan. And of course, Connie McAvoy led Blackberry with both grace and astonishing organizational skills from 2006 until 2019....although she reminds Jeff and Amy daily she is just a phone call away. It is worth pointing out that Jeff and Amy have taken over for Connie – it has taken two people to do the job of just one Connie! It is Jeff and Amy's hope and intention to make the Blackberry River Retreat strong and sustainable for years to come.

Questions? Please contact Amy Selinger or Jeff Kurtzman, BRR co-chairs.