Youths rise to challenge

Course: In a state-run educational program, youngsters tackle physical tests designed to increase their confidence and their sense of teamwork.

July 21, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff

MYERSVILLE -- Kiara Sampson-Brown went to summer camp in leafy South Mountain State Park last week to experience the outdoors. Along the way, the 10-year-old from Baltimore learned to conquer fear.

Halfway up a 35-foot wooden wall that two other campers had scaled without difficulty, Kiara got her feet tangled and froze. "Help me get down! I'm scared!" she quavered, clinging to small rocks protruding from the nearly vertical wall.

Kiara was one of 19 inner-city and suburban youngsters who got a chance to climb the daunting wall at an unusual educational program run by Maryland's Forest and Park Service. The children attending the state's Outdoor Discovery camp confront challenges and work together during a day spent at Echo Lake Ropes and Initiatives Course.

Annually, about 200 inner-city youngsters get to take the ropes course through state scholarships to DNR's Outdoor Discovery camps. Others pay $350 for the five-day camps, in which children sleep overnight in tents, hike and take excursions.

With trained instructors as guides and spotters, the 19 young camp-ers spent the morning playing problem-solving games that required them to brainstorm and cooperate. After lunch, they hiked down a path into the woods for an afternoon of confidence-testing activities in the treetops.

"Everything is challenge by choice," explains Ranger Susan Rose, director of the ropes course. The program is designed to "create an environment for kids to take chances, but if they don't [want to], to be supportive. We want them to experience a feeling of success if they tried."

Some, like 10-year-old Jasmine Guy of Baltimore, giggled as they scrambled up the wall. But others had a tough time overcoming their fear of falling.

On this day, youngsters -- strapped into safety harnesses -- were asked to scale a three-story wooden tower, then walk tightrope-style along a steel cable to a treetop platform 50 feet away.

The only thing they had to hold onto during the "Eagle Walk" was another cable. Finally, from the platform 43 feet up in the air, they zipped 100 yards to the ground attached to another cable.

"It's very intimidating," Rose says of the exercise, especially the walk on the cable, which wobbles and sways. She says she tells children that the first part of the course, the climbing and aerial stroll, is "like eating your vegetables," and the ride down the zip-line like "eating your dessert."

The campers seemed to agree. "It felt kind of like we were flying," Josh Howell, 10, of Annapolis, said of zooming out of the tree to the ground. He acknowledged that he was afraid of falling while walking on the cable, but he quickly added, "I want to go again."

Scary as the course sounds, safety is paramount.

Every youngster is helped up the wall by a rope and pulley, controlled this day by state park Ranger Steven Muse, and each climber is secured by a tether and girdle-like harness while off the ground. Brightly colored helmets protect their heads. Instructors stand by to help on each platform, and two spotters wait on the ground to ensure a problem-free landing.

The goal "is to keep everyone emotionally and physically safe throughout the day, no matter what happens," says ropes instructor Dean Turnbull.

Not all campers are convinced that they have nothing to fear.

Kiara froze about 20 feet up the wall. With no immediate response to her call for help, she tried to untangle her feet from the ropes -- and slipped. She ended up dangling on the side of the wall, motionless, for a few seconds -- held in place by the safety rope and harness. Then she regained her footing and resumed her climb.

"Go, Kiara! You can do it!" the other campers cheered.

Several other youngsters found that they could not complete the climb and asked to be lowered back to earth. None was ridiculed, and one upset youngster got a hug.

The youngest camper, 7-year-old Jennifer Civick of Rockville, scrambled up the wall without a second thought but got cold feet as she stepped out onto the high wire. Turnbull ended up carrying her, wailing, across to the treetop platform, where she calmed down and was able to sail solo to the ground.

"It was fun at the last," Jennifer pronounced after landing.

The ropes course began seven years ago as part of a federally funded, drug-prevention program known as the Drug-Free Trail. It was jointly operated by the governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Baltimore schools.

The federal grant has dried up, but DNR has continued to operate the ropes course, offering it for a fee to youth camps and groups from across the state. The course was designed and built by Inner Quest Inc. of Virginia, which specializes in "experiential education." The company also trains all Echo Lake staff.

Encouraging people from different backgrounds to work together is part of the Echo Lake program.

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