York Chester Middle School is helping its at-risk students to overcome challenges by hiking Grandfather Mountain in Linville.
Two cohorts of about 10 students each completed the outdoors adventure program known as the “Grandfather Mountain Challenge” last school year. Students trekked the rigorous mountain terrain with volunteer teacher chaperones on four occasions over the span of about a month during separate fall and spring sessions.
With help from experienced hiking guides, the students learn “wilderness therapy” techniques such as how to use a map and compass, working as a team, and building a sense of character and personal accomplishment.
“They become more confident in themselves and what they can achieve and be successful,” said York Chester Principal Amy Holbrook. “And you’re able to see them transform through this process. That’s the most meaningful thing of all.”
The program is sponsored by The Jason Project, a nonprofit foundation which was formed recently by the parents of 26-year-old Jason Matthew Nipper, a Florida man who passed away in June 2016. The initiative aims to preserve Nipper’s love of the outdoors and hiking by offering an outreach program designed to build self-confidence in struggling youth, as well as trust and a positive rapport with adult mentors.
The program serves seventh- and eighth-graders, who are provided boots and other equipment they may need for the hikes.
More than three-quarters of students at York Chester Middle are economically disadvantaged and many face a variety of socio-economic challenges or hardships.
York Chester Middle became involved with the program last year after science teacher Britnee Reid met the Nipper family at a conference. Reid spearheaded the program, and along with other teachers and administrators, helped to choose students who are facing personal adversities, have special needs or face other challenges who they felt would most benefit from the experience.
“We take kids that have never seen a deer before, they’ve never been as high as 6,000 feet before,” said Holbrook, who went on the first four hikes in the fall. “Even just overcoming challenges of being afraid of heights or climbing up a ladder that’s really tall…just the sense of accomplishment and building their self-worth and their character, those are the big things that they’re taking away from this.”
Around 6:30 a.m., the participating students typically board a school bus and depart for Grandfather Mountain, about a 70-mile, one-way trip. Each student is given a specific leadership role during the hike, such as photographer or timekeeper.
The first hike is relatively easy and includes a trip to the Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum, where the students learn about a variety of animals that inhabit the area. Each hike becomes progressively more difficult and lengthy, culminating with a final hike across the mountain’s crest.
Students finish each hike by writing about their feelings and experience in a journal.
An awards banquet and dinner is held at the end of the program.
After a successful first year, Holbrook said the students are benefiting from the program and have already started to apply these life skills in the classroom.
“A lot of kids they may go from zero to 100 and not understand why and some of those wilderness therapy techniques help them decompress,” said Holbrook. “So they use those within the classroom– either they’re counting to 10 or they need to step back and talk to somebody–where they wouldn’t have done that beforehand.”
The hiking challenge also helped the volunteer educators form closer relationships with the students, leading to an overall more productive school environment.