- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

Emme Evans is learning to take leaps of faith. The seventh-grader at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, Md., recently spent the day with her classmates on a ropes course at Upward Enterprises Inc. based in Frederick, Md.

Flying down a zip line is among the activities the group experienced. Although Emme had been afraid of heights, she chose to jump from the tower and trust the harness around her waist to hold her.

“I needed a push,” the 12-year-old from Towson says. “I was too scared to move. Having my friends here made me want to do it.”

Ropes challenge courses are a popular way to improve teamwork and self-esteem. The idea behind them is to coax people from their comfort zones and give them confidence they can overcome obstacles in real life.

Everyone from 8-year-old students to chief executive officers and military officials have climbed the ropes course at Upward Enterprises, says program director Clive Felgate. Mr. Felgate and his staff are certified by the Association of Challenge Course Technology, the national governing association for challenge courses, based in Deerfield, Ill.

Group dynamics such as communication and respect improve when people are given a problem to solve, Mr. Felgate says.

The company uses a new 22-acre facility in Buckeystown, Md., with a low and high ropes course, zip lines, a climbing and rappelling tower, and a team obstacle course.

One of the activities on the low ropes course is a spider’s web. Group members pick each other up and place each person through the web without touching it. Another exercise is the king’s finger. A ring is put on a 12-foot-tall pole, or the “king’s finger,” and the group has to take it off.

Leadership and power struggles can be observed when watching a group negotiate how to find an answer to the task set before them. Members of the group can be seen taking on various roles, Mr. Felgate says.

While some members of a group may have dominant personalities, at times, Mr. Felgate has given those persons handicaps, such as blindfolds or tying two people together. Because trial and error is time-consuming, it is important to listen to other people’s ideas.

Persons go through frustration and planning until the collective goal is reached. Ideally, the same skills acquired through the ropes course can be transferred to the classroom or workplace, he says.

“Listening is a key communication skill,” Mr. Felgate says. “If people don’t listen, they won’t know what others need or want.”

The catwalk is an individual challenge on the course. Celia Pham, 12 of Reisterstown, Md., wore a brave face while completing the activity. She is a seventh-grade student at Notre Dame Preparatory School.

She climbed up a mesh cargo net and a wooden telephone pole to a horizontal log 22 feet off the ground. After walking across the log, she leaned back and rappelled to the ground using her harness.

“You don’t want to look down,” Celia says. “I was shaking, but I thought, ‘If I fall, it’s OK. There’s a ground under me.’”

On a ropes course, people are equalized, says Carol Short, head of the middle school at Notre Dame Preparatory School.

Because the fear associated with the activities is the same for everybody, the girls are more likely to support one another, she says, even though care was taken to separate the girls into groups away from their usual social cliques.

“They begin to see the giftedness in their buddies, or recognize a new piece of themselves,” Ms. Short says. “They know they did it, and their friends are there for them.”

Twelve-year-old Claire Allenbach of Towson says she made many new friends during her time at Upward Enterprises.

“I’ve gotten closer to most of the people that I don’t hang out with at school,” says the seventh-grader at Notre Dame Preparatory School. “I know them better now and won’t be afraid to hang out with them.”

The more people are involved in the rope course activities, the more trust develops among the group, says Eriq Powers, president of Go Adventure Sports, based in Silver Spring.

He frequently uses the course at For Love of Children in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. It includes a Burma Bridge, a 200-foot cable traverse that is 40 feet from the ground. Participants are hooked into a pulley system for safety.

“The challenge is to not hold onto the rope that’s holding onto the pulley at the top,” Mr. Powers says. “People don’t fall too often.”

A vertical giant ladder with rungs 4 to 5 feet apart is a good exercise for two people. In order to move from rung to rung, one person must help another person. In the multi-vine activity, a 200-foot cable traverse, a person walks across a cable as ropes are suspended from another cable above the person’s head. While crossing the cable, the person must reach from rope to rope.

Mr. Powers has hosted corporate groups,nonprofit groups, school groups, family reunions, bachelor parties and birthday parties. He aims to make a change in group dynamics.

“It’s not just for fun,” Mr. Powers says. “It’s to work on the goal of commitment, self-esteem and trust.”

Everyone seems to grow internally because they are asked to step out of their comfort zones, says Rob Stull, program director at the outdoor education center with For Love of Children in Harpers Ferry.

One of his favorite activities on the course is the 20-foot long, 30-foot-high balance beam. He has worked with many types of people, including at-risk youth, disabled children and children with severe illness, such as cancer.

“It helps them see life in a different fashion,” Mr. Stull says. “They learn to work in a team, work with others and identify how they can help with their own community.”

People can do things beyond what they believe about themselves, says Jeff Rolen, executive director of Camp Bethel in Wise, Va. The camp has a low course, an intermediate course and a high course with a climbing and rappelling tower.

“Later on, when you come to an obstacle, you can recall the moment when you felt fear on the course,” Mr. Rolen says. “You can remember that you can get through the obstacle. You know you can do it.”

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