Local students learn leadership skills in the woods
For the first two weeks in August, three local students participated in a 32 mile, 14-day wilderness hiking, canoeing and camping leadership growth expedition through the Delaware River Water Gap as part of Outward Bound Philadelphia’s Youth Leadership Corps program that stresses leadership capabilities and forces participants to push themselves beyond what they thought were personal limits to discover and access the massive potential within they may have not known otherwise.
A graduation ceremony was hosted Saturday afternoon at the Philadelphia Outward Bound Center’s headquarters on Lemon Hill above Boathouse Row on Kelly Drive for family, friends and supporters. Present were a number of local families and a local resident who is a member of POBC’s Board of Trustees.
“I had never gone camping before, and I didn’t know anything about it, but everything that came up we just went for it,” said Rose Donahue, a participant who will be a senior this fall at Springside School. At Springside, she is involved in volleyball, crew and is president of Student Guides and co-captain of the Robotics Team that last year built a robot to compete in a soccer-themed national competition.
“I sort of confirmed an understanding of myself that I can contribute to a group and that I like working together with other people to get things done,” she said. “I realized the kind of confidence you have to maintain.”
POBC has its local ties. Its ropes-challenge course, which often hosts one-day events in which students from all around the city and surrounding areas come with their schools to participate, challenges students to push themselves to achieve things they thought they could not achieve. Sometimes, participants have never been in the woods.
In addition, a number of members of the POBC board of trustees live in Wyndmoor, Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill and make the two-week expeditions possible through their financial contributions. Participants receive $2,200 full-merit scholarships for the program.
POBC is a nonprofit organization that relies on fundraising and financial support from trustees. Joyce Ferris, a local resident who works as a private equity investor in green technologies in Chestnut Hill, is on the board of trustees and was present at the ceremony.
Ferris said she got involved with POBC because a friend was on the board. Over time she started to attend graduations where she saw the impact the program has had on the kids by the way they talked and acted.
“I really believe in the program’s mission,” Ferris said. “Unless you are put in circumstances where you are forced to push boundaries, you don’t know what you can achieve. When you do achieve something you thought you couldn’t, it has an incredible impact on the rest of your life.”
The Charles and Susan McIlvaine Scholarship is another local tie to the program. The scholarship is awarded to a student from Chestnut Hill Academy through POBC.
When he was 16 years old, the McIlvaine’s son participated in an OB expedition. In 2004, at the age of 24, his life ended in a tragic car accident. The McIlvaine’s created this scholarship to provide a student from CHA with the opportunity their son had to attend this leadership program.
Participants in the two-week expedition receive all necessary training and education in the wilderness, according to instructor Eric Rydzewski. They learn everything from how to start a fire with flint and steel to medical training, which includes an emergency rescue simulation.
The expedition – this one included 12 students from West Philadelphia to West Chester – has four phases. For the first few days instructors (two on this particular mission) guide the students. The purpose of this phase is to train students in the basic skills they need to survive in the wilderness, like navigation and setting up and breaking down camp, said POBC Executive Director Katie Pastuszek. The main stage is when instructors let the kids “assume leadership of the crew,” though instructors always remain within sight and sound.
“It’s in this phase of the trip where kids start to realize they had more in them than they thought,” said Pastuszek who participated in an OB expedition in West Virginia when she was 14. “It was a personal growth experience.”
The next phase of the trip is the solo phase, a 48-hour period the young participants spend by themselves in the woods reflecting with only their backpack and a tarp (no tent).
“I did this program because I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone,” said Reuben Treatman, who this fall will be a junior at Chestnut Hill Academy where he runs cross-country and plays baseball as well as participates in student government. “During solo I was able to reflect on the first six days and look at everything I learned in the first six days and relate it to the first seventeen years of my life.”
“It’s a lot about conflict resolution and communication,” Rydzewski said. “Our job in the beginning is role-modeling and to motivate. We give them the tools so they can do it. And show them how to do it. But by the final stage they do it all themselves.
“They have to learn how to pool their resources together and how to ration because there wasn’t much. One of the things they did was, if there was not enough extra snacks for everyone, they saved them until they had enough for everyone to eat and added them to the meal.
“Breakfast would be a mix of all sorts of granola bars and snacks.”
According to its website, OB was founded by educator Kurt Hahn in Aberdovy, Wales, in 1941. It began as a program of rugged tasks to help young sailors develop the skills and confidence required to sail the rigorous waters of the North Atlantic. The core belief of the program was that through success in meeting challenges, young sailors learned they possessed far more than they knew and began to develop an ethic of self-reliance.
POBC delivers powerful and challenging adventures that are safely structured to inspire participants to discover their often hidden, untapped potential. POBC believes in the power of human capability and in keeping with the original intent of Hahn, who said, “If we can be made to see it, we will never settle for less.
When OB began in Philadelphia in 1993, it served 35 students and operated on a $100,000 budget. Today, that number has grown to about 3,500 students with a $1,000,000 budget.
In addition to its Youth Leadership Corps expeditions, OB offers a number of longer and shorter programs through POBC. Students who participated in this two-week leadership program applied through a process that required them to write an essay and provide three letters of recommendation from non-family members.
Young people were invited to participate based on their performance at an earlier POBC program, perhaps when their teacher signed up their class and they visited the rope course for a one day challenge. Sometimes, an individual stands out, or the instructors notice someone has a lot of leadership potential, Pastuszek said.
The program also stresses service, Rydzewski said. Along the trail, participants picked up trash and improved the condition of the campsites.
At the graduation ceremony that was the closing part of the expedition, the students who just returned from the woods proposed to run a soup kitchen one Saturday afternoon in September because it could benefit struggling people in the city, and is reflective of OB’s mission.
“If kids from Philadelphia can learn they have more in them than they thought, it can have a profound impact on the city,” said Pastuszek, who added that Mayor Michael Nutter participated in OB as a young man.
“I think the biggest thing about this program is it breaks down barriers and shows you people are people,” said Jim Ansel, whose son Drew is a CHA student who participated in this expedition. “You work together and you support one another. You see people walk away from this experience but they stay in touch.”
“It makes you appreciate what you have,” Treatman said. “Each day we carry 50 pound bags up and down these massive hills, and we just pushed ourselves. Through the process I learned that this kind of energy needs to be the status quo. You have to love what you have. And you have to push yourself.”
For more information on Outward Bound, visit www.outwardboundphiladelphia.org.