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Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth


After seeing some high school students navigate the high ropes challenge course at the Outward Bound Omaha center site I understand why youths and adults, really anyone physically able to access and maneuver on the apparatus, could benefit from testing onself on it.  I woulnd’t mind trying it myself.  I know I would be better for the challenge.  The following story for a coming issue of Metro Magazine gives a sense for what Outward Bound Omaha tries to do and how it fits into the mission of the sponsoring North Star Foundation, which is bringing this and other community engagement and personal enrichment resources to northeast Omaha to address the crisis of disenfranchised youth there.  The idea is to get kids out of their comfort zone through challenges that reveal their inner strength and capability.  If they can complete a ropes course or canoeing expedition or rock climbing challenge, then they may be more inclined to think they can finish high school or go to college, after all.  You get the idea.

 

Challenge Yourself

 

Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

The North Star Foundation formed in 2007 to address Omaha‘s disenfranchised African-American youth. The organization sought a way of engaging and inspiring young people to keep them on track academically so they finish school and become productive citizens.

With board members such as Dick Holland and Susie Buffett, North Star arrived on the scene with heavy hitters deeply committed to improving outcomes of underserved youth. Too many kids underachieve in North Omaha, where there’s a dearth of quality opportunities to learn trust, gain confidence, be a teammate and discover capabilities. North Star looked to the national experiential and expedition education model Outward Bound as an answer.

North Star executive director Scott Hazelrigg knows the effectiveness of Outward Bound programs because he participated in them as a student and contracted them as a youth services director. After an exhaustive needs assessment by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and discussions with Outward Bound officials North Star launched Outward Bound Omaha in 2010. The Hitchcock High Ropes Challenge Course, where youths and adults test themselves in safe, supervised exercises, is tucked into the folds of the rolling Omaha Home for Boys campus, easily visible to surrounding apartments and single family homes.

The course site is both practical and symbolic. A half-block north is the foundation’s office in the Ames Avenue strip mall where a new Walmart will go in next year. A couple blocks east is the abandoned Park Crest Apartments, a former crime-ridden complex North Star purchased and partly demolished to make way for a neighborhood reclamation project. The land the razed units sat on is now home to the Sahler Street Community Garden. Big Muddy Garden will farm a half-acre there this summer. North Star is weighing a for-profit urban farm to employ local youth. It’s all part of efforts to turn blight into sustainable, healthy community resources.

 

Inspire Service

 

 

 

Hazelrigg says, “We wanted to get rid of that negative and put positive assets in that space.”

The neighborhood is home to many youths and families OB Omaha seeks to serve. A high percentage of northeast Omaha residents live in poverty and underachieve in education and employment. North Star and initiatives like Building Bright Futures attempt to address such systemic problems at the grassroots level.

Hazelrigg says North Star’s tasked with “a critical challenge to changing the safety, security, trajectory and economy of this community.” One way to lower truancy and dropout rates and raise graduation rates, he says, is to get kids on target academically and to keep them there.

Students completing a ropes or expedition course, he notes, can come away knowing they successfully met a challenge they might have thought insurmountable. If they do that, than working to solve a math problem or completing high school may not seem so daunting. “They feel more empowered or better able to face a challenge and to overcome that challenge because they have more in the toolbox,” says Hazelrigg.

OB Omaha is more than a ropes course. It also offers peer leadership expeditions. A pilot excursion the first year saw North O youths do a canoeing and camping trip in Ely, Minn. Most adventures happen closer to home but they’re no less challenging for urban kids without prior wilderness experience.

 

 

 

Among the benefits of experiential ed, Hazelrigg says, is it “gives kids an opportunity to fail in a safe space and to challenge themselves to see more in themselves than they knew was there.”

“The transformative power it has is that it gives you permission to discover who you might really be and it gives you a road map to figure out how to actualize that,” says OB Omaha director of Community Partnerships Liz Cornish. “What we do is create a challenge, an adventure and uncomfortable situations. Outward Bound instructors facilitate people to step outside of their comfort zone and to dig deep and discover what lies within.”

Each graduate receives a pin in a ceremony celebrating completion of the course. “It’s the student’s choice whether or not they take that with them, whether they feel they’ve earned that yet,” Cornish says. “It’s about how committed are you to certain values Outward Bound promotes and how far you have come on your journey to incorporating those into your every day life. if you take the pin you have to talk about why you’re taking it.”

She says courses are designed to teach “the core values of inclusion and diversity, compassion, integrity and excellence.” To complete a course, she says students must practice “positive communication, conflict resolution and the qualities of a good leader.” When they get to the end, there’s a real feeling of accomplishment. “A lot of it’s about confidence and how they see themselves and how they value themselves. Our programs are really about instilling self worth so that they can start to see themselves as whatever it is they want to be.”

No wonder then many schools and youth serving organizations elect to have students participate. Hazelrigg and Cornish say care is taken to ensure OB Omaha can deliver what teachers and program directors want to accomplish. Not every class or group is the right fit. But enough are that thousands of students have graduated by now.

She says the center’s worked with everyone from the South High football team to incoming  Benson High students in the 8th to 9th grade transition program to Monroe middle school students to Girls Inc. members. On a cool April morning students from Westside High School‘s Future Problem Solving club crossed from one tower platform to another by navigating ropes and poles. Instructors and teammates provided encouragement. For each harnessed, helmeted participant the progressive tests presented their own challenges and rewards.

“When I’m going to school principals and talking about why they need to have Outward Bound in their schools,” says Cornish, “I tell them that as an Outward Bound center we have the luxury of teaching your students what you no longer have time to do in the context of a school day.”

The Omaha Public Schools, Westside Community Schools, Millard Public Schools and some private schools regularly send students to do Outward Bound programs.

Outward Bound

 

“We also offer open enrollment opportunities during the summer,” Cornish says.  “Parents and families are looking for ways to give their child a high quality leadership experience and we’re able to offer a quality and intense experience right here.”

 A June 4-8 canoeing trip on Missouri River Valley rivers is open to Omaha area high school students. A July 11-20 youth service leaders course for 14 to 16 year-olds offers rock climbing and canoeing in Blue Mounds, Minn. and western Iowa, capped by a food and justice service project with Big Garden in Omaha.

Outward Bound isn’t just for kids either. Adults participate through employer team-building and leadership programs.

“We believe Outward Bound is for everyone and so we offer programs that do that full transformative leadership experience to lots of different groups, including corporate clients,” says Cornish. “We’ve worked with management teams at nonprofits, even sales teams at for-profit businesses. We do educator training as well.”

Courses run all year. The outdoor April through November courses are weather dependent but the center also provides indoor programming.

Cornish says staff instructors “come from all different paths but the common factor is mostly a passion for the students we serve.”

Hazelrigg aims to make programs recurring experiences at “deeper levels for target youth.

For course and program details, call 402-614-6360 or visit http://www.outwardboundomaha.org.

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