October 28, 2012

Program encourages kids to reach new heights

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the trip I took this month with 10 students from Moriah Central School.

Led by the remarkable Scott Friedman from Behavioral Health Services North (BHSN), we traveled to King Phillip Springs, one of the most accessible and fun rock climbing routes in the Adirondacks.

Scott leads an Adventure Based Learning program for five area school districts including Moriah, Ticonderoga, AuSable Valley, Northern Adirondack and Saranac. He runs hiking, paddling, climbing and even caving trips for elementary school students through a federal grant called Safe Schools Healthy Students.

The program is coordinated through Champlain Valley Educational Services. Students are eligible to participate based on referrals from school counselors, social service agencies and teachers.

The impact this program has on the participants is irrefutable. The outdoors brings out the best in them. When they complete the program the success is measurable: significant increases in ELA and math scores on standardized tests and significant decreases in disciplinary referrals.

Led by Friedman, staff member Loreal Greenwood, volunteer extraordinaire Bob Forster and SUNY Plattsburgh intern Jordan Sampson, the Moriah students enjoyed an adventure that youth from any school district or youth commission would envy.

The eager band of explorers arrived at the parking lot and burst out of the big, white van to arrange their personal gear. With excellent quality ropes, climbing harnesses and helmets provided by BHSN, everyone set out on the 10-to-15-minute trail to the rock faces that would be their challenge.

Friedman, a lifelong outdoorsman who wears the smile of someone who loves his work, sets the tone early. Everyone will behave safely and will respect the forest and the other team members. The day is a challenge-by-choice event. Everyone will participate to the degree they choose. And everyone will be encouraged to go at least slightly beyond what they think they can do.

His attitude and his gear guarantee a confident response. Each child is fitted with a helmet and a harness.

The climbing begins with communication. Scott explains the signals and how the belay will work. 

The first girl up, Alexis Urban, is like a spider. She has no trouble stretching to the full extent of her reach with both legs and both arms. She trusts the rope and she trusts Scott, who coaches from below. She quickly learns to read the crags and ledges.

Kelsi Perry clips in on Bob’s rope. She, too, makes the ascent look easy, calmly reaching 40 to 50 feet. Eight other boys and girls watch, chattering with anticipation but waiting for their own turn.

Nick Harter, who did this trip with BHSN last year, offers tips and calls out encouragement that adds to the team atmosphere.

Each climber has a unique approach. They survey the challenge, sense their own abilities and at some point take note of the amazing surroundings.

When the last climber descends and all the gear is packed, the group returns to the van. 

Scott asks everyone what made the day good. 

The answers merge — great company, lots of laughs, success on the cliffs and the beauty of the day itself.

No complaints, conflicts or injuries.

This is the power of the outdoors in combination with the good-heartedness of an adult mentor.

If I could mandate one day in the span of a public education, it would be that each student spend a day in the woods with an adult who watches out for you and lets you in on a great adventure.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at