Lifestyle

They’re on the course to learn the ropes

Les Gagnon stood on top of the 35-foot high pole. His knees were shaking while he tried to adjust his feet on the tiny space at the top. He gazed out at the nearby treetops in wonder.

He stood for some minutes, building up courage, before jumping through the air.

He didn’t jump alone. Gagnon, an Oak Harbor resident, was one of 13 Island County Beach Watchers volunteers who showed up at the Island County Ropes/Challenge Course south of Coupeville recently for a day of team and trust building exercises. On the ground during his jump, Gagnon’s team members called their support as he flew through the air and grabbed a trapeze handle swinging from a nearby tree.

“It was incredibly beautiful, and scary,” Gagnon said. “I think I closed my eyes.”

Though his act and the course were frightening, Gagnon was safe. His team members were not only cheering for him, but were also holding onto a rope that held his safety harness. Their teamwork would have kept him from falling had he missed the trapeze.

“I knew I was safe because I was in a harness and the others had the rope that would lower me to the ground,” Gagnon said.

His words are evidence of the trust and teamwork the course can instill.

The Island County Ropes/Challenge Course was built in 1992 as a place where Island County youth, parents, teachers, and community youth group leaders could learn to be stronger individuals and better team members. But, the program almost shut down permanently a year ago when operational funding from Island County and the state dried up.

Back in business this year with grant funding, the course offers subsidized training to volunteer groups and those working in the public sector. Course training is also available to private businesses and organizations on a separate fee scale.

Generally, the reason groups come to ropes course training is team building. Dot Irvin, a program coordinator for Island County Beach Watchers, took a new group of volunteers to the course to work with Kelly Williams, the course facilitator. The day turned out to be more than Irvin expected.

“Kelly told me this would be a team-building experience,” Irvin said. “What started as a team effort also became a very personal experience for all us.”

One of the toughest challenges Gagnon faced was climbing a 35-foot pole, then sitting or standing on top of it, and jumping from that position to grab a trapeze hanging in the trees.

Irvin, who climbed the pole twice, once sitting on top and then the second time standing on top, said she was thinking all the while climbing the pole, “If I can conquer this ... what else can I do?”

Irvin and the other team members were shaking from head to toe as each took turns climbing the pole. Some were in tears, but all were dogged in their determination.

“I was able to conquer the fear and insecurities,” Irvin said. “The experience changed my life.”

Since completing the course, she said she has made some life-changing personal decisions.

“Whenever I feel doubt or fear I go back to the pole,” she said.

As Beach Watcher team members were was lowered to the ground, other team members embraced them, often crying and laughing at the same time.

Gagnon said the group support was as powerful as the experience itself. Thinking about it now Gagnon said that at 61, it was comforting to know he could do it.

He noted that some members of his team chose not to go to the top of the pole or climb at all.

“It took as much courage to say ‘no’ as it did to actually do it,” he said.

Course facilitator Williams said that for groups, the course is an excellent way to build communication, team work and trust among members.

“But as people experience it they will go through some personal changes, too,” he said.

Williams is understanding of what his charges go through on the course. He was first introduced to the course as a volunteer with Beach Watchers.

“It changed my life,” Williams said of his day on the course.

Now, he leads others through the course and has developed a program to train more facilitators for the course.

The course’s Challenge Program consists of a variety of course, seminar, and workshop options. The format of the program includes noncompetitive games woven into a series of individual and group activities. Some of those games are as simple as having one person in a team fall backwards into the arms of teammates. Facilitators plan a sequence of activities that begin with ice-breaking, trust-building, and safety instruction, and leads into problem-solving challenges.

Williams says communication, choice and decision-making, leadership, teamwork and collaboration are key elements of discussion as groups work toward achieving their group and individual goals for the

The Island County Ropes Challenge Program was created with funding from the Washington State Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse for the purpose of helping youth and adults make healthy choices. It is currently funded how?

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