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Lost funding has training course against the ropes

Ben Gilmore, director of the Island County Ropes Course, could be standing on empty ground next year if the course cannot find more funding after being cut out of the health department
Ben Gilmore, director of the Island County Ropes Course, could be standing on empty ground next year if the course cannot find more funding after being cut out of the health department's budget this summer.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Every year, teacher Jay Freundlich takes two classes of eighth graders on a boat trip to the San Juan Islands. They make it to the islands via sailboats, a tugboat and a bunch of kayaks.

But if the students on the trip didn't know how to get along or work together, someone would probably get hurt or, worse, they'd never make it to their destination.

To make sure this doesn't happen, every batch of these students -- who are part of the school's Adventure Education class -- travel to the Island County Ropes Course near Coupeville to learn to trust and talk to one another.

"It's the foundation of our trip," Freundlich said.

But as of year's end, the Adventure Education class may have to look to another county for their ropes course training. This summer, the Island County Health Department cut funding for the ropes course out of its budget to save itself $50,000 in a tight budget year. Now the course, which has trained nearly 15,000 people over the past decade to communicate better, has no clear place or future in Island County.

In a small area of woodland off Patmore Road, the ropes course is a collection of creative obstacles that require team work to conquer. There is a cable-suspended balancing beam, a 12-foot wall, a single log crossing high in the trees and several other stations that challenge the mind and require individuals to trust a group to make it across, over or through them safely.

Jackie Henderson, director of the health department's human services division, said ropes course staff have know the budget cut was coming, but there wasn't much to be done about it.

"This is not something that just happened," she said.

Tighter restrictions on how state Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse grant money previously used to fund the course have become more stringent. Now the funds may only go to activities and programs "scientifically proven" to combat substance abuse, Henderson said.

User fees charged by the course -- $5 to $8 a head for children, $15 to $25 a head for adults, and course fees -- will not cover expenses. Ropes course director Ben Gilmore said this week that he and a group of people interested in keep the course open are now looking for funding options.

What they would like to do, he said, is place the ropes course under the administration of the Washington State University Extension Service office in Coupeville. Doing so would allow the course to qualify for private grants that cannot go to a public agency like Island County. Heading the ropes course since 1997, Gilmore said he knew the course's funding source was tenuous because of who was putting up the money. Most courses around the state have private non-profit status.

"It's very unusual to have health department funding," he said.

Serving school, Navy, business, church and service groups every year, the course has a large number of stakeholders who will want to use the course in the future, Gilmore said. To keep the course in business, he has to find $7,500 to stay open through June, then a lot more money after that to operate through the peak use season.

So far, the course has no promises of a home with the extension service, even though the service's director has a vested interest in the course. Don Mehan said this week that he would hate to see the course go, as he his one of the course's founders and his office funds a portion of the operations. But having taken the biggest budget hit of all county departments for 2003, he said fundraising would have to make taking the course under WSU's umbrella a no-cost action.

"This is not a good time to be knocking on my door," Mehan said Friday. "On the other hand, it's hard to let something like this go."

Mehan said he is open to bringing the ropes course under WSU if private donors fund it through next year.

Funded by Island County through the end of the year, the ropes course will probably serve only a few groups through the winter. Without funding, it must be closed by March 2003.

Community Events, April 2014

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