By Colin Ryan
The 14 teenagers who walked into the woods behind the Pine Ridge School in Williston on Saturday could only be described as equal parts anxious and excited. Children of deployed Vermont National Guardsmen, their nervous energy mounted as they approached the school’s Adventure Center challenge course, one of the biggest in the state.
The three Pine Ridge students who led the exercise – seniors Wes Bell and R.J. Cunningham, and junior Mark Ruts—felt a similar surge of excitement. This would be their first chance to lead other students through the challenge course, putting their knowledge and skills to the test.
This event was a special day for these local military kids, one that had been arranged entirely for their benefit. Back in August, Annmarie Klein, Youth Program Coordinator for the Vermont National Guard,was approached by former Pine Ridge student and volunteer member of the Vermont Guard, Randy Zeno. Zeno remembered time spent on the ropes course as a student, and thought the military kids would value the experience. Klein took over the planning, and on Saturday, the idea became reality.
“[This challenge course exercise] is completely for the children of these families,” said Pine Ridge Athletic Director Heidi Bruening. “We really wanted it to be about the kids—a chance for them to take a break. And a ropes course offers a great opportunity to practice problem-solving skills, enjoy a feeling of community, and build self-esteem.”
The students, ranging in age from 11 to 16, mustered their courage to attempt some of the 30 course elements, from zip lines, catwalks and log ladders to a rope bridge more than 30 feet off the ground.
“There are some specific symptoms, like fear, anxiety, and loneliness that tend to affect the children of deployed soldiers. So we try to arrange morale-boosting events,” Klein said. “We have movie nights in Camp Johnson’s recreational room, and nights where the kids can just hang out. It’s especially difficult on these kids, because they don’t live at the base. They live all over, some as far away as Rutland, St. Albans, or Addison, so they don’t see each other much. This was arranged to get these kids together so they could have some fun and enjoy the bond they share.”
“This is awesome—it takes your mind off things,” said Jamie Hackley. Her father, Mike, was in Louisiana for three weeks, and has just returned to Camp Johnson. “It’s really easy to connect with the other kids, because we all know what it’s really like:sad, frustrating, just very hard at home. But here, we can give each other pointers on how to deal with things,” she said.
Ben Kelley’s dad, Mike, has finally returned after serving 13 months in Iraq. Ben, whose family lives in Orange, says, “I missed my dad a lot. He was gone so long, it was hard to get used to having him back. And if he goes now, it’ll be hard to get used to having him gone again.”
John Boyd, Jr.’s father has been in Afghanistan for three months now, and he and his family won’t see John Sr. until his two-week leave in January. “It’s a nice thing just to have fun like this,” John admits. “It lets us relax.”
Despite these difficulties, it was clear they were having a great time at the challenge course. Most of the kids sported new watch-bracelets which read, “Proud to be a military kid!” The coordinators on the Pine Ridge side were also pleased with how the day turned out.
“We used to offer our challenge course as an extensive program for lots of local schools in the area, as well as groups and companies who wanted the experience,” Bruening said. “Over time, we found that our own students were being left out of this process, and so we focused it on them. But it is a wonderful tool to offer to these kids, and our students leading the group are getting their first chance to teach others how it’s done.”
“For four years now, I’ve been playing out here every chance I get,” said senior Wes Bell, waving his arm to indicate the beautiful wooded surroundings, a peaceful vision of nature, despite the various cable, rope and wood obstacles. “This is a great character-building experience for a great group of people. And you just can’t compare the service that we are doing here with the service that these kids’ parents are doing overseas.”
The course offers a unique opportunity: a chance to climb without danger, and fall without pain.
“The premise of the program is to help people feel good about who they are,” Bruening said, “and my hope is that their experience on the course takes them to a place where they can challenge themselves, take a risk and conquer a fear, and then transfer what they learn.