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MHS teacher advocates for leadership rope challenge

Montesano High School teacher Jeff Wetzel has been trying to kick start the high school’s FFA program for the past couple of years to some degree of success, including the re-start of the school’s greenhouse, which sat dormant for years and celebrated huge success with a Mother’s Day event earlier this year.

This school year, he found himself face-to-face with one of his biggest challenges — a student group with so many different individual peer groups that they simply weren’t meshing.

FFA President Pua Cavanah, a returning senior, said she was seeing the same issues.

“We just had so many people, but we weren’t friends that hung out everyday, you know?” Cavanah said. “We were not all necessarily close friends. Some didn’t know each other very well. And Mr. Wetzel knew that to really get to know each other, to really trust each other, this was a good opportunity to find a way to really get along.”

Last year, Wetzel said he attended a challenge course on ropes that truly tested the boundaries of teamwork. The 4-H challenge course at Panhandle Lake near Shelton instantly came to mind to get his students interested in working together and he organized a training exercise with about a dozen of his FFA students.

Wetzel said he was amazed at the turnaround some of his students felt.

“Everyone was skeptical,” Cavanah said. “I mean, ropes? But he kept pushing it and we couldn’t tell him ‘no.’ I wasn’t so thrilled. But it worked. Everything we did was really easy and we worked well together.”

Now, Wetzel is hoping to bring the same sort of ropes course to 40 acres of forestland owned by the Montesano School District and located just outside of town off Camp Creek Road.

The Shelton-area ropes course offered a “challenge by choice,” team-building set of events, where students had the opportunity to recognize and overcome the boundaries of their own strengths and weaknesses while working as a team,” Cavanah explained.

Cavanah said one of the events allowed the students to barely walk off the rope and climb around trees with a goal of not touching the ground at all. All of the students had to be on the rope at the end, completely balanced. It required a lot of communication, skill, balance and endurance.

“But we figured it out real quick,” Cavanah said.

Through several student-initiated activities, the group worked together to accomplish small and large tasks, she added. The students were focused on creating a positive atmosphere to encourage every member to work together to generate team work and leadership required to accomplish their goals. The ropes course began with many small activities allowing the students and facilitators to introduce themselves and get comfortable with one another. The students then interacted through five various challenges that incorporated skills relating to the communication and cooperation required to create an effective working environment,’ she said.

“Each student entered into the ropes course with a hard working, respectful attitude towards producing better results, to form a more well-run productive club of students,” Cavanah said. “All returning members of the FFA chapter participated and showed much progress during the Ropes Course. Through each challenge, the students learned to communicate properly and positively, and support one another, in order to create an effective plan to accomplish the many challenges to produce skills for a better working group of students.” Cavanah said that the FFA Club is better today because of the training they underwent. This should allow them to cope better with fundraisers, including a popular Christmas Tree fundraiser they do in December and their Mother’s Day plant sale.

“I think we learned a lot about each other so we can be mature about situations and we can be more productive,” Cavanah said.

Meanwhile, Wetzel has begun the process of bringing a similar, revenue-generating ropes course into the school’s forestland, which has largely sat dormant since the school discontinued its acclaimed forestry program in the mid-1990s.

To that end, he led a short tour of the land last week for Montesano Principal Alec Pugh and two members of the Washington State Extension service — Dan Teuteberg and Scott VanderWey.

Teuteberg is the Elma-based regional specialist for 4-H youth development. VanderWey is the WSU Extension’s director of 4-H adventure education. It’s his office that helps facilitate and sanctions the development of such rope courses. There are already nine located throughout the state. The affiliation with the WSU Extension allows organizations to develop such rope courses, while keeping costs and insurance premiums relatively low.

“My dream is to put in our own little ropes course and make it a destination,” said Wetzel during the tour.

VanderWey and Teuteberg were there to offer their expertise on whether the land and trees were suitable for building a ropes course, which Wetzel would like to see built gradually — using a lot of volunteer and student community-service labor — over the next five years or so. “If the trees are viable, you drop the cost of building drastically,” VanderWey said while walking into the school’s forestland. VanderWey surveyed the parcel and noted that many of the trees were “viable” to serve as foundations of the “high-ropes” course and the land was not too densely forested, meaning just some minimal clearing for trail building and infrastructure.

He said that much of the construction could be done by students in the school’s wood shop, as long as it was built to specifications. All rope courses such as these must be built to the standards of the Association of Challenge Course Technology and inspected annually at a cost of $300 to $600 per year.

But Wetzel and the others noted that such a course can be a revenue-generator for the school district, as other schools would pay to use it, and it could also be rented out to corporate and other groups for team-building activities. VanderWey said a top notch ropes course could cost the district as little as $35,000 to build — for 14 “low-ropes” elements and three “high-ropes” elements — and be in use for decades as long as it was maintained properly. Student groups would pay lower costs, while adult groups would likely be charged more, to help subsidize the youth-oriented programs and keep those costs down. Other rope courses around the state charge around $25 per student for daylong use and a $100 fee for a course facilitator. Current rope course learning adventures are offered throughout the state for students in third through 12th grades.

“The first steps are going to be baby steps, because I’m going to have to use volunteer labor,” Wetzel said of his brainchild. There’s no rush for us. … Montesano is a great community. If they buy in, it’s gong to happen.”

“It’s a great location here,” VanderWey said, “and you’re not going to see school districts get land like this anymore. … I can’t bring in a lot of financial resources, but I can bring a lot of resources in in other ways. It’s pretty easy stuff as long as you follow a blueprint. We’re not talking about a lot of money here. We’re talking about commitment, time and energy.”

After the tour, Wetzel was excited about the prospects of a top-notch ropes facility just outside of town.

“We have lots of options. It’s fertile ground,” he said.