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Center helps kids meet challenges

July 12, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

JEFFERSON COUNTY, W.Va. - A group of children gathered on a hillside in the Blue Ridge Mountain on Tuesday afternoon, preparing for the challenge before them.

After scaling a ladder extended up a tree, the youths were to perform a tightrope walk along a cable over a ravine.

Cables are attached to the children to catch them in case they slip, but it still can be a frightening experience.

The cable rises about 50 feet over a stream in the ravine as the children attempt to make it to a platform attached to the side of a tree where an assistant is waiting for them.

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"You can do it. I know you can," the man called out as a young boy gingerly walked along the cable. "You show those guys. You got it."

Welcome to a day at the Outdoor Education Center, operated by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps at-risk students get on the right track.

The center, operated by For Love of Children, is on 350 acres 25 miles from Charles Town, W.Va. The facility, with a lodge, cabins, a dining hall and a meeting hall, is deep in the Blue Ridge Mountain off Mission Road in Jefferson County.

It is past where the Lake Forest Estates development is being built and is accessed by 11/2 miles of gravel road that winds through woods where a deer or other wildlife is occasionally spotted.

The facility was started in 1971 with buildings gradually finished over the years, officials at the center said.

The structures have a rustic feel and one of the buildings has a large stone fireplace in the center. Environmental education is stressed at the center and the dining hall is built partially into the ground to cut down on cooling costs in the summer and heating costs in the winter, said Jessica Gilbert, director of the center.

Gilbert said the center is not well-known locally but she wants to change that. Center officials invited media organizations and others to the center Tuesday to familiarize them with the facility and help spread the word about its offerings.

For Love of Children operates its own education programs at the center, but Gilbert said she wants to let local organizations, like school groups, know that they can use the facility.

"We want people to see what a great resource we are. Everyone who comes here has an amazing experience," Gilbert said.

Students who come to the center are often at risk of experiencing school failure or problems like drug abuse, Gilbert said.

The activities the children participate in at the Outdoor Education Center are designed to give them confidence in overcoming the problems, according to Gilbert.

Tuesday's walk along the cable over the ravine can be quite a challenge. For example, one boy who attempted it Tuesday recently went about halfway across but decided he could not go farther, Gilbert said.

He tried again Tuesday, but decided to turn back again and take a break before attempting again.

One girl called out to those around her before she went up the tree.

"Everyone give me a group hug before I go," the girl said.

The exercise might be frightening, but center officials say it contains a good lesson. If they make it across, Gilbert believes the kids will have a great sense of accomplishment to add to their life experience. And with that under their belt, the kids are more likely to have the courage to stand up to that bully at school, to quit smoking or to face whatever challenges they have, Gilbert said.

"It's all about confidence building," she said.

Center officials believe there is an added benefit of conducting their activities outdoors. When the children are in the quiet, serene surrounding of the center, problems like attention deficit disorders seem to fade, Gilbert said.

About 500 children a year participate in the programs offered by For Love of Children. Other activities offered at the local center include nature hikes, learning navigation and compass skills, identifying plants, analyzing aquatic life, composting and recycling, and organic gardening.

For Love of Children has another facility in Washington, D.C., and offers academic tutoring programs to its students there, Gilbert said. The Outdoor Education Center is an extension of what the organization offers, she said.

Children who come to the Outdoor Education Center are usually between 10 and 13 years old and they sometimes stay for 10 days, Gilbert said.

Some local children already come to the center, like Megan Dillow, who was part of a group at the center Tuesday.

The 12-year-old Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Middle School student said she likes the food and activities at the center. When asked what she thought of the cable walk, she said, "It was scary."

Pete Dougherty, president of the Jefferson County Board of Education, said in a telephone interview later in the day that the Outdoor Education Center has been a part of the community for many years, but it has been unclear at times whether it was still in operation.

Dougherty said he would be interested in what the center can offer to local students.

To learn more about the center, go to the Web site at www.flocoutdoors.org or call the center at 304-725-0409.

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