Orenda Springs Experiential Learning Center Helps Build Life Skills
John Darby called himself a “trouble child in school.” He broke windows, ran around school properties, and picked fights with classmates. He even spent time in jail. Three years later, his former teachers trusted him enough to let him ‘belay’ them—that is to physically raise them in a ropes course or lower them to the ground by using rope.
In the 2011-2012 school year, his outlook on life changed when he started working with Orenda Springs Experiential Learning Center to fulfill volunteer hours required by the Syracuse City School District’s alternative education program.
At the 130-acre outdoor learning facility in Marcellus, Darby developed his leadership skills and learned the ins and outs of the ropes course that Orenda Springs is best known for. Spending time outside, doing hands on activities, and helping diverse groups of children gave Darby the motivation and life skills needed to succeed in school. Darby graduated high school this year. He now works about 20 to 30 hours a week at Orenda Springs.
Orenda Springs challenges participants with outdoor activities so that they can gain confidence and life skills that are applicable in their daily lives. The facility offers a ropes course, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and more. These programs put the participants in nature and challenge the participant to use communication skills and teamwork to overcome obstacles set in their way.
More than 25,000 individuals have participated since it opened in 2006. The majority of Orenda Springs’ clients are students from the Syracuse City School District.
Like Darby, some students volunteer their time so they can become facilitators and further develop their life skills. The elements are designed to make individuals be nervous and say ‘I can’t,’ ‘It’s too hard,’ or ‘I give up.’
“Those are the same negative thoughts that stop them from being successful in other aspects of their lives,” said Executive Director John Powers.
In debriefing sessions conducted after the low ropes and high ropes courses, facilitators explain how the challenges at Orenda Springs can be metaphors for life challenges. The facilitators connect the dots between the life skills built at Orenda Springs—like patience, cooperation or flexibility—and how they’re applicable to daily life. With the support of a Community Foundation grant, Orenda Springs created a Plexiglas tipi structure for the debriefing sessions. The tipi provides a quieter and more intimate location to have thoughtful conversation and provides a shelter from inclement weather.
“We tell the kids that if you recognize that voice in your head saying you can’t do something—whether it be taking a math quiz or writing a five-paragraph essay—you should think back to what you did today and if you can do that, you can do anything,” said Powers.
During a summer camp for local children being conducted the day we visited, the group of twelve started off by doing low ropes elements to prepare them for the high ropes course. They had to move everyone across a series of stumps by using three long planks of wood. If they fell off, they ‘burned in the lava.’
“You’ll see this group struggle with the challenge. They’ll probably fail at least once,” said Powers. “They’ll probably get goofy and need redirection and for most groups it’s not easy. If it was easy we wouldn’t be doing it.”