Youth Outside | Transformative Partnerships

In this feature from Mountaineer Magazine, read about our Mountain Workshops program and how our longtime partnership with Interagency Academy is helping offer transformative outdoor experiences to young adults in the Pacific Northwest.
Ethan Metzger Ethan Metzger
Former Associate Programs Manager
November 07, 2023
Youth Outside | Transformative Partnerships
Interagency students learning to belay at the Seattle Program Center. All photos courtesy of Mountaineers staff.

Each year, our Mountain Workshop program gets over 1,000 young people outside. Mountain Workshops are single or multi-day experiences designed in partnership with other youth-serving organizations. They are collaboratively designed to create memorable and accessible outdoor recreation experiences for youth while meeting the needs and goals of their respective communities.

One of our longtime partners is Interagency Academy — a network of small, alternative high schools throughout the greater Seattle area. They have been running programs with The Mountaineers for over a decade, and this Mountain Workshop series is often a school-year highlight for students and teachers, as well as our Mountaineers volunteers and youth programs staff.

A collaborative partnership

Interagency Academy provides unique and personalized learning environments to students who are unable to receive the support they need in mainstream high school. The associated schools are designed to provide support of all kinds to their students, and to do so, many schools will collaborate with local community-based organizations – like The Mountaineers – to offer safe learning environments.

“The students we work with are generally attending [Interagency Academy] due to either having been suspended, expelled, or dropping out of mainstream high school,” said Laura Levings, a mental health counselor and challenge course facilitator who works with Interagency students. “We find that our students have difficulty connecting and engaging with other students. There is a lack of trust with schools, staff, and others in their lives. Many of our students are isolated and don't have a big support system, and many have a background of trauma, abuse, neglect, and low self-esteem.”

Mountain Workshop programs with The Mountaineers provide a thoughtful, safe, and collaborative educational environment that fosters a sense of unity and connection among the Interagency students, positively impacting their overall educational experience.

DSC_0004-2.JPGInteragency students learning to tie in. 

Learning to climb with The Mountaineers

After a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, we were excited to reengage with the students at Interagency Academy for the 2022-2023 school year. Our first meetings took place in January, when we participated in team building activities with the students, facilitated by Interagency staff. We also worked intentionally to establish community agreements that would guide the rest of our time together.

After getting to know one another, we jumped straight into climbing at our Seattle Program Center. For the majority of the students, this was their first exposure to anything climbing-related, and once they started climbing, they opened up and got curious. We talked about ropes, and physics, and friction. They asked a lot of safety questions, and we talked through what will happen and why the system is safe. Answering these questions built trust, and it gave the students an opportunity to challenge themselves and try something new in a supported environment. It showed the students that they could do hard things and rely on their community for support.

From January to June, Interagency students participated in three climbing sessions with The Mountaineers, learning climbing skills, trying new activities, and building connection with one another. Students also spent three sessions at Camp Long in West Seattle, where they participated in a challenge course progression with team building initiatives and a low and high ropes course. All of this helped students foster a deeper sense of confidence, community, and belonging.

After six sessions, students were given the choice to spend an extra day at the challenge course or try outdoor climbing at Exit 38. The students who opted for outdoor climbing had the opportunity to test their climbing skills in a new environment.

DSC_0050.JPGInteragency students enjoying a day of rock climbing at Exit 38. 

A day at Exit 38

After six months of climbing at the Seattle Program Center, students were eager to showcase the skills they had acquired and practice climbing, belaying, and rappelling outside. We equipped the group with harnesses and helmets and began the short approach to the walls.

Once there, students encountered 50 vertical feet of rock ready for climbing. Laura Levings explained that the rock serves as a metaphorical “wall” for other challenges that
students face in their lives, and students have both the skill and support to tackle those challenges.

In the ensuing hours, students courageously ventured beyond their comfort zones, scaling rocks and walls both physical and metaphorical. For many of the students, this marked their first experience climbing on real rock. And while not all students choose to climb that day, an atmosphere of laughter and smiles permeated the area. Students were supported to challenge themselves, and they had learned to trust both themselves and their community. According to one teacher, this outdoor excursion fostered a sense of relaxation that they hadn’t witnessed in quite some time.

Insights and impact

Several weeks after climbing at Exit 38, I had the opportunity to connect with Interagency staff and gain valuable feedback on their experience partnering with The Mountaineers and the Mountain Workshop program.

One staff member highlighted the effectiveness of the joint effort to create a positive experience for students, saying the collaboration between the schools, The Mountaineers, and the challenge course had created a highly successful and engaging learning environment for their students. Another expressed how these programs had helped students become aware of the importance of support systems for their personal growth and development. "We debrief around fears, support, and what they need to be able to get to the next best place in their lives,” they said. “Many of the students start to realize that they do need support, whether it's the belayer or others giving encouragement, to be able to get to the next best place in their lives."

The collaboration between Interagency and The Mountaineers not only offers a unique outdoor experience, but contributes to the students' academic journey. “Students get PE credits in school for coming on this program, which they all need and helps them to attain their credit requirements,” staff said. “I had a teacher tell me a few weeks ago that due to this program, she and all the other teachers at their site saw all the students connect, support, and work together for the very first time. There is absolutely no doubt that this program has huge benefits for our students in a variety of ways."

Our partnership with the Interagency Academy perfectly illustrates the impact we hope to have through our Mountain Workshop programs. The journey we embarked upon together to build connection through climbing was transformative for all involved. We are grateful for our partnership with the Interagency Academy and we look forward to getting back on the rock in 2024.

This article originally appeared in our fall 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

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