LA CENTER — Taking that first step into the void isn’t easy when the ground is 40 feet below.
But the funny thing about conquering heights, or any fear, is that it’s easier with a little bit of teamwork. At La Center High School, that’s the philosophy behind an outdoor learning experience that brings students from various backgrounds together to learn about themselves and each other through physical challenges.
On Friday, the program received a $750 donation from the Bobby Borgelt Athletic Scholarship Foundation, named in honor of a longtime Vancouver resident and former student athlete, who unexpectedly died of heart failure in 2011.
And there was a twist: Donors had the opportunity to try out La Center High School’s 10-year-old challenge course. So up went Borgelt’s niece, La Center High School senior Chelsea Breault, and her father, Tom, who were strapped into harnesses and told to complete the school’s high-flying course. The only such course at a Washington high school, it’s similar to the one at Camp Collins near Gresham, Ore., the site of a three-day program called Phoenix.
Perched high atop a tree behind the high school Friday, Chelsea unclipped her harness and surveyed the gravity of the situation. The thought of the course ahead of her was scary and exhilarating, she said. After climbing the tree, she was to make her way across tires dangling in the air, then shimmy across two high wires. Waiting at the end was a zip-line trip back to Earth.
“Dad, I don’t think I’m your daughter — I don’t climb ladders,” Chelsea said, her voice trembling as she climbed the rungs hatched into the tree. Heights, she explained later, are not exactly her thing.
On the ground, Cherie Breault, Chelsea’s mother, cheered her on, invoking the name of a lost loved one. “You can do it,” she said. “Uncle Bobby is with you.”
Cherie Breault started the Bobby Borgelt Athletic Scholarship Foundation following the death of her brother, who was 45 when his heart stopped. The foundation holds an annual golf event to raise money for athletic scholarships so students can afford to play sports or participate in camps.
While Chelsea was at first reluctant to take to the ropes, she gained confidence to push through the course after a shaky start. Ahead of her on the course, helping her along, was her friend Maddie Hollingshead. Chelsea’s dad took up the rear.
Surveying everything from the ground was social science teacher Shawn Link, who created La Center High School’s challenge course and started the Phoenix program.
She said the foundation’s donation, and more like it, help keep Phoenix afloat. The program is funded independently of the school district’s budget, meaning every dollar counts. Each class of kids costs $12,000.
The donation will help this year as the Phoenix program plans to take three classes of kids, one more than previously, to Camp Collins. It’s part of a dreamed-of expansion of the three-day Phoenix program.
Link said she envisions a day when every student has an opportunity to participate. Students tend to learn about themselves and each other in ways they don’t inside a classroom.
“The biggest purpose is to work with one another to solve problems and build trust, which can be used inside of the classroom, on the job site, as vocational skills that are meaningful and appropriate,” Link said. “It’s also about personal goal setting.”
Started in 2011, the Phoenix program is intended to break kids down before building them up, Link said.
Students who have been through the program say it gave them a new outlook and taught them not to judge their peers. “It’s probably the most life-changing event I’ve ever had,” senior Levi Krout said.
He said it had the ability to unite the students participating regardless of their previous allegiances or cliques.
Chelsea, who went through the program her sophomore year, said her grades improved after she got back. “It helped me focus on my priorities.”
Her mother noticed an improved attitude and a more introspective view of things. Chelsea changed after going through the program.
“It was the first night she cried over him,” Cherie Breault said, referring to Chelsea’s uncle.
That’s one reason her family foundation donated to the program.
So was Uncle Bobby there in spirit Friday, as Chelsea and her dad traipsed through the air? Yes, his family said; he was always a team player.
But he wasn’t the only one.
As Chelsea, dad Tom and friend Maddie made their way through the course, a growing collection of onlookers gathered below. Some wanted a turn on the challenge course. But as they waited, they cheered and offered words of encouragement.
They were all on the same team.