Taking the Leap of Faith

Although it has been over a decade since I facilitated my first ropes course program, I am still amazed at how powerful the experience can be.

I’m not speaking of the power that I wield as a facilitator, but rather the awe that I feel when I am part of a ropes course experience.  I don’t get the goosebumps every time, but every once in a while I share a moment with an individual or a team that reminds me of what a wonderful gift it is to be a team building facilitator.

This past weekend, I worked with a youth group from a local Unitarian church.  It was an odd mix of high school students – a couple of natural leaders, a bunch of quiet “average” kids, two or three very “energetic” youth and one teenage boy with cerebral palsy.

When the client mentioned that Matthew was wheelchair bound, I had to warn her that the ropes course is set in a combination of hilly fields and forest – not exactly an ideal setting for a power chair.  In the next moment, I assured the organizer that if the group was up for the challenge, I would design a program that would include every member of the team – regardless of mobility.  The deal was struck and the date was set.

When the group arrived, my co-facilitator and I decided to keep the group of 24 participants together, taking them through a series of activities that could include everyone and still be appropriately beneficial.  Name games, ice breakers, and problem-solving activities punctuated the morning, and during each activity I could see that the group of teens was supportive and inclusive (with an occasional reminder – “remember that one of your team has less mobility than the others, so be sure your planning and action takes place with him in mind…”).

The group was progressing well, and the long-awaited “high element” portion of the day was fast approaching, yet I still hadn’t decided how I was going to get a wheelchair bound participant onto a high element.  I had to commit to either rigging a makeshift “Giant Swing” or using a haul system on our “Leap of Faith.”

Deciding that the trail to the Leap would be an easier terrain for Matt’s power chair, I set about devising a way to get him up to the 20-foot platform.  I rigged up two separate ropes – one would be used to haul the climber up, while the other would be used to belay the climber down.  Using a “team belay” on the haul rope, I would clip in and climb next to Matthew as his team hauled him up to the first platform.  After testing the haul system myself (whee!), I judged that everything should work well, and Matthew was clipped onto the two ropes.  As I climbed up the tree beside him, Matthew was hauled slowly up, higher and higher, until he was near the platform.  The whole way up I kept an eye on Matthew’s face, checking in to make sure he was okay.  Although I could see the nervous look in his eyes, he responded that he was fine, and I carefully lifted him up onto the platform.  Now for the moment of truth…

I turned Matthew around to face away from the tree, and he looked down over the edge of the platform.  Twenty feet off the ground, Matthew was ready to “jump,” so I quickly unhooked the haul rope, and he moved to the edge of the platform.  I gave a count of “three…two…one…” and Matthew tottered off the edge of the platform – giving an excited/scared/elated little yelp as he was lowered slowly back down to the ground.

As I climbed back down to the ground, I realized that I had probably been more terrified of the whole experience than Matthew had.  Although I am a highly experienced and well-trained ropes course facilitator and rock climbing instructor, I am not trained in working with disabled climbers.  I didn’t know if Matthew’s condition would make this type of activity a dangerous one (wearing a full-body harness, having all of his weight lifted for an extended period of time, etc…).  In the end, it was really me taking the “Leap of Faith.”

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I checked in with the organizer of the group this evening, to see how things went and whether she had received any feedback from the team.  This is what she wrote:

“Eriq – THANK YOU SO MUCH!  Our group had an amazing experience… when the advisers spoke to me of your including Matthew in the adventure, there wasn’t a dry eye around.”

I know what she means.  Being able to include Matthew in the ropes course experience has been one of the highlights of my recent facilitation career and has reminded me of why I got into this field in the first place.  I’m still grinning as I write this :)

Thank you Matthew.