By Claire Gibson Webb
Most people enjoy finding out a good secret, and I am no exception. Which is why, when asked, I accepted the invitation to visit one of the Panhandle's bestkept secrets on the non-profit scene. On a glorious fall afternoon, one in which the sun was beginning its majestic dip towards the horizon, and the foliage was still boasting a few vestiges of color, I was headed to a retreat that, although just under thirty minutes from my home, felt like a world away. For Love of Children Outdoor Education Center (FLOC) graced the sign when I pulled in; welcome to relaxation, I thought.
FLOC began its operations in Washington, D.C., in 1965, where it served public schoolchildren in our nation's capital. In 1971, the vision to take those children out of the city and into the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains was implemented in Harpers Ferry. The Wilderness School was the vehicle for learning and living in a vastly different environment, and it touched the lives of many innercity youth for nearly two decades.
When it closed, a different vision was implemented on the same site. Nancy Van Scoyoc created the Outdoor Education Center (OEC) in 1987 to provide hands-on learning through a variety of activities. Since 1987, OEC has been serving the needs of many organizations, businesses, and community groups.
Recently, I was able to get a birds-eye view of an OEC teambuilding program in action at a local area school. I was impressed; the facilitators are patient, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable, and the students were truly enjoying each challenge put before them. When Director Todd McKinney invited me to visit them on-site, I was happy to do so. After printing off his directions (GPS won't help you here), I met him in his office and we ventured out for a tour of the OEC facilities.
As a non-profit, there are two main components of services offered. First is a program called "Leaders in Action," facilitated in conjunction with some Jefferson County middle schools. This program is designed for 6th-8th graders and there are four focal points: reconnecting kids with nature, educating them about healthy lifestyle choices, teaching them to become more active and engaged in their community, and assisting them with strategies to make good decisions. The program evolved after a needs assessment was completed and the results highlighted, amongst other issues, the struggle of West Virginia youth with obesity. A curriculum was developed and Leaders in Action was born. The program runs once a week at each school involved, and the services of outside agencies are utilized to reinforce the focus points. For example, Jefferson Memorial Hospital will sponsor fitness tests, or Claymont Farms will host activities around gardening and healthy eating.
Students have opportunities to be involved in the community throughout the school year, and at the end, if they have participated consistently throughout, then each one can participate in OEC's ten-day summer camp. What kid doesn't love summer camp? Especially one focused on a variety of positive life skills and fun activities—from team-building on the high ropes course to learning about watersheds and alternative energy through backpacking and overnight canoe trips.
The OEC facility also boasts several environmental learning centers (i.e. a compost station, solar hot water station, gardening, and different wildlife and wetland activities), designed to get people of all ages out into nature, looking at bugs and getting their hands dirty. "Kids get enough lecture in schools; we want to be the avenue where they can be hands-on," stresses McKinney. Most importantly at these formative ages, the summer camps also have a social education component to them—activities are designed to encourage learning how to get along and work with other people. And the best part for parents? All programming is completely free of charge—funded by private donations, grants, and foundation giving. Currently, there are thirty students participating, but there is always space for more.
The future vision for Leaders in Action is to begin offering it in all of the Jefferson County middle schools, with a continuing program on the high school level. "We don't want to just send kids off, but want to continue the relationship as they pursue college careers," adds McKinney.
The second type of service presented by FLOC OEC is offered primarily to offset the costs of running programs like Leaders in Action. Public programs are offered for a nominal fee to groups of all sizes and kinds—church, college, athletic, Girl/Boy Scouts, and even some business organizations. "We can work with anyone; we are open to any demographic from anywhere," McKinney asserts.
They've hosted groups from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and will be hosting a group from California this summer. McKinney hopes to involve this area in as much of the process as possible in the future. "We would love to expand locally to draw on Panhandle groups and resources."
One of the most popular public programs is the full-day course designed to encourage teambuilding. Groups arrive in the morning, and are then split into smaller groups with various facilitators. Each facilitator makes use of games and low ropes initiatives to reinforce crucial components of successful group dynamics—from communication and cooperation to consensus and active listening. Lunch is provided in the dining hall, and afterwards, it's on to the real fun: the high ropes course! It's not just offered for sheer enjoyment, however.
There's an educational philosophy behind the ropes challenge: the practices and principles learned in the morning sessions bring the groups together with a monumental task to accomplish. The course is not designed to force each member to accomplish it; rather, it will encourage each individual to push past his or her comfort zone, set a goal, and achieve it. To that end, the next three hours are spent having fun, working through each thirty-five- to forty-foot rope challenge, and learning more about how the team works together.
The day concludes with a group debrief, discussing all the lessons learned from beginning to end. If more than just a day is desired, it can be expanded to one or more overnights, adding additional components, such as rock climbing, mountain biking, canoeing, backpacking, and more. Any or all of these can be included in a customized itinerary for any group wishing to take advantage of all that the OEC has to offer—any time of the year. Some organizations simply use the site for their own summer programming, but the OEC has exclusive summer options available, as well. The possibilities are endless on the mountain!
If no programming at all is desired, and instead, a simple retreat away from life is more appealing, the organization offers their space to enjoy in whatever manner your group wishes to utilize. The lodge sleeps eighteen, with a full bath and full kitchen, as well as a cozy fireplace. There are eight rustic cabins, which can sleep up to forty-four collectively, and certainly provide an authentic wilderness experience. For those who wish to camp, tent space is also available. All meals are provided in the full-service dining hall. The organization operates on 350 acres, but has access to 1,400 acres in the immediate surrounding area, with over thirteen miles of trails for public hiking and biking.
FLOC OEC is on a mission to continue finding grants and partners within the Panhandle community. If additional information is desired on programming, partnering, or both, contact Todd McKinney at 304-725- 0409, or via email at tmckinney@ floc.org, and don't hesitate to visit www.FlocOutDoors.org.
If you're interested in participating in their second annual fundraising Harpers Ferry Half Marathon, check out the website at www. HarpersFerryHalf.org. All proceeds benefit FLOC and another local non-profit. "We had four hundred and fifty runners last year and we want to double that this year, so come one come all!" McKinney encourages. Now that ATP readers are in on the secret, take advantage of it. Plan a retreat, send your kid to camp, or sign your group up for a team-building event. As always, the Mountain awaits!