“What are we going to do today?” Urban Blazers Executive Director Eric Dolaway asks about 15 fifth-graders from the KIPP Philadelphia Charter School on Saturday morning. They’re all fitted with rock climbing harnesses and sitting in an expectant line on the springy blue floor of the Go Vertical climbing center at Penn’s Landing.
One boy’s hand shoots up. “We’re going to follow all directions!”
Of course following directions is important, Dolaway answers. “But we’re also here to have fun, and we’re here to challenge ourselves.” He explains that for some kids, the challenge will be getting to the top of the wall. For others, it might be making the first foothold. Those differences are OK: “you’re the only one who knows the answer to whether you’ve really challenged yourself,” Dolaway says.
The kids are wide-eyed, some a little shaky, at their first chance to try rock climbing. Quadir Chapman is one of the first to grasp the wall, and he goes up like a shot, making the top on his very first try. Classmate Mekhya Johnson makes it about three-quarters of the way up before she glances at how far away the ground has gotten.
“I want to come down!” she gasps to the belaying Go Vertical staffer.
Her sister Malayah, in a pink hair-bow, pink sneakers, and large silver hoop earrings, bravely makes similar progress. “Riding a roller coaster is much easier than this!” she pants when she’s lowered back to earth.
Getting kids active and outside
Urban Blazers, a non-profit organization founded in Philadelphia in 2005, partners with middle schools and other entities in under-resourced neighborhoods to offer extracurricular physical adventures with strong interdisciplinary appeal.
Founder David Reuter, upon arriving in Philadelphia about seven years ago, looked for an opportunity to volunteer for local kids’ outdoor activities. He was surprised to find that despite having the country’s largest urban park system, Philadelphia seemed to lack the kind of kids’ program he envisioned participating in.
“If there’s a simple idea that’s not being done, you should do it,” he says of his decision to found Urban Blazers, which last year worked with about 900 kids from 17 different organizations. Dolaway, who operates the program out of an office at St. James School in Northwest Philadelphia, joined the staff about three years ago, and Reuters, now the Board Chair, focuses primarily on fundraising.
Dolaway always loved hiking and camping as a kid, and spent his college years and beyond working with the whole spectrum of East Coast youth.
“There is something really good happening here,” he says of Urban Blazers. Focusing on a series of outings through long-term partnerships with schools rather than one-time field trips (“every kid’s been to the Franklin, every kid’s been to the zoo,” he says) allows staffers and a large network of volunteers, many of them Temple University undergrads, to forge real relationships with the kids outside of a traditional classroom environment.
Urban Blazers outings include camping trips, walks and hikes, rafting, skiing, and, especially in the winter months, indoor rock climbing.
Building leadership skills beyond the classroom
Dolaway emphasizes the importance of physical and interpersonal challenges in building leadership and communication skills beyond the classroom. The challenge for each child may be different: it could be making a speech to classmates, sleeping in the woods, climbing up high, or touching a worm. Opportunities for extracurricular learning abound, such as basic outdoor safety knowledge, historical background of visited sites, or observations of the natural world.
“Getting disconnected from nature puts us out of touch with ourselves, in a way,” Reuters says. He hopes that city kids who first experience outdoor programs through Urban Blazers will take the initiative to continue enjoying nature on their own as they grow up. To emphasize the accessibility of local parks, Dolaway prefers traveling on SEPTA with the kids, instead of taking a van. He wants them to learn that, especially in Philadelphia, outdoor fun is just a bus-ride away.
The program focuses on neighborhoods and schools that lack the resources for these types of programs on their own, and though many organizations would like to team with Urban Blazers to offer field trips, Dolaway is specific in the kind of groups they seek to partner with.
“We’re not about providing field trips,” he says. “We want to work with groups who are strong, and do what they do well,” and can provide the support for an ongoing relationship.
“Youth in Philadelphia needs a lot of attention,” Reuters says. “Kids have a lot of potential, but are quickly written off by people.”
Breaking societal barriers and stereotypes
Dolaway dislikes the stereotypes that can plague city youngsters, and the patronizing terms we often adopt to voice their challenges. No matter what children’s backgrounds are, “once you take them out of their element” – whether it’s unleashing them on a climbing wall or taking them on a walk in the woods – “they’re just kids.”
“I hate the term ‘under-served’,” he says. “These kids don’t need to be served. They just need the opportunities that everybody else gets.” He feels the same about the “under-privileged” label.
“Is a great education a ‘privilege’?” He asks. “Every child should have a great education.”
At Go Vertical, many of the KIPP kids make speedy progress. They tackle the walls again and again, gliding down, Peter-Pan like with the help of the belay-ropes, when they lose their footing. Tiny Mica Anderson, in a wrist-brace and white sneakers, repeatedly scales heights of thirty feet or more.
After five attempts, Malayah runs to seize Dolaway and chaperoning KIPP teacher Megan Maples with chalky hands. “I was so high – did you see how high I was?” she cries – by her own estimate, one quarter of an inch from the very top. She whirls back to the wall, hands flailing in a puff of chalk. “I’m going to try again!”