AAC Volunteers Bring New Heights Program to Underserved Kids

A report from AAC Triangle Chapter Chair David Thoenen

AAC Volunteer: “What's most fun about climbing?”
Shalynn, age 12: “Belaying… because that's when my friends know that I've got their back.”

The AAC Triangle Chapter's New Heights program for underserved children began with an informal outing in the fall of 2014. A dozen or so kids enrolled in a YMCA mentoring program for at-risk children spent an evening with AAC volunteers, enjoying their first climbing experience. The Y and the Triangle Rock Club North Raleigh, provided logistical support while AAC volunteers belayed, cheered and laid out a pizza spread.

It was so much fun that the group did it again a month later. The seed had been planted.

AAC volunteers Rebecca Lem, Derek Morgan, Cathy Kramer and John Dagenhart recognized that the chapter could do more for the kids than simply get them into the gym for special outings. They proposed the creation of an ongoing outreach program, which launched in February 2015 with support from the Y, the Triangle Rock Club, and a dozen more AAC volunteers. Connie Lightner (Kai Lightner’s mother) and lead volunteer Rebecca christened the program New Heights.

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New Heights is a program, not an event. Twelve kids per location are enrolled in the fall and expected to attend monthly sessions during the school year. In addition to offering climbing skill development, the program emphasizes character development, particularly goal-setting, positive interaction and relationships with adults and peers, physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle.

Each monthly session is structured to focus on both the kids' individual objectives and the program's objectives. On arrival, each child is expected to pick-up their shoes and harnesses and gear up independently. After stretching, individuals will work on a combination of bouldering problems and top-roping skills with their AAC climbing mentor. The evening wraps up with a pizza or sandwich dinner buffet for all.

It's great to see kids moving up the YDS scale at the gym. But it's maybe even better to see the older kids like Shaylynn taking on the challenge and responsibility of belaying, letting friends know they’ve “got their back.” 

A program that begins each school year with some fear of heights and general apprehension, ultimately yields significant personal growth. Y Learning leader Jennifer Watson has seen the growing self-confidence in all of her participating students – a development that translates to their academic perseverance and supportive interactions with peers, tutors and mentors.

In February 2017, the program expanded to support a new YMCA branch with a community of predominately Latino children. New Heights is now running monthly at two Triangle Rock Club location, supports two YMCA branches, and has over 20 AAC volunteers.

Thanks to local fundraising support and a generous scholarship from the Triangle Rock Club, this summer New Heights will sponsor twelve children from each location to attend one week of climbing day camp at the Triangle Rock Club. Also, in July, the program will fully sponsor two teenagers to attend a week of residential outdoor rock climbing at YMCA Camp Hanes! In 2018, New Heights plans to bring another Y branch into the program at the North Carolina State University climbing wall.

Growth requires solid program management. For the past two years, AAC volunteer John White has done a superb job as the New Heights Program Director, delivering an outstanding program across both locations.

“I've enjoyed supporting a program where perseverance and tenacity are nurtured through fun, exciting and engaging physical activity,” John says. “The program gives our kids the opportunity to apply their own definitions for success and failure to climbing. From there, I hope our kids are better prepared to apply the same goal-setting feedback to their everyday activities.”

John is supported by over twenty-five AAC climbing volunteer mentors and the chapter's New Heights Steering Committee, which includes long-term New Heights volunteers Ashton Drew and Bob Silk and is chaired by Brian Peters.  

Interested in learning more about our chapter program? Check out opportunities by location to find out what’s happening near you.