Great Heights Challenge Course in Kernersville offers groups team-development

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Hanes Magnet School teachers climb out on the high team challenge course Monday, August 19, 2014 at the Great Heights Challenge Course in Triad Park. The wires form a crossing pattern and all personnel must figure a way of crossing the "X" before they can exit onto the platform. (Walt Unks/Journal)

KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — A mix of rope, wood and cable challenged Kelsey Walters to go high above the ground on a recent rainy day at Triad Park in Kernersville, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Walters, a sixth- through eighth-grade teacher at Hanes Magnet School in Winston-Salem, was a bit scared when she initially saw the aerial team development event at the Great Heights Challenge Course.

One side was about 24 feet off the ground, while the other side was 40 feet up.

“I went ‘Oh-h-h-h,’” Walters said.

She was among 67 staff members at Hanes Magnet that spent half a day, or 3 ½ hours, at the challenge course.

Great Heights LLC, the Winston-Salem-based operator of the course, provides interactive leadership and team-development programs for corporations; nonprofit and community groups; and school, youth, collegiate and sports groups.

“We really help the groups focus on paying attention to the process of problem-solving or navigating through stressful situations,” said Jonathan Berry, Great Height’s owner. “We help groups focus on the positive outcomes.”

Berry, who has a master’s degree in counseling from Mississippi State University, has done a lot of work in the adventure-programming side of therapeutic intervention. He has worked with adults with chemical dependency and adolescents and their families using challenge courses and other adventure-based therapy such as rock climbing and white-water rafting.

The Great Heights Challenge Course opened in November 2011. It was developed as a partnership between the Forsyth County and Guilford County Parks systems.

Berry said that Don Martin, former Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools superintendent, raised private funds for the course.

Great Heights leases the land for the course from Triad Park.

Half-day rates for groups doing the challenge start at $25 per person for youth, $35 for nonprofits and $50 for for-profits, while full-day rates are $45 for youth, $60 for nonprofits and $80 for for-profits. Typically, a half day is 3 ½ hours and a full day is six hours.

Other offerings at the course include a 47-foot climbing face and rappel tower, dual ziplines that exit from the upper level of the aerial team event, as well as many low initiatives that are just a foot or two off the ground.

Great Heights also has a mobile program that goes to a customer’s location.

Past groups that have used the challenge course include FedEx Ground, Ralph Lauren, Reynolds American, Girl Scouts of America and Boy Scouts of America.

Principal Melita Wise of Hanes Magnet said that the idea to take school staff to the Great Heights Challenge Course came out of a staff leadership meeting and the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association paid for the activity.

Wise said that building community and excellence for all students was the main reason for using the challenge course.

“Our purpose was to help folks start the year with a sense of purpose, knowing each other as a teaching community and setting us up to build a community within our school, as well as with our students,” Wise said. “The other piece is to help us move forward with the year focused on the things that are most important — student learning and our attention to how do we maximize the resources we have to make the most difference for students.”

While participating in the challenge course, people navigate through various challenging obstacles with other people beside them. After finishing activities, the participants get together to discuss their groups’ experiences. Members of a group are not required to do any of the activities.

“We never force anyone,” Berry said.

Several teachers at Hanes Magnet said they would like to participate in the challenge course again.

Miranda Jones, a sixth-grade exceptional children’s teacher participated in some of the low elements but said she did not try the aerial event because of her weight.

“I honestly felt I would be intimidated by my colleagues who are fit,” she said, believing they might laugh at her.

But, she said that once she got to the course and saw the aerial event and what other participants were doing, she wished she had signed up for it.

Through a low element called The Muse, Jones said she was able to see some of the benefits of teamwork.

The Muse consists of about 15 stumps and several boards. Groups navigate from stump to stump using the boards of various lengths.

“It challenged me to put my voice out there more, I would say, because there was one point in time where I had an idea but nobody heard me,” Jones said.

Berry said that The Muse is “really about utilizing your resources and supporting each other and communicating.”

Ryan Sheets and Courtney Haas talked about their experiences at the course after doing the Nitro Crossing activity in which participants cross over two barriers — raised wooden sticks — transporting a cup of water. The primary aim of the Nitro Crossing is to not spill a drop of water.

“It’s a great way to meet the staff here,” said Sheets, a first-year, eighth-grade math teacher.

He said it felt good to work as a team to get the water across without spilling it and to have seven of the 10 people in his group get across the barriers.

“We didn’t make it a couple of times but with just the communication we felt open with each other,” Sheets said. “It’s a good starting point for me to be here as a first-year teacher.”

Haas, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, also said that the challenges develop teamwork.

“You’ve got to learn how to communicate, how to work in a group to accomplish challenging tasks,” Haas said. “The other thing is that because it’s challenging, you’re probably not going to be successful the first time around. Over there, we had to constantly stand back and reassess.”

During the aerial event, Walters’ initial fear quickly disappeared.

“It was nice,” she said. “I totally understand what they said was the whole point — to learn teamwork and how to cooperate. The person that I came across with, we sort of held hands the whole time and helped each other get across so I felt like that really served its purpose.”

The scariest moment for her was when she had to jump from one swinging log to another.

“You couldn’t just reach your foot across,” Walters said. “It was sort of like a Tarzan jump. You had to swing onto the other log, so that was a leap of faith, (but) I did it.” It made me feel successful. It made me feel great, and it made me feel good that everybody was encouraging each other.”

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