WILMINGTON — Nine Wilmington-area teens from chronically homeless families just spent three weeks calling Alaska home.
The trip was organized by the National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE), a Wilmington-based non-profit in the same vein of NOLS or Outward Bound. Largely funded by a $25,000 Challenge Cost Share Program Grant from the National Park Service, the trip combined service work and outdoor adventures.
For most of the participants, ranging in age from 14-18, it was their first time on an airplane, but none of them were strangers to the great outdoors. All nine have been involved with the NCOAE’s Education Without Walls (EWW) program for years.
Designed for ambitious teenagers living in poverty, EWW takes local students on six outdoor expeditions each school semester. The expeditions range from surfing trips right in the students’ backyard at Carolina Beach to backpacking and rock climbing in the Pisgah National Forest.
NCOAE founder Zac Adair said the EWW program “provides structure and routine the students often lack in their home lives,” as well as a place they can feel safe and build on their interpersonal skills.
Much like the teens participating in EWW, Adair is no stranger to hardship. In 2003, while biking home after a day of surfing in the Outer Banks, Adair was struck by a car. He spent nine days in a coma and woke up to broken bones, total blindness in his right eye, and less than 2 percent of his sight in the left.
The accident was devastating to Adair, an avid outdoorsman, but he was determined to bounce back. He went to Prescott College and received his masters degree in adventure education, where the NCOAE was his thesis project. Knowing his blindness would prevent him from securing a career in his field, Adair decided to make his own job.
Alongside his wife, Celine, Adair grew the NCOAE from his kitchen table and a storage unit in 2009 to the lush 17-acre Carolina Beach campus the organization calls home today.
In addition to being NCOAE’s Director of Operations, Celine is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. When working at the Coastal Horizons Youth Shelter in 2013, she met Cameron Williams and invited him on an EWW trip. He’s been with the organization since, and is one of the students who went to Alaska in July.
Before joining NCOAE, “I was getting into trouble, sneaking out, breaking into cars,” Williams said. “But NCOAE supported me. Without them, I probably would be in jail.”
Instead, Williams spent part of the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. There, the NCOAE group restored an old mining site and worked on trail systems in an area of the park that had been closed to the public for over 10 years.
One of the more memorable moments in the trip, Williams recalled, happened while the group was traversing a glacier.
“One of the kids sank chest-deep into the mud,” Williams said.
After taking an obligatory photo, the group helped him stay calm and reach solid ground. They also encountered several bears, grouse, moose, and a porcupine during their adventures.
Trip leader Wesley Hawkins said he was never too worried about the group, though, since they all have been with EWW for years. This trip gave the students an opportunity to take the reins and show off the skills they’ve learned.
EWW has had a measurable effect on the students involved. Despite coming from unstable homes, participants graduate from high school at a 20 percent higher rate than that of New Hanover County.
The program also had led to improved academic performance and school attendance. Adair said that EWW is not an academic organization, but does provide students with the resources they need to succeed in the classroom as well as in the outdoors.
On an individual level, the effect of an outdoor education is even more profound. Williams, who just graduated from high school, is working toward becoming a trip leader himself.
Hawkins noted that being an outdoor educator can be difficult, requiring a nomadic lifestyle, but Williams is certainly up for the challenge. And, Hawkins noted, “it’s worth it to see the changes it makes in these kids.”
For more information on the NCOAE, visit its website or call (910) 399-8090.
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