At North Adams camp, participants learn ropes of team-building - and more

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NORTH ADAMS — Michael Harris let everyone on the ground know: "Take me straight to the top."

Elevated by a group of rope-pulling students and suspended toward the forest canopy on what's known as Giant's Swing, Michael released the only mechanism keeping him hoisted.

Whoosh.

Michael is one of more than 100 local youths, 72 campers and 30 mentors — past participants who return as helpers — who spent every day this week team-building, climbing, spotting and belaying at the Northern Berkshire Youth ROPES Summer Program at the Gerald Downing Ropes Course within Historic Valley Campground at Windsor Lake.

"I like the teamwork aspect," said Michael, 14, who is now in his fifth year at the program — his second as a mentor — and will attend C.H. McCann Technical School in the fall. "Everyone has to work together."

The ROPES camp, a free camp for local youths attending schools in North Adams, Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Florida and Williamstown launched in 1996, features an array of dizzying and challenging courses that integrate climbing, jumping, balancing — and swallowing fears.

"I get to go on something that's 50 feet in the air and not be scared," said 14-year-old Allyson Krzanik, another mentor whose favorite challenge is the "Leap of Faith."

The camp is staffed every year by a volunteer team of Northern Berkshire police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and teachers.

"The kids are a blast," said Michael Gleason, general manager of Adams Ambulance who has been volunteering every summer for about 16 or 17 years. "A lot of the kids would [otherwise] be sitting at home doing nothing."

The week also offers the opportunity for emergency responders to build a relationship with local students — who otherwise might only interact with officers or EMTs during a crisis, Gleason noted.

In its early years, the program consisted only of a low ropes course and was funded through the Governor's Alliance Against Drugs distributed through the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. At the time, the state funded four camps, including locations in Pittsfield, and in Central and Southern Berkshire.

In 2002, the government funding was cut. While the other camps closed, the city and the North Adams Police Department began funding the camp through community policing grants. The volunteer organizers built a high ropes course and, after a community contest, adopted the new name, which stands for Respecting Other People Encouraging Self-Esteem.

The camp's future was again threatened in 2009, when the community policing grants were eliminated from the state budget during a round of emergency 9C cuts by Gov. Deval Patrick. It was then that the organizers appealed to the community for support. Costs associated with running the ropes course include an annual inspection fee, updates to pieces of equipment required by the state, and the replacement of safety equipment such as ropes, helmets, harnesses and carabiners.

Funding now comes through donations and fundraisers, the largest of which consists of running the Solid Sound and FreshGrass campsites at Noel Field.

More than 20 years since its inception, the camp has seen thousands of campers tackle its courses.

Some students stay on year after year and become a mentor, which requires at least two years of experience and a minimum age of 14. If they stay even longer, they can become facilitators, who are certified through High Five, when they turn 18.

Over its two, fully booked camps this summer — one in July and one in August — the ROPES program will host about 220 campers, mentors and facilitators.

"It's huge team-building, and it certainly builds self-esteem," said James Holmes, a retired North Adams Public Schools teacher and current School Committee member who has volunteered for the program for about 12 years.

The array of challenges includes a 250-foot zip line and the Leap of Faith, a jump from 38 feet above the ground.

"We don't force kids to do it — we encourage kids to try," Holmes explained of the camp's approach.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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