He’ll have young people climbing the walls
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Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014

He’ll have young people climbing the walls

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/14/14/57/aWmhu.Em.138.jpeg|421
    - JANE DUCKWALL
    Jerry Miles
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/14/14/57/aqxI7.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - JANE DUCKWALL
    The old Rodman-Heath Cotton Mill east of downtown Waxhaw.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/14/14/57/1h9yFh.Em.138.jpeg|421
    - JANE DUCKWALL
    Jerry Myles inside the old Rodman-Heath Cotton Mill boiler room, where he’s building a climbing wall around the outer wall of the room.

Drivers passing the old Rodman-Heath Cotton Mill east of downtown Waxhaw probably don’t realize something significant and potentially life-changing is taking shape inside.

In an old boiler room of the 116-year-old mill, counselor Jerry Myles is building climbing walls as a way to connect with young people who might need extra guidance and focus.

When it opens this spring, Blue Sky Climbing will be an extension of Environmental Expeditions, a nonprofit organization Myles created “to provide adventures and activities that provide for growth experiences and connections with the natural world.”

The location will be marked by a sign: a figure climbing the old mill’s towering chimney.

Myles, 62, knows his target audience well. He worked as a counselor at Parkwood High School and at South Providence School, an alternative school in Waxhaw for middle and high school students.

“While there at South Providence, I had a climbing wall at the gym and did a lot of outdoor activities with the kids,” he said. “I got my vision there of developing a program like this.”

“In rock climbing, the wall becomes representative of the problem they’re dealing with,” he said. “Climbing it gives them confidence.”

Myles said he’s also found that “sometimes teenagers like to talk, and sometimes they don’t.”

Getting them out of their comfort zone and performing some activity can break down barriers and get them to open up, he said.

“Over time I’ve realized that it can benefit everybody,” he said.

Myles started his career in 1976 at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a bus driver and teaching assistant; he later taught kindergarten.

In 1984, he moved to Waxhaw, where he’s earned a reputation for community service by volunteering with Community Works of Waxhaw, which hosts events and organizes projects such as the community fitness trail and track behind South Providence.

Around 1985, Myles took a break from teaching to get a better-paying job, he said. He worked in the construction industry for about 10 years before returning to a career in education and earning a master’s degree in counseling.

Lately, he’s been putting his construction experience to work for Blue Sky Climbing.

He’s building a climbing wall about 70 feet long and 25 feet high, and a bouldering wall about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, he said. The facility will occupy two large rooms and take up about 3,000 of the building’s 100,000 square feet, he said.

Myles started renovating the rooms about a year ago, before he retired, when he had only nights and weekends to devote to the project. Now he works there about 40 hours a week, he said.

In addition to donating his time, he’s also been dipping deeply into his pockets.

“I anticipate a minimum of $25,000 to $30,000 to get the doors open,” Myles said. “Currently I am funding it myself. Some of the current funding is in the form of interest-free debt that I anticipate operations and donations will eventually cover.”

He also will be using the center to plan and organize outdoor adventures for young people – including kayaking, canoeing, stand-up-paddle-boarding, mountain-biking and back-packing.

“Personally, I’ve always loved being outdoors,” he said. “I went to Camp Thunderbird back in the ’60s … and I had really good experiences there.”

He also has trained at Outward Bound and Project Adventure, a Massachusetts-based organization with innovative teaching programs.

“They do something called adventure-based counseling, where you do these problem-based initiatives and activities and transfer your learning from those onto the issues in your own life,” he said.

That’s the kind of experience Myles hopes Blue Sky Climbing will provide for young people – particularly students at South Providence – though adults also are welcome.

Blue Sky Climbing is “going to be open to the public,” he said. “Whatever funds are generated will go toward funding trips for schools and trips for kids who can’t afford it.”

For more information, visit www.environmentalexpeditions.org.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at jbduckwall@gmail.com.

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