Lake Norman & Mooresville

Outward Bound program changed her life

She was 16 years old, getting by with reasonable grades, coasting on the track team and spending a lot of time talking to and about boys. Typical teenage stuff, but Amanda Sturner's parents thought she could do better.

They were an active family, so they suggested she take a trip to reassess her priorities. Only this time she would be setting out with a group of 11 strangers about her age, on a 16-day Outward Bound course that included rock climbing, whitewater canoeing, backpacking, a service project, a 12-mile run and more.

The trip not only changed her direction, it shaped her future.

"It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, but also one of the best," said Sturner, now 38 and living in Willowmere in south Charlotte with her husband, Harold, and their four sons.

"A group of strangers put in the wilderness creates this magical situation. It's an equalizer. ... You divide all your gear and necessities among the packs, so you need all of these people, you rely on them and you rely on yourself."

Outward Bound is a nonprofit organization formed in Europe in 1941 as a way to educate young sailors and give them survival skills. The name comes from the nautical term for a ship's departure from the harbor, and the organization uses that metaphor as it takes people of all walks of life out of their comfort zones and into challenges that teach them about themselves.

For Sturner, facing those obstacles as a teen had an immediate, transforming and permanent impact.

When she returned home to Louisville, Ky., it was with a redefined sense of self and motivation. Sturner helped out around the house, devoted herself to school, dramatically improved her grades and really trained for her cross country and track events, which she started winning.

Sturner's perspective led her to Colorado College, a service-oriented university in Colorado Springs that encourages experiential learning much like Outward Bound. Sturner participated in and eventually served as president of an outdoor leadership program there, earning certifications in skills like avalanche safety and wilderness first responder.

After graduating in 1995, she spent the next few years working for Outward Bound, progressing from an apprentice to assistant and finally lead instructor of excursions in Montana. She led about 30 courses, a total of 450 days and nights in the field.

Meanwhile she earned her master's in education from the University of Kentucky, with hopes of bringing Outward Bound's reach to more children.

"I recognized that there was a whole population of kids who would never have (an Outward Bound) opportunity. I wanted to make it more accessible to inner city kids, and I thought if I became a teacher I could bring those lessons into the classroom," said Sturner.

She took a job with West Mecklenburg High School teaching English and quickly discovered that leading in the wilderness was a lot different than running a classroom.

Sturner stuck with it for three years before moving on. She hadn't given up her vision of extending the reach of Outward Bound's philosophies to a broader audience, but she wasn't sure how to make it happen.

A phone call from a friend, Molly Hunt, led the way. Hunt had been on that first trip with Sturner, and the two had become fast friends.

"Amanda is amazing," said Hunt. "Whatever she thinks, she makes happen."

Hunt says Sturner "bleeds Outward Bound," and encouraged her to see if there were any jobs available with the organization in Charlotte.

Outward Bound hired Sturner as a program director in 2007.

Under her guidance, local Outward Bound initiatives have grown exponentially.

The Unity Project brings together 12 students who represent the diversity within a school and sends them on an Outward Bound course designed to foster understanding and acceptance. The students then take their experiences back to school.

Originally, the program struggled to find participants. Today, there are waiting lists, and Unity Clubs have been established at Butler, Phillip O. Berry, Myers Park, and Vance high schools.

In addition, 24 area teachers are selected each year to participate in a course for educators, and there is a wait list for that as well.

When donations to support scholarships fell during the recession, Sturner and the local advisory board established the River Bound Trail Race Series.

Hosted by the U.S. National Whitewater Center, it offers four running events, and all proceeds benefit the North Carolina Outward Bound's Charlotte Regional Scholarships for youth, educators, veterans and the Unity Project.

All Sturner's efforts have made the Outward Bound program accessible to many of the kids she had hoped to reach, but she still feels there's a lot of work left to do.

As she learned on that first trip as a 16-year-old: "You have to dig deep to find out what you're really made of, and most people discover they're capable of far more than they ever thought possible."