South Charlotte

Try Outward Bound and change your life

Hiking until 3 a.m. will do something to you. So will spending 24 hours a day with people you'd never normally talk to.

And although there are no books or homework, the wilderness can be as fine a classroom as any.

That's the backbone of the Outward Bound experience, and as the Charlotte office of the North Carolina Outward Bound School celebrates its 15th anniversary, the leaders are spreading awareness about the program that changed their lives and has touched thousands of Charlotteans.

Outward Bound was founded in Wales in 1941 by a man named Kurt Hahn, who helped young seamen get fit mentally and physically to survive harsh conditions. The four core Outward Bound principles are self reliance, physical fitness, compassion and craftsmanship.

Headquartered in Asheville, the North Carolina Outward Bound School was founded 45 years ago and is the oldest independent Outward Bound School in the nation.

There are a number of Outward Bound courses in the North Carolina mountains that last for different periods of time, and each course is designed to stretch participants' mettle.

The Asheville school expanded to Charlotte in 1997 to widen its net and raise awareness in urban areas.

On any given course, participants will weather storms, go backpacking, camping, rock-climbing, hiking and even do solo treks.

"Outward Bound is all about challenging you and making you dig very deep on a mental, physical, social, emotional level," said Charlotte program director Amanda Sturner, who lives in south Charlotte. "You're awake in every sense of the word."

The Charlotte program offers scholarships for students through with Right Moves for Youth and Communities in Schools, as well as three scholarship courses: the Educators Course for Charlotte-Mecklenburg School teachers; the Veterans Course for veterans returning from active duty; and the Unity Course for CMS high school students.

The scholarships are designed for people who wouldn't normally be able to afford courses, which start at around $700.

The Unity Course is a partnership with four CMS high schools (Vance, Butler, Phillip O'Berry and Myers Park), where Outward Bound selects students who wouldn't normally sit together in the cafeteria. They could differ by race, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

After seven days spent relying on one another in the woods, on ropes courses and in deep conversation, the groups return with a new perspective.

When Charlotte Advisory Board member Jay Ahuja first got involved with the Charlotte program, he videotaped the students at the end of the course.

"They had no idea they could be so interconnected with everyone else out there," said Ahuja. "They got off the trail and were changed."

"We've heard stories about students who had been about to fail, going to law school," said Sturner.

When the Unity Course students return, they're charged with initiating a service project at their school to illustrate what they learned. Past groups have formed clubs with more than 100 members, only a handful of whom actually did the course. Projects include painting diversity-themed quotes on school walls and scheduling school-wide "Mix it Up" days, where students eat lunch with people they normally wouldn't hang out with.

Since starting the Unity and Educators courses, the Charlotte Outward Bound program has given more than $1 million in scholarships to Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

Eighty-seven-year-old Rufus Dalton has been on the board for the NC Outward Bound School since the program was founded in 1967.

He's now heavily involved in the Charlotte program and leases them office space off East Morehead Street.

Dalton has been on a number of expeditions, his last when he was 75. With only one full time staffer (Sturner) and one part-time staffer, the Charlotte Outward Bound program keeps costs low so more money can go toward scholarships.

As a nonprofit, the Charlotte Outward Bound Program relies predominantly on grants and donations.

In the wake of the recession, with purse-strings still tight, the volunteer Charlotte Advisory Board of the North Carolina Outward Bound School decided to try their hand at event fundraising.

So they started the River Bound Trail Race Series, a partnership with the U.S. National Whitewater Center that includes a 5K, 10K, 15K and half-marathon races throughout the year.

Charlotte Advisory Board Chairman Amos Beason, 45, said the race series captures the spirit of Outward Bound.

"We could have done an annual dinner or we could have done a golf tournament," said Beason. "But we wanted to do something that would push people physically, that would act as a fundraiser, and would touch the community multiple times a year."

In just two years, the race series has become a success, raising more than $60,000 for scholarships last year.

It's been so successful that the Outward Bound offices in Asheville and Atlanta have decided to roll out their own.

Looking toward the next 15 years, the goal is a simple one: Offer more scholarships to get more people in courses to change more lives.

Says Sturner: "You're leaving the comfort, the safety of everything you know, you're going to grow as a human being, and you're never going to be the same."