CONNER – With red helmets fastened tight around their chins, a group of Grantsdale fifth-graders is having trouble knowing exactly where to look.
Randal Miller is standing right there before them.
The information that he’s offering will be very important in the next half hour, but one by one, all their eyes look heavenward as they all ponder their next move.
This group of Grantsdale students is about to embark on an adventure that most will remember for a long time to come.
They’ve gathered at the Trapper Creek Job Corps challenge ropes course as part of a brand-new leadership program developed by the school’s counselor, Angela Dondero.
The youngsters have already been through a variety of team-building challenges with members of Trapper Creek’s student leadership elite, the SilverTips.
And now they’re ready for the highlight of the day.
Each one will be offered the opportunity to inch their way across either a cable or pole hanging 25 feet up in the air. They all wear a harness that is attached via a sturdy rope to Miller’s own harness.
Actual danger for the exercise is almost nonexistent.
But climbing a tree and stepping out onto a thin piece of cable or wobbly log isn’t an easy thing to do, no matter what your age.
This group of fifth-graders is the youngest that Miller has assisted. So far, they’ve stepped up and accomplished every task that’s come their way.
“They are really a high-functioning group,” Miller said as he makes some last-minute preparation for the high-wire walk.
“We get quite a few other classes from schools in the county, but they are all older,” he said. “Next week, we’ll have all the pilots from the Bitterroot National Forest here. We will really put them through the rigors because we know they’re going to be a little cocky.”
The ropes course at Trapper Creek was established about a decade ago at a cost of close to $1 million, Miller said. It’s used frequently by students at the job corps site as a way to build cooperation and teamwork.
“It really does work well for that,” Miller said.
Half of the fifth-grade class starts over at the Mohawk Walk that consists of a series of cables that run 18 inches off the ground in between a series of trees.
The youngsters have to depend on each other to help make their way around the course.
“It’s really a lot harder than it looks,” Miller said.
But it’s dwarfed by the challenge of walking the high wire.
“Wow,” says one youngster as his head cocks way back and his eyes get big. “That’s a long ways up there.“
“I think it’s going to be kind of scary,” says another.
One by one, they climb up the trees to shouts of encouragement from their peers. With a deep breath, they take that first step on to the cable or stout wooden pole and inch their way across to the cheers of fellow adventurers.
When a few opt to come down early, they’re met with encouragement, too.
After the first young lad chooses to turn around, Miller tells the group that he’s the bravest of all.
“Despite being faced with pressure from his peers, he decided to do what was right for him,” Miller tells the red-capped youngsters.
It’s a lesson to be remembered later in life when the situation arises where peers might be encouraging drugs, alcohol or something else harmful, he said.
Dondero said the mood was festive when the fifth-graders finished handing in the helmets and harnesses and stepped back on the bus.
“There was a lot of energy there,” she said. “They all wanted to tell us how much fun it was and they wanted to know if they could do it again.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased,” Dondero said. “I watched some of kids break out of their shell and do amazing things that they didn’t think they were capable of doing. Without us pushing them, they chose to challenge themselves.“
The adventure was part of Dondero’s plan to create a new leadership training program in the elementary school. Using information gathered by members of the SilverTips, she will select about 10 fifth-graders to become the school district’s first DREAM (Demonstrating Respect Every Day to Achieve More) team.
Those youngsters – clad in the appropriate leadership attire of khaki pants and a polo shirt – will assist the school to in creating positive behavior and serve as mentors for the younger grades.
“I was a leadership kid myself,” Dondero said. “I did student council all through high school and served as an adviser to student government as a teacher.
“I have a big passion to teach kids leadership skills,” she said.
Fifth grade is a good place to start.
“These students totally get it,” Dondero said. “Sometimes we adults don’t give them enough credit. While they are still kids, they live in a very adult world and we need to meet them at their level to give them the skills to enter the adult world.”