Julia Montag: Pulling yourself up by your climbing straps

Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 4:52pm

What comes to mind when you hear about Columbus, Ohio? Maybe you remember that it’s the state’s capital, or it’s Guy Fieri’s hometown, or it’s where the very first Wendy’s opened in 1969. (You definitely wouldn’t think of the home of the School We Don’t Speak Of whose mascot is named Brutus).

Columbus is also home to the Academy for Urban Scholars, a dropout and recovery high school for students who are at risk of dropping out, or who already have. The city, compared to Ann Arbor, has an 8 percent lower graduation rate and nearly three times the crime. To remove students from the physical or neighborhood environment that lured them away from class and toward trouble, the school provides an abundance of extracurricular activities. Both during and after school, you can find students playing basketball and volleyball, visiting the local YMCA or even putting their minds to work in the music studio.

“Many of our students have experienced trauma, and it is our responsibility as educators to provide our students with access to resources that support the development of resilient mental health,” said Ryan Marchese, who works as a teacher for AUS, said in an interview with The Daily. What’s the key to resilient mental health? Ask Mr. Marchese, and he’ll tell you the answer is his rock climbing club.

It started as an idea. Marchese, an AUS educator by day and seasoned rock climber by night, teamed up with his pal, Steve Carnahan, who managed the local Lifetime Fitness climbing wall. They wanted to introduce Marchese’s students to the benefits of climbing — an entire world to which they had never been exposed. In the fall of 2016, Marchese wrote a proposal to the AUS administration to request funding for a student climbing club. After the proposal was quickly approved, Marchese coordinated with the school to develop a program in which students could earn physical education credit through rock climbing.

Marchese wanted to blend teaching and climbing for reasons beyond bringing together his occupation and his hobby. When asked about his motives when creating this program, he responded that the “(AUS) staff are strong believers in the idea that students need to know that we care before they care (about) what we know, and experiences like rock climbing with students help to build the relationships that establish our classrooms as safe learning environments for our students.” After-school youth development programs have been examined and evaluated for their ability to engage teens, foster growth and intervene with delinquency, and have appeared to be extremely successful when children like the club, feel treated well and have relationships with club staff members. The climbing club has followed suit over the years as interest in the program continues to grow.

“When the climbing club first started, only a few students were interested,” Marchese says. “After those students came climbing and had a great time, they brought their friends and the club grew quickly.”

As inner-city teens deal with jobs, family responsibilities and “the lure of the streets”, they face more challenges in their after-school hours. The same study showed that in urban communities, there are low wages and consequently high work demands, leaving no adult at home when school gets out. Schools in the same communities tend to lack extracurricular clubs and athletic programs that could occupy students in the afternoon, pushing students to roam neighborhoods that are often “plagued by gang violence and the drug trade,” the study said. Marchese recognizes this concept and expressed to me that he’d love to be a part of encouraging other schools in comparable cities to lead similar programs.

Detroit is a prime example of a city that would benefit from Marchese’s ideas. Only 79 percent of Detroit residents aged 25 and older have graduated high school, while in Ann Arbor, that same statistic is 96.8 percent. Detroit’s shockingly high rates of crime have led the city to create several violence prevention programs geared toward teenagers. In one, police officers work as teachers and mentors, and promote paths that involve education, jobs and careers. In Detroit, there exists quite a lengthy list of opportunities for youth after-school programs, but the list lacks a rock climbing program.

In addition to getting the students engaged, climbing gets them active and assists in mental health development.

I’ve experienced the mental health benefits of climbing in my own life,” Marchese attests. But we don’t have to just take Marchese’s word for it. The benefits of climbing, especially those relating to depression and psychotherapy, have been made clear in a study done by the University of Arizona. Researcher Eva-Maria Stelzer found that the endurance required for bouldering (a form of climbing) materializes in social, mental and physical ways, building muscle while reducing stress.In the Huffington Post series “Go Rogue, which comprises stories about the advantages of outdoor sports, Abigail Wise addresses how rock climbing strengthens our minds and bodies. On top of the benefits of exercise, such as decreased stress levels and improved mental health, climbing introduces a unique workout that gets hearts pumping and muscles burning. The sport requires significant muscle power and training, as well as a set of problem-solving skills as handy as your gear belt.

So, if Columbus high school students are becoming acquainted with a new sport that promotes wellbeing and teaches them to work hard (and hopefully stay in school), perhaps other cities can and should adopt this model of youth development. Inner-city youth, such as teens in Detroit, would benefit from Ryan Marchese expanding out of Columbus and climbing up north. School programs should continue to promote athletics to redirect students towards activities that expand instead of contract their options for the future.

Julia Montag can be reached at jtmon@umich.edu.