As her new teammates lowered her down from the 30-foot-high beam she had just traversed, Trisha Polycarpe burst into tears.
“Are you crying?” called out her teammates. Polycarpe had just scaled a ladder and climbed a tree, walked across a narrow log suspended high in the air, and rappelled back down to the ground. And no one had noticed she’d been quietly crying the whole time.
The experience was an object lesson for Polycarpe and her nine new colleagues, all newly hired summer counselors for LEAP, the New Haven not-for-profit that works on youth development throughout the year. Polycarpe was one of about a hundred new staffers who spent Friday at the Hopkins School’s ropes course, taking part in team-building activities before they take charge of the 7- to 12-year-olds who will join LEAP’s summer program.
Polycarpe’s group of 10 counselors spent the day doing icebreakers and team challenges, culminating in the “high ropes course,” in which harnessed participants climb high in the air while their teammates belay them from below. The course taught the team to trust each other, and it taught them that their actions are more important than words.
Even if you say you’re scared, even if you’re crying, you can still do what scares you, Polycarpe reflected later. That’s a lesson that she’ll take with her this summer when she’s mentoring kids through activities, including a field trip back to the ropes course.
The group’s leader for the day was Maria Gonzalez-Soto, a staffer at the Hopkins ropes course.
After an afternoon name-game, Gonzalez-Soto helped the counselors strap into harnesses and taught them how to put on climbing helmets. The course policy is “challenge by choice,” Gonzalez-Soto said; everyone is in charge of how far they want to push themselves.
Markese Jones, who is afraid of heights, kept staring up at the narrow beam he’d have to walk across.
Gonzalez-Soto arranged the counselors into a support team for the first climber: A belayer, a spotter, someone to hold the ladder, two “safeties” holding the rope, a rope coiler, and a supervisor.
Gonzalez-Soto asked the counselors to decide what order they’d like to go in. “I’m going last!” Shannon Knox said immediately. Avery Haith, who had done the course previously, volunteered to be first.
Gonzalez-Soto issued belay instructions. “Safety 1 and Safety 2 are the people who can never let go.”
“I ain’t going to let go of nothing. I’m scared,” said Javon Bellamy, his hands on the rope in the Safety 1 position. “On the ground, that’s my specialty.”
“Enjoy your ride,” said Jones, as Haith stepped on the ladder.
Haith (pictured) climbed up one tree, walked the beam across to the other tree and then was lowered down by the belayers. No problem. “You’ve just got to get used to it,” he said. “It’s a great experience.” The trick, he said, is not to look down.
Haith quickly moved into a coaching role, shouting tips and encouragement as each new counselor ascended to the suspended log.
“I’m up there with you! You got it!” Haith called out as Jones took his turn, taking deep breaths as he stood on the suspended log and clung to the tree.
“I’m going to go a few steps over and I’m coming down,” Jones shouted. He tentatively let go of the tree and, with encouragement from the ground level, slid himself not just a few steps, but all the way across the entire log.
“Boy, I’m sweating,” he said, after touching down to the ground. “Man, listen, me and heights just don’t sit well. And I gotta trust people?”
Polycarpe was the next to face her fear. She said afterward that she started crying while she was climbing the ladder. It wasn’t until she neared the ground that she really burst into tears, drawing immediate hugs from teammates. Polycarpe said she joined LEAP through a job fair at Gateway, where she’s studying addiction counseling, inspired by alcoholism in her family.
Knox, who had announced she would go last, jumped the line and connected the rope to her harness. “Oh, hell,” she said as she started climbing the ladder. “It’s too high already.”
“That was crazy,” Knox said, arriving back on the ground after completing the circuit. “It wasn’t that bad. They really had me. You can trust them.”
Knox said she’s looking forward to bringing kids to the ropes course, where she’ll be able to help kids who are scared. “That was me!”
After everyone completed the course, Gonzalez-Soto gathered the team in a group and had them select quotes from a pile, as talking points.
Polycarpe picked one that read, “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions speak so loudly.”
What you do is most important, Polycarpe said. “Even though I was crying, I still did it.”