To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before…

Spencer Palmer joined the Treks team at Cherokee Creek Boys School in September 2012 having just finished a summer stint as an expedition leader for Deer Hill Expeditions in the Four Corners area of Colorado. While in Colorado, Spencer led extended backpacking and rafting trips with adolescent clients. He’s a 2012 graduate of Toccoa Falls College, with a major in Outdoor Leadership and Education.

Spencer Palmer - CCBS Trek Manager

Spencer Palmer - CCBS Treks Manager

Spencer’s involvement in the outdoors has been lifelong. He was active in Boy Scouts and attained the rank of Eagle Scout. He was an avid hunter and fisherman growing up in the Toccoa area with his two brothers. At the local Y Camp near Talullah Gorge, Spencer was assistant adventure director, working with campers on outdoor trips and rope course activities.

In 2008, Spencer “thru hiked” the Appalachian Trail, taking just under five months to traverse the mountains from Georgia to Maine. “Thru hikers” usually adopt a nickname for notes and sign-ins along the trail. Spencer’s moniker was “One Flop”. Since he is a stickler for details (something that continues to shine through in his work at Cherokee Creek), he walked every foot of the trail and made sure that every side trip began and ended at the same spot on the “AT”.

Spencer also brings a love of wild water to complement his overall love of the wilderness. He’s an experienced kayaker, paddling Class IV water all over the Southeast. He shares his organizational talents with the paddling community by helping to organize festivals on the Tallulah River in Georgia and the Ocoee River in Tennessee.

We are blessed that Spencer is able to bring all of these talents and passions to bear on the whitewater canoeing program at Cherokee Creek.

As our new Treks Program Manager, Spencer hopes to create new outdoor activities for the boys, continue to maintain our enviable safety record (like all our Trek staff, Spencer is a certified Wilderness First Responder), and further integrate our PATH work into the outdoor curriculum. Right off the bat, he’s instituting new methods of staff training and development so that everyone involved with the Trek program is on a continuous path of self-improvement.

Everyone at Cherokee Creek is looking forward to working with Spencer. He brings a wealth of knowledge and a passion for the outdoors to our students.

Thanks for being on our team, Spencer!

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Lightning Strikes Twice

Teamwork State Champs! Nick with the 2010 team in March.

Teamwork State Champs! Nick with the 2010 team in March.

I have been on this earth for nearly twenty thousand days. Included in those days are some that, because of their life-altering consequences, I remember to the smallest detail. Lightning strikes out of the blue sometimes and changes my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

What I think makes me a little special and different is the fact that I have had two memorably transcendent days through my work. Both occurred because of CCBS and our involvement with FIRST Lego League.

FIRST Lego League (FLL) is an international robotics competition between teams of middle-school students in which judging is based on four criteria: Teamwork, Presentation of a Science Project, Engineering and Robot Performance. FFL inventor Dean Kamen wants to “inspire young peoples’ interest and participation in science and technology” by bringing a hint of athletic fervor to a competition with a guiding ethos of “Gracious Professionalism.” 

When asked if I wanted to coach a team I agreed without hesitation. I didn’t know then that lightning was about to strike.      

Part of the Coach’s Promise for FIRST Lego League is:  “The children do the work.”  That was pretty easy for me to observe that first year, and ever since. I’ve always felt that I best empower my students by giving them an opportunity to try something new. Then I step back as far as is safe and let them do it their way. Over the years I have hybridized the FLL Coach’s Promise, my own coaching philosophy and the CCBS’s mission. My teams are coached to aim for two objectives: “have fun” and “Show up as Warriors who represent themselves, their families and our school with Gracious Professionalism.”

In February of 2006, after a long day of competition at the South Carolina Convention Center in Columbia, my name was called as the Outstanding Coach of the Tournament. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and in front of 80 teams, their coaches, parents and the judges I had won it! I obviously did some things right that season and day, but I’ll leave it to others to explain why, out of eighty coaches, I deserved such an honor. Lightning had struck me and I’ve never been the same since. 

Lightning struck again last March at the South Carolina State FLL Tournament when our team was called as the State Champion in Teamwork.  Those eight guys had demonstrated outstanding teamwork all day in a chaotic environment with infinite distractions and challenges. I was still stunned to the point of tears when their efforts were so publicly recognized.They had used the concepts, tools and techniques we staff and parents work so hard to help them learn, and the result of their own hard work, to gain the championship trophy, made of Legos of course.

In January I will head to the regional FLL competition with the 2011 team. Just like the last five teams, they will be empowered and given opportunities to succeed with my support instead of my intervention. As a result, they will come together as a team, do the best that they can do with all of the tools they have been given and walk away with an experience full of value.

 And, who knows, lightning may even strike again…

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Teams Work!

“Whatever you do, don’t go down Hell’s Canyon.” My Outward Bound instructor was helping my group plot our course for the last few days of a backpacking section that was to lead us out of the mountains and to a state park with showers and fried chicken. “Your group does not have the equipment necessary to descend the canyon safely and there is no good way to evacuate someone with an injury.” That was plain enough for our group and we decided on a 3-day course that stayed well clear of the canyon. Our instructors approved our plan, put on their packs, “see you in three days at the park.” they said as they walked off on their own route to the park.

Our group was a collection of 16 to 20 year-olds. We were a mix of Americans, Hungarians, and Soviets (before the wall came down). We spent a week learning backpacking and navigation skills and had just started our final exam – three days on our own!

What had been a relatively smooth week with our instructors turned into an inefficient and frustrated group in about three hours.  Some people wanted to walk slowly and take just a few breaks, others wanted to walk quickly, and take many breaks. Three different languages made every navigation meeting hugely challenging, ending often with only more confusion and leaving the leader to “just make a decision!” By the middle of day 2, we lowered ourselves down a rock ledge, pulled the rope down to us and took out the map for a navigation stop. After careful study, there was no disagreement this time – we were in Hell’s Canyon, the one place we weren’t supposed to be, and with no way to get back up the ledge! Now the only way to get out of the canyon was to go down the canyon.

We had been pretty convinced by our instructors that we would die if we went in this canyon so our group got real focused, real quick. When faced with a challenge this serious we noticed a shift…we began to operate as a team.

Of course, you know the ending of the story… We spent the next 24 hours descending the canyon looking for a way out. Not once from that point forward did a meeting end without everyone understanding what was being said, and being in agreement with the decision.   After a very intense, all night, slow and careful descent we all made it out of the bottom of Hell’s Canyon. We never felt more alive and practically ran the rest of the way to the state park and to the reward of showers and fried chicken!

Teamwork State Champions

Teamwork State Champions

We have all, at least metaphorically, experienced the story of scrambling our way out of a Hell’s Canyon! I was reminded about this powerful story as I contemplated a recent victory at Cherokee Creek Boys School.  Our middle school boys participated in the State LEGO League robotics competition.  Our students range in ages from 11-15…they come from all over the world and when they arrive at CCBS, teamwork is not the most important thing on their minds. Under the heightened stakes of competition the boys faced the mental challenges of “finding a way out of the bottom of the canyon” and emerging as champions!

This year they did well enough locally to advance to the State Level competition. At the State Level they finished the highest place ever, including taking the State Championship for Teamwork!  They were very proud of course, but I had witnessed their teamwork at the local competition first hand and I knew there must have been a huge lesson they learned in between…

And when I talked with the team here’s what they said:

“After the experience of regional, we knew what we did well already, and what we needed to work on.”

“In practice we may have been arguing, but competition brings out the best!”

“I found after regionals, it was much easier to be nice. We got a lot more accomplished!”

“When I saw that this was our chance, I put aside my arguing and just focused on the competition.”

My Outward Bound group and the Cherokee Creek Boys School First LEGO League Team both came out of their experiences feeling that, together– as a team– they could do anything! The beauty of a lesson learned by experiencing it in such a powerful way is that it is impossible to take away the reality of the success … I know that I can be a part of a wildly diverse group and accomplish amazing feats…The Cherokee Creek Students know that they can work together with their peers and actually be a part of the best team in the state!

Here are three “real and true” teamwork lessons that I–and our CCBS boys–discovered from our experiences:  

  1.  COMMON GOAL: Preparing a team for their challenge is required for their success.  The team must have a clear goal….standards that are understood by all. 
  2. UNIFIED COMMITMENT: Each team member feels a sense of ownership towards his role in the group…
  3. COLLABORATION: In an arena of risk or competition – where it is all on the line – the team must have a climate of collaboration and trust. Trust is produced by honest, open, consistent and respectful behavior and listens to every person’s point of view.  

We are offered the lessons in teamwork many times during our life.  The challenge is to bring our best to every team. No matter how many different opinions there are, or how different we all are. A group united in purpose is capable of anything!  

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.  The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives.  It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”  ~Andrew Carnegie

David LePere is the executive director of Cherokee Creek Boys School, a therapeutic boarding school for middle-school boys, ages 11-15 in Westminster, SC

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