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Sue Bush
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A Decade On The R.O.P.E.S.

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, July 20, 2006

Connor Tworig on a high ropes "Multi-Vine Traverse" challenge.
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North Adams - The ground seemed very, very far below. Secured in a harness and casting furtive glances below, he heard the encouraging cheers, the go-for-it applause.

Facing A Challenge At Any Age

He held his breath, he faced his phobia and then, it happened...40-year-old D.A.R.E. officer Erik Thomas faced a R. O.P.E.S. camp "high ropes" challenge and stepped onto a cable suspended about 35 feet into the air.

North Adams Police Officer Erik Thomas faced his fears and completed a challenge.
Thomas completed the challenge.

"I'll tell you what, six feet is high enough for me," Thomas said during a July 19 Windsor Lake camp sessions. "But it was awesome. The kids were cheering me on, telling me 'you can do it! you can do it!'It was a growing experience for me."

10 Years Of Free Camp Sessions

"Growing experiences" are what the Respecting Other People Encouraging Self-Esteem camp is all about, according to the numerous Berkshire area law enforcement officers and public school teachers who act as the camp facilitators. A growing group of teen-aged camp alumni return to one of the two five-day camp sessions yearly to serve as mentors.

The camp began as a state-funded Drug Abuse Resistance and Education camp that complemented classroom D.A.R.E. programs. In 2002, after state funding for the camps was lost, area law police officers decided to continue on as a R.O.P.E.S. camp.

The Northern Berkshire camp is celebrating its'10th year of operation. Since becoming a R.O.P.E.S. camp, the sessions are funded primarily through donations and contributions of food and beverages from local vendors, said city police Officer John LeClair, who is also a member of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force.

Largest Session Ever

The current camp session is hosting the largest number of campers in the camp's history, said LeClair. There are 113 fifth- and sixth-grade D.A.R.E. in-school education program graduates from 19 communities located in Berkshire, Franklin, Bennington [Vermont] and Rensselaer [N.Y.] counties attending the camp during this month's session.

LeClair said that students from Adams, Clarksburg, Williamstown, North Adams, Drury, Monroe Bridge, Savoy, Rowe,Cheshire, Lanesboro, Pittsfield, Hancock, New Ashford, Stamford, Vt., Pownal, Vt. Berlin. N.Y., Stephentown, N.Y., and Plainfield all enrolled in the low ropes, high ropes challenge camp.

The Office of Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless has followed the path of former District Attorney Gerard D. Downing and delivered support to the camp, LeClair said.

"He sends two people to camp everyday," LeClair said, and noted that Michelle Arsenault and Judy Farinon were D.A. office volunteers for the current session. "We get the support from the district attorney's office."

Downing was a staunch supporter of the camp. He died suddenly while in office in 2003.

"It's What You Do Here"

A group of campers watched as individuals between 10 and 12 years old tackled a "Burma Bridge" challenge, which is similar to a high-wire or tightrope routine. The campers are harnessed with safety equipment handled by adult camp facilitators. Protective helmets are worn during the challenges.

Mary Tremblay, 12, of Lanesboro, was among the morning's "bridge walkers." Mary first ascended a ladder, and then then climbed onto a platform secured to a tree about 35 feet in the air. She was encouraged throughout her trek across the dual cables; when she reached the end of the about 20-foot horizontal walk, she stepped off the cables and was lowered safely to the ground.

"It was sort of tough at first," Mary said after she reached the ground."Especially getting onto the ropes. And it is a really thin line, you think you are going to fall. I am glad I did it; in R.O.P.E.S, the 'E' and the 'S' are 'encouraging self-esteem.'It's what you do here."

Friendships are built at the camp as well, said Mary.

"You have to work together, you get to know new people," she said. "I've made a lot of friends here."

Many "bridge walkers" performed a backwards flip and held themselves upside down before finishing the challenge and Mary was among them.

"It wasn't hard," she said, speaking in a casual, no-big-deal tone. "I did it while I was on the 'zipline,'only I did it forward."

The "Zipline," another high ropes challenge, involves climbing a ladder to a platform and then being secured to a long cable. Campers then ride the cable, which is also suspended at a height of about 35 feet.

The blurry figure is Marissa Nahm as she rode a "Zipline" challenge.

Easier To Trust

Other challenges include a "Leap of Faith," which is 35 feet high, and a "Vertical Playground," which is built at a height of 42 feet.

Susie Shanley, 12, of Williamstown, admitted to being a bit nervous about the "Burma Bridge" walk,

"It looks like it's kind of hard to get on the ropes," she said as she looked up at the challenge configuration.

Members of the "Blue Bubbles" team talked about another key element of the camp; trust. As the challenges progress, campers must trust that facilitators and peers will act appropriately to keep them safe during a specific task.

"It's getting easier to trust as the week goes on," said Courtney Rolnick, 11, of North Adams.

"The best part of camp is getting to meet all these new people and learn all these new things," said Stephanie Swoap, 12.

Mentors Are "Cool"

Hoosac Valley High School student Victoria Hilchey, 15, is a mentor. Hilchey completed the camp program after completing the DARE program in elementary school.

"It's a lot of fun," Hilchey said of mentoring. "This camp really is a good way to boost confidence and meet new friends."

Kelsy Pero, 15, also a HVHS student, is also a veteran mentor.

"When you come back [to camp] it's like family," she said. "And the kids, they come at first and they are shy but by the time they leave, it's totally changed."

The camp offers a chance for youth and police officers to interact in a positive setting, said Charles H. McCann Technical High School student and mentor Alexander Segala, 15.

"It helps make connections with police officers, which is good," he said.

Breanna Johnson has been a camp mentor for six years and serves as the camp's "senior mentor," said Lanesboro police Officer James Rathbun. Breanna is preparing to take her driving test and officers engaged in a bit of good-natured teasing with her.

"She is a really nice girl, just phenomenal, a great mentor to these kids" Rathbun said.

Marissa Nahm, safely on the ground.
Marissa Nahm plans to enter the Adams Memorial Middle School when classes resume. Her camp experience has been great, she said.
"The mentors are helpful and they are cool to be friends with, too," Marissa said. "I'm actually glad that I came to camp."

Moments Of Truth

Stephen Nutt, 12, of North Adams, described his "Zipline" adventure.

"When you are climbing up the ladder, you are looking up and seems easy," he said, and noted that once the platform is reached, the view is suddenly reversed, and jangling nerves may appear.

"[The facilitator] tells you to sit down and it feels like you are slipping, but you're not," he said. "[The facilitator] said 'don't worry,you are still attached to the tree, for about another 20 seconds'."

The moment of descent is a moment of truth, said Stephen.

"It felt like my stomach was coming up in my throat. But after that, I felt like I could do anything."

Matt Duell, 13, a Silvio O. Conte Middle School student, said he enjoyed the Zipline but did feel a little lightheaded when he was back on the ground.

"I do want to to come back next year and I don't want to do Zipline again until next year," he said. "I'm not a climber and I never practiced how to climb."

"But I did it."

Connor Tworig, 12, and a student at the St. Stanislaus Kostka School in Adams was tackling a "Multi-Vine Traverse" challenge that was built 25 to 30 feet off the ground.

"That was crazy!" Connor said as he completed the challenge. "Physically, it's a harder challenge but mentally, it's easier because it's not as high [as several camp challenges]."

Camp facilitator and Adams police Officer Gene Gavazzi offered his camp summary: "It's not how far you go, it's how hard you try."

"Jocelyn's Crazy Crawl"

In honor of the 10th anniversary and thanks to a $1,000 donation from the Jocelyn LeClair Memorial Scholarship Foundation, a new low ropes challenge, "Jocelyn's Crazy Crawl," was designed by John LeClair and built by city police Officer Francis Maruco and Lt. David Sacco.

The "challenge" is expected to be included as part of the August Mayor's Downtown Celebration event and children are expected to be able to try the maneuver, LeClair said.

Camp mentor Carrie Piaggi, wearing a lime green shirt, assisted camper Ashley Beckwith with a safety harness as camper Mary Tremblay looked on.

"The kids love this one," he said. "It's not fast like the other challenges. It's slow and it requires critical thinking and physical activity. There is so much you can do with this."

Camp facilitators include Clarksburg Police Chief Michael Williams, Williamstown police Officer Tania Hernandez, North Adams police Officers LeClair, Thomas, Maruco and Jason Wood, Sgt. William Baker, Lt. David Sacco, and Police Director Michael Cozzaglio, Gabriel Abbott School teacher Lindsay St.Pierre, North Adams Ambulance Service Emergency Medical Technicians and North Adams Police Department Dispatchers Dennis Tuper and Laurie Tuper, North Adams Public Schools teachers James Holmes, Robert LeClair, Karen Daigle, and Susanna Warren, Adams Officer Gavazzi, Officer Joseph Charon of the Cheshire Police Department and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts campus police, and Lanesboro police Officer Rathbun and D.A. office volunteers Arsenault and Farinon.

A second camp session is scheduled for August.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.

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