Facing your fears is difficult enough in everyday life, but try doing it 40 feet above the ground.
That’s exactly what people do at the Pima County 4-H High Ropes Course, at the University of Arizona West Campus Agricultural Center on West Fort Lowell Road, which is west of Interstate 10.
The program aims to teach people how to confront challenges such as being an effective leader, communicating well and fighting fears.
“When a group comes out here we work on communication, trust, problem solving, working as a team, goal setting, fighting fears, all those things,” said Elizabeth Sparks, a youth development agent for Pima County and ropes course facilitator.
The course is an adventure playland, Sparks said, with a dirt bike path, digging area, treehouse, tunnels and various obstacles spread throughout.
The most daunting of the courses looms overhead, made up of tall poles connected by ropes and wires; each section is a different obstacle to overcome.
“It is a whole other ball of beans when you get up there,” Sparks said.
“When they are up there they have to communicate. The visual is you are walking along in life and — boom — you hit an impasse; there is something that is blocking you from getting to the other side. What do you do? How do you maneuver around that obstacle? Do you embrace it? Do you fight with it? Do you struggle?”
Spark said these issues come up in everyday life and the ropes course helps people learn how to beat them.
“It’s just really a visual way of seeing how we deal with problems in our world,” Sparks said.
Everyone is welcome — schools, youth organizations, baseball teams, 4-H clubs and people with mental-health and drug and alcohol issues.
“This is open to all, so anyone can come and be a part of 4-H, if only for the day.”
4-H is the biggest youth-development organization in the country. It offers a hands-on learning experience in three areas — science, citizenship and healthy living.
“The way I choose to do youth development is by doing outdoor education,” said Sparks, who has been working at the course since it opened in 2007.
“The place itself is really cool, because everything out here has been donated to the program,” Sparks said, including the ropes course, land, storage unit, a ramada and even a water-harvesting cistern.
Businesses and nonprofits from all over the city helped make the course possible, from the Tucson Electric Power Co. to the Boy Scouts.
Sparks said the price is relatively low — $250 per group, no matter the size — “because everything has been donated to us and I want to make sure everyone gets this experience.”
The course is a safe zone for anyone who wishes to participate; Sparks and the two other ropes course facilitators try to challenge groups in a secure and friendly environment. The groups vary in number and age.
“I’m not really an ageist,” Sparks said. “If you are willing to climb, then I will put you in a harness.”
People from all over the city and other parts of Arizona take on the course. On a recent Friday, six people from TI Fitness, a training studio in Gilbert, traveled to Tucson.
“I wanted to look for a team builder,” said Terrance Johnson, co-owner of TI Fitness. “I’ve done ropes courses before and I just felt that they are a really great motivator to help our team get closer and find our strengths and weaknesses.”
After every course, Sparks or another group facilitator talks to the team about using their accomplishments and struggles as a lesson to be applied to everyday life.
“You have to work together, you have to talk to each other, you have to come up with a plan, you have to make sure everyone on the team knows the plan,” Sparks said.
Although it’s designed to be challenging, no one is forced to do anything.
“Everything they do is completely their choice,” said George Stefanakis, a course facilitator.
Stefanakis helps groups work together and identify their weaknesses. People have to let go of any “preconceived notion of who they are,” he said.
Facilitators teach the philosophy of challenge by choice, Stefanakis said — participants choose how far to push themselves and how to overcome their fears.
“They feel so empowered by having accomplished this, that it can really inspire them to do amazing things out in the real world,” Sparks said. “That’s when you really grow, when you go further than you think possible.”