North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) is not just a group I give charity to— it is an integral part of my life. As an avid outdoorsman, I find the core values of Outward Bound especially appealing. But it is their tremendous work with young people that motivated me to support NCOBS in a more hands-on role.
With Outward Bound, I have been able to put the skills and knowledge I use to help people with investing in my professional life to work for a great philanthropic cause. As a member of Outward Bound’s Board of Directors for the past 14 years and a subsequent member of its Investment Committee, I have witnessed the transformative power of the program. I have seen disenfranchised teens come to NCOBS seeming skeptical and critical of the journey ahead, only to graduate the program with a stronger appreciation of nature, a better outlook on life, and most of all, the feeling of empowerment.
By teaching kids how to love the world around them, and challenging them in nature, Outward Bound instills the confidence they need to move forward and tackle the many life journeys that lie ahead. I am thrilled to be joining Outward Bound to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their good work, and would like to share with you a message from the NCOBS team below.
Hiking up a rugged trail deep in the the Linville Gorge, on day three of a 16-day North Carolina Outward Bound School course, the raucous trail banter of teenagers gradually muffles to the pants of a steep ascent. These students are on unfamiliar ground, tentatively navigating old trails through dense rhododendron by newly acquired map and compass skills. When at last they reach the summit of Hawksbill, they hoot and cheer and then suddenly, are utterly silenced by the magnificence of a sunset in the Gorge.
Examining photos in North Carolina Outward Bound School’s archives, going back to its first courses in 1967, similar moments of achievement are captured time and again. From the earliest photos of students clad in cotton, wearing army-issue hiking boots and the iconic green wool pants to today’s youth in colorful fleece and high tech gear, whether reaching a summit, pushing through a tough moment on a rock climb, or navigating a river rapid, the expressions are the same – joy, fatigue, pride, relief, and for many, reverence.
No matter the year they took a course, whether for baby boomers, gen-x, millennials, or gen-z alumni, the essence of the Outward Bound experience is today as it was in 1967 – to leave the safety of the harbor and in nautical terms, go outward bound, to the unknown. There, in the grandeur of nature, with its own profound effect, to meet physical challenges, discover untapped spirit and strength, and learn to work compassionately and effectively with a diverse group of strangers.
“Outward Bound is about changing lives,” says Whitney Montgomery, executive director of the Asheville-based North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) since 2007. Since the School’s founding in 1967 – from the mountains and Outer Banks of North Carolina to the central rivers and Everglades of Florida, the inner-city schools of Atlanta and the snow- capped peaks of Chile – it has provided courses for more than 160,000 students. For many of these alumni, their experience serves as a lasting touchstone.
The NCOBS instructors who guide the journey and teach the skills required to navigate the complexities of the Linville Gorge or to kayak through the Pamlico Sound, are a highly trained and hardy bunch dedicated to a vision set forth by German educator Kurt Hahn, Outward Bound’s founder. He designed the first program “to impel young people into value-forming experiences and to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, a readiness for sensible self-denial, and, above all, compassion.”
Lofty goals? Yes. And attainable. NCOBS guides students of all ages and all walks of life to discover that they are better than they know. And this particular learning can change everything.
John Huie, the executive director of the North Carolina Outward Bound School from 1977 to 1994, is as impassioned about Outward Bound now as he was when he first heard about it decades ago, while interviewing for a teaching position at an Alabama boarding school in 1964.
After offering him the job, the headmaster, Bob Pieh, told Huie he was leaving the school in the fall to start an Outward Bound program in Minnesota. “I said, ‘What’s an Outward Bound school?’” recalls Huie, who, rather than touting his own resume in the interview sat back in his chair and listened.
What he heard was a narration that has drawn educators and visionaries to Outward Bound for decades. Kurt Hahn, a respected and innovative German educator, founded the Salem School in Germany in 1920, “to train citizens who would not shirk from leadership and who could, if called upon, make independent decisions, put right action before expediency, and the common cause before personal ambition.”
In 1932, during the rise of Hitler, Hahn called upon the Salem alumni to either break with Salem or break with Hitler. His public denouncement of Hitler lead to his imprisonment in 1933, but leaders in Britain and Germany arranged his release and eventual exile to Britain. In 1934, Hahn established the Gordonstoun School in Scotland based upon the philosophy and methodology of the Salem School.
Sir Lawrence Holt, a parent at Gordonstoun who owned a large merchant shipping company, was disturbed by the staggering loss of life in the North Atlantic. He noted that his younger seamen seemed to have neither the life experience, the resources, nor the will to survive in the face of battle. They were dying in their lifeboats and the older ones were not. In 1941, in Aberdovey, Wales, Holt and Hahn joined forces to develop a program called Outward Bound to teach these younger seamen resilience.
In fact, Huie turned down the teaching job and in the summer of 1965 followed his interviewer to the newly chartered Minnesota Outward Bound School based in Ely. There, he met an enterprising young woman from Goldsboro, NC named Marjorie Calloway, whose visit was motivated by an article about Outward Bound in a 1964 Princeton University alumni magazine.
The author of the article was Josh Miner, an American who taught at the Gordonstoun School for Kurt Hahn. He returned to the US, and in 1962 founded the first American Outward Bound School in Colorado. G. Watts Hill Jr., chairman then of the North Carolina Board of Higher Education, read the article and was intrigued. Miner said, for Outward Bound, “We simply want the opportunity, too often denied, to enable young people to discover what wonderful qualities they really possess.”
Hill saw resonance with the goals of The North Carolina Fund, established by Governor Terry Sanford to identify and implement innovative strategies “to enable the poor to become productive, self-reliant citizens, and to foster institutional, political, economic, and social change designed to bring about a functioning, democratic society.” Hill sent the article to the Fund’s Director, George Esser who shared it with staff members Jack Mansfield and Marjorie Bryan Calloway (now Buckley).
Compelled by the relevance of Outward Bound’s goals to North Carolina’s gnawing social needs, Buckley began to explore establishing an Outward Bound school in the state and to attract a cadre of excited cohorts. She explained, “Why did this philosophy, espoused by a German Jewish Schoolmaster, fire the energy of the band who came together to try to make this school happen? Did they have a special slant on these ancient values? I believe they did. The people who first struggled to build this school were all North Carolinians and I bet you every one of them could have told you the State’s motto – “Esse Quam Videri” – to be, rather than to seem.“
These founders embodied the same ethos which serves as North Carolina Outward Bound School’s motto to this day – “to serve, to strive and not to yield.” Eventually, they secured a charter, established a board, raised funds, and set the North Carolina Outward Bound School on leased National Forest Service land, in the shadow of Table Rock Mountain, on the rim of the Linville Gorge in Burke County.
It was 1967. NCOBS and wilderness-based experiential education in the US were in their infancy. The first NCOBS staff, according to their Woods Crew leader Lance Lee, were “bursting with energy and a wild sense of destiny as they plunged into the rhodo thickets and forested slopes of Table Rock to make a road, a basecamp, and the school’s first building. They made the dream of Outward Bound their own. Outward Bound touched them with its ideals and in turn, they left an imprint on Outward Bound.”
NCOBS’s first instructors were pioneers in this new educational paradigm, and they helped to seed the immense growth in the field that persists to this day. Decades later, though, what continues to distinguish the North Carolina Outward Bound School from other programs is baked into its founding – its mission to serve. Dan Meyer was the School’s executive director in the 1970’s, and what he said in 1974 is true for NCOBS for all time: “We seek to educate all: rich and poor, forceful and timid, thinker and doer, those in trouble and those who have it made. And by so doing, we hope to build those strengths in people and those bridges between people that are vital to the survival of our society.”
John Huie served as the School’s executive director from 1977 until 1994 and during this time, program outreach grew to include youth, adults, military veterans, educators, corporate teams, middle and high school groups, inner-city Atlanta youth and, thanks to regional scholarship programs, youth from Chapel Hill, Greensboro , Charlotte, Asheville, Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC . Enrollment grew swiftly and by the late ‘90’s, the School was serving courses for more than 3,000 students a year.
As NCOBS grew, so too did Outward Bound International, with schools in more than 40 countries, and other new, similar, organizations. By the early 2000’s there were five Outward Bound Schools in the US and a multitude of other wilderness challenge programs. Among them, competition for students was intense and for Outward Bound, the founding force, it had also become challenging to attract and retain highly qualified staff. It was, to put in rock climbing terms, time for a crux move.
Four of the five Outward Bound Schools chose to consolidate and the North Carolina Outward Bound School, birthed by North Carolinians passionate about its relevance to the needs of the state, remained an independent, participating member of the Outward Bound system in the US. According to John Huie, this was vital to honoring the deep, place-based identity that had inspired decades of board members to work tirelessly on its behalf. Though programs had expanded to Florida, Atlanta and South America, through this choice the iconic image of Table Rock became, for NCOBS, emblematic of “home.”
Fast forward to 2007, when Whitney Montgomery took the helm at NCOBS. He inherited an organization that was struggling financially, but working passionately to bring the Outward Bound model to more people with diverse backgrounds. “What was flourishing was the commitment to our mission and its programming,” says Montgomery, who had to tighten the school’s belt during the economic downturn that began in 2008.
Now, he says, “NCOBS is as healthy as we’ve been in years, not just program-wise, but financially and organizationally too. We provide courses for more than 4,500 students a year, and extend scholarship support for nearly half of them. We are as relevant to the needs of the times, if not more, than when Outward Bound first intrigued the staff of The North Carolina Fund in 1964.”
“We’re in one of the most polarizing political and social environments we’ve been in for a while. Our Unity Project – an awarded NCOBS program which takes diverse groups of teens from select schools on an 8-day wilderness expedition designed to build tolerance and prepare students to initiate social change at home – really helps address these burning issues. The kids are learning what it means to be a good community member. How to build bridges among diverse people,” says Katherine Burton, NCOBS’s Unity Project coordinator in Charlotte.
“Yes, we are relevant as never before,” says Deb Sweeney Whitmore, who arrived at the School in 1996 and currently serves as the director of program operations. “But there are challenges, like determining how to unplug teens from technology and social media and attract them to a device-free, wilderness challenge experience during their brief, busy summers. ”The world has changed since our founding,” says Sweeney Whitmore, “and we need to continue to adapt while staying true to our mission.”
“For North Carolina Outward Bound School, the 50th anniversary,” explains Montgomery, “is not just another birthday. “ “We’re honoring the rich history of the school and the thousands of students, staff and board members who have been a part of the organization, but we’re also looking ahead. We view our stewardship of this incredible legacy very seriously. We’re consistently delivering high quality programs, our infrastructure and finances are strong. The importance of supporting people to discover their strengths and their capacity for leadership and collaborative problem-solving has never been greater. It’s a great place from which to look forward.“
“The path ahead for us is clear,” says Montgomery. “We will serve more students than ever before with high quality programs that change lives and address the challenges of our times. Our alumni are high potential youth, adults, military veterans, educators and corporate teams who have learned vital lessons on course that will help them participate more responsibly and positively in their communities. One student at a time, we create positive change. That’s what we do best.” Fifty years strong, North Carolina Outward Bound School is outward bound!