Lessons in teamwork, endurance and leadership

Atlanta and Montana students brave the wilderness

American Explorers

American Explorers is a four-year youth development program run by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools, the North Carolina Outward Bound School and nonprofit groups that serve young people.

The program, which has a budget of $710,000, serves middle and high school students selected through a rigorous application process. Those students learn to be effective leaders in their school and community through a variety of exercises, projects and wilderness expeditions. Several of the young people selected for the program are from Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods.

Students will be attending the last preseason game at the Georgia Dome and taking part in the MADD Walk and First Aid/CPR Certification. They will continue to focus on what they discovered about themselves during their time at Outward Bound. “This self-reflection period will be used to solidify the foundational building block to become leaders in their home, schools and community,” said Kaamel Nuri, program director.

www.americanexplorers.org; on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/americanexplorers1

Kamryn Boone and Jurnee Miller know all about being leaders in their homes. The 15-year-old Atlanta teenagers have younger siblings to tend to and set an example for.

What both girls learned after kayaking and camping in the Outer Banks for 11 days isn’t taught in school: patience.

More than 20 Atlanta public school students joined a handful of students from Montana in Outward Bound courses in the Blue Ridge Mountains and off the coast of Marshallberg, N.C. They were tested in a big way: no electronic devices, no doting parents, and no sleeping and eating inside their cozy confines.

The students are in American Explorers, a four-year youth leadership program run by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in cooperation with Atlanta Public Schools and the North Carolina Outward Bound School.

For Kamryn, Jurnee and a dozen other students, this is year two of taking part in a series of activities in their schools and communities. Last year, they explored the outdoors in Montana, near Blank’s ranch.

While kayaking in the Outer Banks, lessons in patience and teamwork came after some difficult days and nights.

“One night I was really not feeling this and was ready to go,” said Jurnee. “People were patient with me and helped me through the process of getting back on track. I needed them to support me. I knew sometimes they felt the same way and they got better.”

In that respect, Jurnee and the other American Explorers gained invaluable knowledge long known by Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, who credits his mother, the late Molly Blank, and Bernie Marcus, his Home Depot co-founder, with teaching him about integrity, hard work and respecting others while leading.

Blank’s father died when he was 15. Molly Blank, who died in March at the age of 99, turned the family’s pharmaceutical company into a million-dollar business.

Wilderness experiences inspire people

The American Explorers students had several things in common: their favorite music, their love of family, and their desire to finish the Outward Bound experience in one piece. After sleeping on sandy beaches in the cold and rain and eating lots of trail mix and Wheaties, all they could think about was a hot shower, reuniting with their families, and getting back to their Instagram and Snapchat accounts.

Eddie Carey, a junior at B.E.S.T. Academy, missed being on Instagram and Kik, a popular messenger app, almost as much as he missed the comforts of home.

His new favorite thing: hot water. “When you are thirsty and you’re out on an island, the water is hot and it’s delicious.”

Figuring out what you can accomplish when tested is an essential part of the Outward Bound experience, said Diana Belknap, a wilderness instructor for 27 years.

“Several of them thought there was no way they were going to be able to be out there for 11 days,” Belknap said. “They completed it and did a super job.”

Wilderness experiences inspire people to think about something they aren’t giving 100 percent to in their normal life and figure out how they can do it better, she said.

‘I had some scared moments’

Kaamel Nuri, program manager for American Explorers, met the students when they returned from their North Carolina expedition and asked them how it compared to their Montana experience. “The overwhelming majority of them loved the poshness of Montana, but the N.C. experience provided a more foundational and transformational experience than Montana,” she said.

“This is exactly the purpose of partnering with North Carolina Outward Bound School,” said Nuri, who came to American Explorers from the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta and has spent 25 years working with young people. “These students realized they have a larger purpose and opportunity to enhance their circle of influence — self, home, school, community.”

First-year student Janesha Smith was squeamish about the bugs and creepy-crawly things that dominate the great outdoors. When she saw a spider, she screamed. The same thing happened if a beetle or stink bug ran across her foot.

But after 22 days in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 14-year-old conquered that fear.

“Before I went, I thought this was going to be boring,” said Janesha. “But we got to step up and be leaders. I forgot about everything, phones, TV. It was all about using natural resources.”

Shundra Smith, Janesha’s mother, said the experience made her daughter more positive and confident. For her part, Smith had to fight the urge to protect her daughter when the teenager complained about the struggles of camping.

“I had some scared moments because I could see her a little nervous, even though she was excited.”

When times get rough, push through

For London Smith, 14, every day was a new challenge. Four-mile hikes, 5 a.m. wake-up calls and daily tasks, such as putting up tarps, were unwelcome demands she soon handled with ease. Rock climbing and whitewater rafting — that was the fun stuff.

“I want to become a better leader and this helped me,” said London, a ninth-grader at Washington High School who wants to be a pediatrician.

Ezekiel Taylor’s résumé is a college recruiter’s dream: Jazz band, leader of the arts club at Drew Charter School, member of the Beta Club, the speech and forensics team, baseball, track and cross country.

But Zeke found kayaking in the Outer Banks tough, mainly because the weather was so unpredictable. His biggest takeaway was learning the importance of staying positive, even when challenged.

“After the first couple of days we really got to know one another and really liked one another,” he said. “When you’re out there, positivity is infectious. You can have negativity, emoting in any type of way is normal. But people around you feed off your energy.”

Starlisia Bryant is thankful to Falcons owner Blank for investing in her future.

“This is teaching us that when times get rough we can still push through. Both Montana and the Outer Banks have made me a better person.

“I’m less clean,” she said with a sly smile. “But I can sleep in sand now.”