GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Neon ropes hung down like strangler fig vines from an old oak tree named Charlotte. Students strapped onto each line and pulled themselves up toward the canopy. Some paused to flip upside down, letting their hair fall beneath their inverted heads.
The group of about 40 students met with Canopy Climbers at Gum Root Park recently as part of the University of Florida Young Entrepreneurs for Leadership and Sustainability summer program, a five-week intensive seminar for high school students.
Kristin Joos, the program's founder and director, said this year was the first time YELS gave students an option to climb up to the canopy. She said she picked the activity because it aligned well with the objectives taught by the program.
"It covers all kinds of things like vulnerability, courage and teamwork," she said, "and those are some of the same aspects that we teach in the program as they're the qualities of successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs."
The YELS program sets its focus on the practice of social entrepreneurship, a process Joos defines as creating innovative and sustainable ventures to solve social, environmental and economic programs, locally and around the world.
Over five weeks, selected students take two college-level classes, regularly engage in community service, receive instruction on how to prep for college, hear from a number of speakers and mentors, and visit local spaces that exemplify innovation. All of these activities are presented through a lens of global mindfulness.
"Sustainability is a huge part of our program," Joos said. "It's one of the things the students say is most impactful for them, that they are eager to share with others when they return home."
Students are asked to calculate the carbon footprint of the program and to find ways to offset their impact. They also recycle and compost through their involvement.
Moriah Lavey shouted with excitement as she was suspended at the halfway point on her tree-wrapped rope. Within a few minutes, the high school student from Tampa had made it to the very top. She sat on a fern-covered branch and watched her peers below.
"I was nervous I wasn't going to be able to get all the way up there, but I could," she said.
Lavey said climbing up wasn't difficult, but the act required endurance. When she made it up high, she said the view was beautiful.
"It was kind of spiritual, because I was just surrounded by so much nature," she said.
Practicing sustainability is already important for Lavey, who is a vegetarian and locavore (someone who eats food grown locally when possible), but she said she has never been as immersed in it as she has been in the YELS program.
"Usually when we learn about that type of stuff it's like a side note in science class," she said. "I have never been so interested in the classes that I am taking."
Danny Lyons, owner of Canopy Climbers, emphasized environmental awareness as he instructed the YELS group on their climb. He spoke about the value of trees by bringing up examples like carbon sequestration and the physiological ways stress is reduced in natural environments.
"Quite literally, trees and green spaces lower stress in the human body," he told the group.
Lyons began his Gainesville-based climbing business over two years ago. In that time, he said he has seen many people go through a great transition just by pulling themselves up into the canopy.
"I see people empowered, I see people leave the tree thinking I can't believe I did that," he said. "People surprise themselves."
By participating in the YELS program, Joos has noticed her students transition as well.
"They are just a lot more responsible and thoughtful and conscientious because they have lived somewhat independently, kind of like college students and because they have been challenged to think like change-makers," Joos said.
While the program is based on the skills of entrepreneurship, Joos said she doesn't judge each student's success by whether or not they endeavor to start their own business.
"When students come out of this program it's not so important that they start a business, nonprofit organization or project," she said. "That's always fabulous and great, but what we really want for them is to come out with the mindset of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, so they can think innovatively, they are willing to take risks, they are strategic, they understand the importance of sustainability."
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