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Pemberton's Outward Bound uses wilderness as classroom



Graeme White, bed-head and all, takes a sip from a cup of coffee in the middle of a crowded room.

The room is stuffed full of couches and outdoor gear is littered on the floor. Topographic maps of the rugged Coast Mountains cover the walls.

No, White isn’t relaxing after returning from some wilderness expedition — he’s at work.

White is the program director of Outward Bound’s Bennett Mountaineering Base, located about 15 kilometres north of Pemberton among the potato fields.

At first glance, the building — a converted schoolhouse — looks more like a college dorm than the non-profit organization’s Western Canada headquarters.

Their original Western Canada base was located in the Cascade Mountains near Keremeos, B.C., until it moved in 1987 to its present-day location.

The building contains office space, a gear warehouse and can accommodate up to 35 staff members. Outside, the building is surrounded by mountains and rivers.

Today, there’s no one here except White and another staff member. Everyone else is out in the mountains on courses.

One of those courses includes one for nine Pemberton secondary school students who, White says, aren’t necessarily here because they’re having problems at school.

"I don’t know where that came from," he says, noting that Outward Bound isn’t just a place for troubled teens. "We identified some students who could really benefit from the course."

Next year, a course will be offered through the Ministry of Education that will give B.C. high-school students a semester worth of credits. The only difference being that the wilderness will be the classroom.

Outward Bound also offers a plethora of programs at the Pemberton base that are open to everyone.

A third of the courses, such as the ones for youth at risk and survivors of abuse and life-threatening diseases (White calls them "health services"), are wholly funded by donations.

"A lot of people taking these courses have been through challenging life experiences where they have had to overcome adversity," he explains.

"The courses allow people to challenge themselves and, as individuals and as a member of a group, confront new challenges by working through a situation in a positive social atmosphere.

"Ultimately, people realize they are capable of more than they think."

The other two-thirds consist of public and private courses and are funded through tuition fees.

"All the programs are quite successful in providing people with a sense of achievement," says White, who has worked for Outward Bound for more than a decade.

"It’s a lifestyle thing," he says of his job as he steps out of the building into the fresh air.

White doesn’t really say much else. He just looks up towards the mountains and smiles.