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October 23, 2015

Stepping over the edge for Philadelphia school kids

Our fearless scribe rappels down a Center City building

Schools Fundraising
04-102215_Rappel_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

PhillyVoice reporter Hayden Mitman begins his rappel down the side of the 31-story One Logan Square building in Center City on Thursday, October 22, 2015.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. 

But after I was invited by the Philadelphia Outward Bound School to participate in this year's media day for its Building Adventure fundraising event, I was more excited than nervous. 

Really. 

My hands were calm and palms dry when I arrived at Brandywine Realty Trust’s One Logan Square Building at 18th and Cherry Streets, just off the Ben Franklin Parkway in Center City, and suited up with Columbus Pollard of Over the Edge, the special events company based in Nova Scotia that worked with the school to present the day's event.

As Pollard joked about the types of nervous remarks he's heard over his seven years of working with rappelling novices, I embraced the experience. I told him I felt like a ghostbuster headed to a job with all the gear and belts strapped to my torso as he fitted me with a helmet. 

"This really helps people get over their fears," Pollard reassured me. "No matter your age, you can do this." 

Even on the roof, looking down over a city I am familiar with at ground level, much moreso than from the bird's eye view, I was at ease, taking in the training on how to use my gear effectively and move the rope as I walked down the side of the building. 

It wasn't until I stepped to the edge and leaned under the safety rail on the roof of the building that the 418-foot drop from the 31-story building began to feel more real. 

Now, I like to think I'm a professional. So, I calmly joked with instructors as they tightened my belts and secured my ropes. But then it was time to step out.

That's when the nerves kicked in.

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PhillyVoice reporter Hayden Mitman at about the 3/4 mark during his 418-foot rappel down the side of the One Logan Square building in Center City. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

I looked at my feet, backing over the edge of the roof of the building. It looked just like a shot you'd see in a movie – that new Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Walk comes to mind – and my shoes were moving backwards off the edge. 

The instructors, as helpful as ever – and, I wish I had my notebook to get their names, but my hands were tangled in ropes at the time – eased me off the ledge and I stepped back into empty air. 

The harness held my weight and I began a slow, careful descent along the edge of the building. 

Looking around, I felt tense at times. Buildings that seem so large from the street shrunk into railroad models at this height. I had just been outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul for the pope's visit and now its green-hued dome looked minuscule over my shoulder.

I stepped back, lowering slowly, and smiled at a sign posted behind the glass my sneakers were softly scuffling against – "Floor 25, Smile and Wave," it read. 

I smiled, but no way was I letting go of the rope to wave. 

After a while, the drop felt calming, almost routine. Feed the rope, squeeze the handle, step back, feed the rope again. 

What stuck out most was the silence. From the side of the office tower, the sounds of city traffic are stifled to a murmur. All I heard was the wind and the smooth glide of the rope slipping through my harness as I stepped back.

There were some tense moments as the wind picked up and pushed me away from the building, leaving my legs to dangle, or when I dropped just a little too fast and had to ease down on the rope. 

But I never felt like I couldn't do it.

And, that, said Katie Newsom Pastuszek, executive director of Philadelphia Outward Bound, is exactly what they hoped to illustrate with the experience. 

The organization works with about 40 to 45 schools in the region and presents about 50 to 60 expeditions – ranging from five-day trips to 14-day excursions – intended to get students out of their comfort zones and into situations where they can develop character, leadership and human service.

"You did it," she told me as I stood weak in the knees following the descent. "You will not forget that you did that." 

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Mitman reaches the ground unharmed and relieved as Philadelphia Outward Bound employees remove his rappelling gear. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

By holding the Building Adventure fundraiser, where anyone can have a chance to rappel down the side of the building to raise funds for Philadelphia Outward Bound, the school is able to cut the cost of its program to area schools by a whopping 80 percent, Newsom Pastuszek said.

And while students at the building that day didn't get to rappel, they said they enjoyed Philadephia Outward Bound's programs and learned a lot. 

"We did a lot of things," said Alana Robinson, 13, a student at the Overbrook Education Center.

Robinson and her classmates were in the middle of a five-day excursion, sleeping in the Tree House visitor center in the 210-acre Andorra Natural Area at the Wissahickon Environmental Center and climbing together there, trusting their classmates to hold their ropes. 

"It was really about trusting your friends," Alana said. 

"I felt like I could really trust the people in my class and you had to work as a team," agreed Gabriel Hands, 13, Robinson's classmate. 

The organization also takes students canoeing and backbacking, Newsom Pastuszek said.

On the first day of their excursions, said Jennifer Raymond, a program manager for Philadelphia Outward Bound, students are prone to complain about the trip and how much they have to do, but by the end they have changed their tune. 

"This is all about team-building," she said. "On the first day, they're complaining it's hard. But, in the end, they learn that you can't just judge someone by looking at them... They learn to appreciate everything they have." 

On Friday, Mayor Nutter will join participants who are helping raise funds for Outward Bound with their own rappel down the building.

For more information on Philadelphia Outward Bound, click here

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