Hidden Gem Offers Fun, Challenge and Education

By Betsy Judge

They are almost invisible–50 feet up in the air, backlit with the leafy canopy and branches of the big Live Oak blocking what light successfully filters through on the first chilly Saturday morning in January.
They are kids as young as 6 along with kids at heart including grandparents who have waited patiently for their turn to climb the tree at Pathfinder Outdoor Education in south St. Petersburg.

Open tree climbers are camouflaged by the Live Oak branches and leaves against the backdrop of the sun.

Potential climbers check-in, sign waivers, then hang out until it’s their time to go. Parents and sup- porters remain outside the yellow tape encouraging climbers and offering suggestions to those struggling at it. There are chairs, corn-hole and hula hoops, watermelon when it’s hot and hot chocolate when it’s cold, to help pass the time.

Vale Stradley and daughter Avery from St. Petersburg wait in line. Avery is a veteran having made it up about 12 feet the last time they were there. Vale heard about it on Facebook and watched that attempt. “I’m trying today,” she says.
Dan Davis from Seminole is there with his son Noah. Noah has been rock climbing since he was four and now at six can give the tree a shot.

“I saw it on a Facebook post,” says Dan, “someone liked it and I thought it would be interesting to go.”
Shirley Buckland has made the drive from Tampa and has been coming for about five years. This trip includes her grandson and a neighbor. “What’s so great about it, is how much stuff the children are getting from it. That’s the biggest thing … they
see the effort and they feel so good about doing it and they want to come back.” She was raised in a city up north. “I did not have this opportunity and that’s the good part about it.”

Pathfinders was the brainchild of Marsha Lane. The former Michigander who had been actively involved in YMCA Storer Camps there moved to Florida.

“She didn’t see the same kind of organized opportunities for kids to get together outside, so she started Pathfinders literally out of the trunk of her car and was the first facilitator,” says Amy Durand, the organization’s co-executive director. “She got three schools that first year to sign up for field trips with her and grew the business from there.”
The non-profit is dedicated to building personal, social and environmental responsibility through the power of shared experience. They offer experiential educational programs that develop leadership, increase self-confidence, and enhance communication through trust and team building activities.

The free Open Tree Climb affords people the opportunity to get a little taste of what they do.

From top left, Pathfinder facilitators demonstrate how to use the climbing gear before outfitting a group with harnesses and helmets and helping them clip in for the climb.


Dan Joyal, a trained facilitator, is one of a dozen or so paid staff under the tree working with the climbers.
“We are going to give you a quick instructional on how to climb and the rules to climb,” he says as a group forms around him. “We will be using ropes, knots and climbing hardware to climb the tree as opposed to good old fashion hands and feet,” he says at the start of a very detailed brief on the equip- ment, process and rules.

Pathfinders has between 18 and 20 facilitators who are part-time. “Many of them have other jobs, some of them work more for us than others; we have some people who just come in and help when we have a really large group,” says Durand. “But they are phenomenal, we do a lot of training with the staff, we pride ourselves on being a smallish nonprofit, but we put a lot of training, trust and faith in our staff-because they literally have kids lives in the balance.”

They offer everything from half-day sessions to five-day overnight trips; each experience tailored for a particular client’s needs based on the size of the group, their goals, the time they have available and any other parameters.

“Sherry (Bagley) my co-director, will pick classes that she thinks works for them and then put them into a schedule. We can go to schools, we can meet people at parks, we have the overnight sites and we do programs at Boyd Hill. If corporate groups don’t want to go outside and they have enough room, we can meet there. We really work with the client to fig- ure out what their goals are.”

The have more than 5,000 participants every year. “That’s pretty impressive. I think people know us just from the tree climbing and don’t realize our reach; that we’re working with people from all over the state,” she adds.

Because of the rigorous training, they don’t use volunteers except in the office. They do need monetary help and spon- sors for the Open Tree Climb because they dropped the $10 per climber charge in November so anyone could do it. “It’s a really unique opportunity for a business. We promote beforehand on Instagram and Facebook. We put it on our website, in our e-news letter, and on banners at the climb. If they are a retailer they are welcome to set up and sell during that climb. It’s a great way for businesses to support a nonprofit while getting in front of local families and encouraging people to get outside and have fun.”

They hold periodic fundraiser with a big hootenanny in April. This year it’s at The Side Lot. “It’s a lot of fun. Many of our staff are trained and highly skilled musicians and we do a hootenanny (square dance).”

They have fisher people on the staff too. Convenient since it is a fish fry and last year it was all provided by the staff. “It was delicious,” adds Durand.

Durand says they are also always looking for new clients. “Anybody with a school or business that is interested in team building, give us a call and we’d love to work you. We’ve been around for 25 years; I think we’re a secret hidden gem.”
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