McDowell Technical Community College

(Helping At-Risk Kids, One Hike at A Time) 

By James and Cheryl Nipper
Avery County

James & Cheryl  Nipper, the parents of Jason Matthew Nipper, are pleased to provide an update on their unique and challenging hiking program taking place at Grandfather Mountain for at-risk youth, with a focus on those individuals who suffer from mental disorders and/or drug addiction.  Our goal in this article is not only to introduce our program to local churches to explore whether we might be able to serve at-risk kids, but to also introduce readers to Appalachian Mountain Leadership in Boone, which hosts a unique two week wilderness based leadership training  course each July for aspiring church youth.

Jason’s  Story:

Jason was a happy, outgoing, and gifted child with a keen sense of humor and engaging personality. He loved music, reading, and all aspects of nature. His favorite times growing up were those spent with his family at their cabin near Plumtree, NC.   Although he was greatly troubled by mental illness, he found that the days he spent hiking brought him great peace and satisfaction.  Jason always wanted to help other people, and found great joy when he could help a friend.

Life changed for Jason when he reached his mid-teens.  He started developing symptoms of mental illness and soon found life more challenging.  Despite many struggles, he still succeeded in earning an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree in high school, and was awarded a full, four year scholarship to his favorite school, the University of Florida. Jason lived in Gainesville, Florida off and on for three years and tried his best to be a “normal” student pursuing a degree, but was eventually forced to withdraw from the University due to the continuing progression of his mental illness and severe anxiety.

Sitting on the mountain by himselfJason continued to struggle with everyday life, and tried valiantly to cope with his mental illness.  Through it all, he found that the days which he spent mountain hiking brought him the greatest peace and satisfaction.

Like so many others with severe mental illness, Jason self-medicated with substances, which ultimately only complicated his mental condition. Jason passed away at age 26 on June 24, 2014.  He is greatly missed both by his family and everyone that ever knew him.

Creation of Foundation and Mission Statement:

More than anything else, Jason wanted his life to have “meaning.”   His parents James & Cheryl Nipper have sought to fulfill that desire and honor their son’s memory by forming a non-profit corporation called The Jason Project, Inc., which has qualified as a tax-exempt Charitable Foundation  under IRS Regulation 501  (C)  (3). They hope that Jason’s intense love of nature and hiking, coupled with his desire to help others, will live on through the young persons who participate in this program. Their greatest desire is that at-risk youth participants, including those youth who are suffering from mental illness and/or drug addiction, will, through this program, learn meaningful life-lessons, and find it easier to overcome some of life’s challenging hurdles.

Group of hikers on a rockBecause of Jason’s abiding love of the outdoors and mountain hiking, one of the Foundation’s goals is to organize outward-bound type, intercept wilderness excursions and similar programs which are designed to build self-confidence in struggling youth, as well as trust and a positive rapport with adult mentors.   As part of their “outreach” efforts, they have established a special program called “The Grandfather Challenge,” through which at-risk youth, through a series of four hikes, navigate all of the hiking trails at Grandfather Mountain, NC.   One of these hikes takes you to the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountain chain, and affords incredible views along the crest of Grandfather Mountain. These hikes are normally conducted in four consecutive weeks, and the hikes get progressively more difficult as the course proceeds.  As these hikes take place, adult hike leaders strive to teach these young people to respect this very pristine and special nature preserve, and to recognize and appreciate God’s beauty and creation. Each hike is led by two highly qualified and experienced adult hikers, and each child is mentored, encouraged, and supported by caring adult leaders who try to instill self-confidence, trust, respect, and a strong commitment to complete a rigorous, challenging physical goal. The organizers of “The Grandfather Challenge” strongly believe these experiences enhance self-confidence in our youth, and will encourage them to rise above their challenges in life.  A special Certificate, hiking boots, and other recognition is given to each young person that completes this program.

Jason’s parents fervently believe that this type of program or activity can not only provide enjoyment to those who participate, but can also build confidence and trust in others, similar to the ideals pursued in various “outward bound” programs, and will thus allow them to fulfill their goals expressed in their Mission Statement:

To provide healthy and rigorous outdoor excursions and challenges where at-risk youth can be encouraged and inspired to rise above their adversities and excel mentally, spiritually, and in life.  

Community Support and Alliances:

Although they eventually expect to receive referrals for at-risk youth candidates to complete this Challenge from multiple sources including children’s homes and juvenile court pre-trial intervention programs, the program’s first priority was to form an alliance with the Avery County School system.  Dr. David Burleson, as superintendent of the Avery County School system, was the program’s first partner to work with them in implementing The Grandfather Challenge. The non-profit organization has now also formed alliances with the Catawba and Caldwell County School systems, representing a total of 14 high schools and 9 middle schools.   Also, the Grandfather Mountain State Park of North Carolina (through its Superintendent Sue McBean) has issued a Special Use Permit to the project, and the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation (with the support of Jesse Pope and Harris Prevost) has sanctioned the program and issued a special pass for entrance to the Grandfather Mountain attractions.

Foundation Pays All Expenses of Program:

The Jason Project, Inc. provides hiking boots, backpacks, socks, raincoats, Grandfather Mountain entrance fees, professional guides, and all other costs associated with this program. There are no costs to participants or referral agencies. At the successful completion of each round of hikes, the youth participants are each given a Certificate of Completion and a gift certificate at an awards ceremony in their honor.

Hike Regimen Highlights:

The hiking trails at Grandfather Mountain State Park offer some of the most rigorous and challenging hiking trails in the Southeast, and include areas rated as either moderate or strenuous.  Some areas feature ropes and ladders, and provide some of the most phenomenal views existing in the High Country.  “The Grandfather Challenge” features four major hikes, culminating in the following “Granddaddy” hike along the crest of the mountain to MacRae and Calloway Peaks, then down the east side to the Blue Ridge Parkway:

From the parking lot on top of Grandfather, hike the Grandfather Trail up to MacRae Peak via ladders and ropes; climb The Chute and visit Attic Window, Indian House Cave, and Alpine Meadow; hike through Calloway Gap, and on to Calloway Peak, the highest point of the Grandfather Mountain ridge trail; then descend down the East side via the Daniel Boone Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This is the most challenging hike of the program, and will require a full day of hiking and climbing.

Appalachian Mountain Leadership:

The inherent value and effectiveness of our program is directly dependent on the experience, qualifications, and spiritual fiber of our hike leaders.   Our hikes are supervised and conducted by Appalachian Mountain Leadership (AML), in Boone. We are extremely pleased with the professional and Christian manner in which these young men and women conduct themselves and lead youth groups not only through the “Grandfather Challenge” hikes, but also through various extended wilderness excursions.

You can visit AML’s website at   www.amlnc.org.  As you can see, AML provides a diverse range of adventure/servant-leadership activities, including single day hiking or rock climbing, hiking, multi-day camping and wilderness excursions, and a very special Created For Purpose program, which is tailor-made for church youth.   AML’s emphasis is on servant leadership, and they link wilderness activities with their mentoring skills and training, creating a unique experience that cannot be matched by any organization in the Southeast. At the AML website, please look at the “Adventures” page, then the “Created for Purpose” tab, to learn about their next wilderness excursion which will take place in July of next year.

From AML’s website, here are some things that students have said about their experiences in the Created for Purpose program:

Day 11: “These past few days, I have been truly blown away by how beautiful and awe inspiring everything is. From the smallest plant to the biggest mountain, everything seems so much brighter. Colors are more vibrant. and I suddenly seem so small. I have pushed through this journey, troubles, pleasures and all. I have pushed onward in a spiritual journey as well. The Lord is teaching me great things in every breath I breathe. Purpose is something I have always struggled with, and I had hoped my purpose (where the Lord is leading me) would suddenly become clear to me on this trip. I feel like I am just picking up the pieces that will one day lay out to make the bigger picture. I just have to be patient and have FAITH. We ALL have wonderful purpose and I can’t wait to continue my journey of life to see what it is. It all leaves me breathless, I have no words great enough to describe how a life with the Lord feels.”

“Day 13… (the end of the beginning) It is the last day of our trip and I feel bitter sweet about leaving. These past two weeks have been filled with teaching, learning, leading, loving, laughter, sadness, awe, and so much more! I have learned a lot about traveling the trail and a lot more about traveling through life, especially as a leader…”

You can see from these testimonials that the Created for Purpose program has a very powerful effect on youth, and assists them in their search to find their own “purpose” in life, and helps equip them to become leaders in their own churches and local communities.  We have never seen or heard of any two-week wilderness based leadership training program that matches the Created for Purpose program offered by Appalachian Mountain Leadership each summer.  As you can see from their website, the program consists of 10 days of backpacking through the Pisgah National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina; two days of rock bouldering, and two days of local community/mission service.  Equally important, the program requires a serious eleven month commitment from a church mentor to work closely with, guide, and encourage these youth participants to closely assess their personal and spiritual lives and learn how to value and implement the concepts of servant leadership and thus become future leaders in their respective communities and churches. 

Summary of Wilderness/Leadership Programs for Church Youth and Contact Information:

The Jason Project hosts the “Grandfather Challenge” for at-risk kids at Grandfather Mountain, NC.   The Jason Project, Inc. is a tax-exempt,  IRS 501 (c) (3) non-profit foundation  organized to provide challenging outward bound type activities and excursions for at-risk youth, including those youth who are suffering from mental illness  and/or drug addiction.  For further information, please contact James Nipper via email at james@jamesnipper.com or call (828) 765-6561 or (904) 354-7378.  If you wish to donate to this project, please visit GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.

Appalachian Mountain Leadership (AML) of Boone, NC. hosts a very special Created for Purpose program, which is tailor-made for church youth.   AML’s emphasis is on servant leadership, and they link wilderness activities with their mentoring skills and training, creating a unique experience that cannot be matched by any organization in the Southeast. At the AML website, please look at the “Adventures” page, then the “Created for Purpose” tab to learn about their next wilderness excursion which will take place in July of next year. To contact AML, you can reach their founder and CEO Tom Henry at  Tom@amlnc.org   or call him direct at (603) 667-6978.