Courtney is joined by CJ Belknap from Adventure WV’s Outdoor Education Center. He explains the wellbeing benefits of challenge and facilitation and walks us through some of the activities that folks can expect from a visit to the OEC.


All right. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome everyone to Wellbeing Wednesdays. I'm your host Courtney Weaver. I am the director over at, well WVU here at West Virginia university. And today my guest is CJ Belknap, who is an assistant director over in adventure West Virginia. So CJ, welcome, and how about you introduce yourself and just explain your role here at the university?

Sure. So, yeah, name CJ Belknap. I am, uh, very proud to say this, but I'm from West Virginia. Uh, kinda, I guess I'm a townie and L too. I've been in Morgantown since 2005, um, from center part of the state. So as, as deep in the West Virginia as you can get, uh, Braxton County Burnsville area. Uh, but I've been with the university in both an undergrad, graduate role, got degrees here, and then.

Kind of going on like a 10-year stint with adventure. Uh, I've had a couple of different roles. I was program manager, first in charge of logistics program coordinator in charge of OEC out communication center programming. And then most recently since 2015 I've been the assistant director for the department primarily under my purview is the outdoor education center.

So I've been at the university for a while. Uh, big Homer, I think Western is great. Think that movie's great. And think what we do as a university is outstanding. All right. Well, welcome. We appreciate you taking the time. Uh, like the past couple of episodes, we're both recording from the comfort of our own homes because we're practicing social distancing and being responsible citizens following those very crucial public health guidelines.

So we encourage all of our listeners, all four of you to share that you are doing the same. So, but today we're going to talk about challenge and facilitation, which is a passion of CJ's. So CJ, how do you define. Our main challenge and facilitation in the adventure program here. Yeah. So it's kind of a core tenant of a lot of the programming we do with adventure West Virginia.

And one thing I want to get out and kind of defined is it's not just a physical challenge. I think what we do is hard. Um, whether you're doing backpacking programs in New Zealand, Dolly sods, whatever, like putting 40 pounds on your back and they expect it to kind of truck across a really rugged train.

That's hard, right? So there's challenge in that, but I think from our facilitation and some of our philosophical sort of raw, uh, rooted, uh, principles is this idea of challenge both mentally, physically, Ooh, I guess maybe spirits that, I don't want to be able to get into that, but the idea that challenge can kind of propagate itself until like a lot of really good self-development if it's facilitated, challenged for challenge sake, I think is fantastic.

I think, you know, from a. Personal development standpoint and individual stands to actually grow a lot if they are putting themselves in challenging environments. But, uh, from the role of challenge of facilitation in and of itself. Um, I think adventure in West Virginia does a good job of creating challenging environments and safe places.

And it has a little bit of a trigger word for folks. I wanted to find what I mean by safe place. It's not the idea that we're going to be, you know. Yeah. You know, uh, sharing folks like cast, you're great and all that type of stuff. It's more or less tripping now. The fact that we accept people for who they are and that the environment in and of itself is going to be open for discussion and dialogue.

And the challenge is going to be not only the activity ended up itself, but the processing that we do afterwards. I think the, the, the, the true value in all that is it. Not only allows individuals to be challenged with their own sort of mental mapping, like what they believe to be true. Cause that's really good to engage in dialogue to where you have to listen to someone else's point of view and not necessarily be driven on the fact that you're trying to actively take apart their, their, their, their points.

But you're listening and trying to employ empathy and really understand where they're coming from. But also the physical challenge part where you're. Putting yourself in a position where you're outside your comfort zone and the challenge in and of itself, when you're not selling your comfort zone, like your brain is being put in such a different environment, you're, you're in a physical space that you may have maybe never been before and you have to cope, right?

And if you cope and you do a good job with Cobra, you learn how to cope. I think that propagates itself into like some really good tangible benefits for the self and the group because then you really learn how to be resilient and from resiliency. I think that's a core tenet for it. Just wellbeing in and of itself.

Like case in point right now, there's a lot of folks who are outside of their comfort zones for, for a lot of different reasons, but they have really good coping mechanisms and know how to cope and how to explore resources and how to take care of themselves, and then knowing the benefits of what it looks like to like be an advocate for themselves and also be an advocate for others and implore empathy.

I think overall like the tangible benefit of being put in challenging environments. Facilitator as well. It helps us be better individuals, be more mindful who we are, and really have a better scope of emotional intelligence and be able to like personally regulate what we're going through and make really good decisions.

Okay. So a couple of weeks. Well, actually not a couple of weeks ago, the first episode of this podcast, uh, Marion was our guest and she's the director over an adventure West Virginia. And she talked about how participating in the adventure program, uh, really can help a student feel a sense of belonging.

And sometimes that can be detrimental because they put the, that feeling of belonging above other health needs. Uh, and then we talked about cheer on Netflix. Um, so when we. Think about belonging in a way that is a little bit more balanced, um, and the way that we would like it to be. Uh, what, beyond that, what are the other wellbeing benefits to participating in your adventure programs?

Uh, so I can speak a little bit from our outdoor education center side of things. I think our first-year trips or programs that are five, six, seven days long, and they include corporate, a lot of different outdoor activities, but from the outdoor education center side, it's a little bit more of a single day type of event.

So kind of looking at it from a, uh, a side of things about challenge and then the programming that we do in it, in the wellbeing aspect. I think first and foremost, when you look at a group, so if we have a. Great for our program coming up to do an orientation. Those individuals have a shared experience.

So from top to bottom, I think the whole idea is like they have a shared experience, a group experience that they can reflect back on. And the certain sequences that we have, like we don't start with the hardest activity first. What we do is sort of create, buy in and create a sense of like, well, there's this adventure way, right?

We want to match skills and abilities with the challenge at hand. So a lot of the initial challenges that we have before we get into some of the harder. Horses, whether it'd be high elements or what have you, is kind of . Facilitating the challenge of social connectivity and being able to challenge the, uh, the, the idea of being able to open up and connect with other individuals and sort of set the norms of what it's like to connect and communicate while they're on site.

So I think throughout a day, whether it's a half day position or a full day program at the outdoor education center, from a wellbeing perspective, it's kind of allowing folks to kind of. Feel the, the, like the connectivity piece, but also explore the different ways that they can actually cope as an individual with their new community, with who they are and the resources that are at their fingertips.

And a lot of times it's this idea of self, uh, mediation of like what, what's your environment right now and what resources are available to you. And being able to have that previous experience really good experiential education is being able to reflect on previous experiences kind of diet. Diagnosed, what went well, what did not go well, and then be able to like apply that to a new novel environment.

So the challenge of course, is very novel in itself, right? Like not everyone has that 40-foot tower in their backyard. Normally they get together and do these activities. So again, the novel challenging environment puts us in a position to where we're probably more aware of our surroundings, more aware of our self and more work group.

And that is a great checkpoint I and use a video game perspective, right? But the old Mario game get like frustrated as a kid and you did have a checkpoint, but out there's checkpoint. You have a progress capture. And I think what we're doing is kinda creating a little bit of a progress capture. So we're through discussion or shared experiences or reliving something that's similar.

People can rely back on that. It's like, Oh no, I can do this. I went through something similar. I was presented with a challenge. I was able to mediate that challenge. I was able to like mindfully and sort of, uh, uh, through, through the, through, through my learning abilities, be able to eat, eat what's in front of me, and then able to make a really good choice or make a decision so I can explore what resources based out of that.

So again, I know what we do at the health or education center isn't necessarily the. It's more the incremental push, but hopefully allows folks to be more reflective and be able to kind of rely on their own individual sort of, um, characteristics that make them really strong individuals. So you mentioned that in the beginning of whatever length of session that's folks are participating in, that they do maybe some exercises that promote social connectivity.

Could you walk us through like a simple exercise that they might engage with? Absolutely. So we a lot of times folks are going to show us those activities will activities in among themselves, or, I'm not exposing any trade secrets here, but they're kind of arbitrary. It's all about what we're trying to do, what the implant is, and we reverse engineer it.

So case in point of we're trying to, we do a program that's really strong on social connectivity. We know that we haven't on 30 minutes, 45 minutes of initial activities that set the norms and expectations of the program is help build skill that leads into harder activities and really get a chance to kind of.

Get grouped by him. So what we do is follow the adventure wave and this idea of flow theory, uh, to kind of put those things together to kind of put a package together. And the first 30 to 40 minutes, so there's this activity called what's the point? And it's my favorite activity, but it's an activity where you're trying to like really grab someone else's fingers.

It sounds absurd, and you're trying to catch someone's of strangers, finger while your fingers not trying to be caught. And it's all based off of facilitators. Tone delivery, repetition in a lot of times we set them up for, not failure, but the like, just be aware of like the absurdity of the situation and what that does is break down the barriers.

Like, all right, we don't need to take ourselves super serious. This is environment that was going to encourage you all feeling a little uncomfortable and going with it. But as the facilitator, I'm going to be part of this process. And what we're doing is more showing them that this is going to be shared experience and through a metaphorical sort of connection is being able to say, look, we'll be activities.

What's the point? The activity is arbitrary, but what? Why are we here? Like what is the point of us being here right now? So taking that shit experience, we're trying to grab fingers. It's this idea of us trying to make connections as best we can. Sometimes we grab a hold and it's great. Sometimes we don't, but it's okay because we're on continue to try to keep grabbing in front of make progress.

So taking NAZA as a metaphor or driver, we'll get into other activities such as like a jump in jump out, which is getting very reliant. On the facilitator and their tone and their cadence. But we give commands. And the idea is once we sort of linked together in a circle with a group, the facilitator gives commands based off the, the situation.

So they have to save what we say and have to do what we say. And sometimes they have to do the opposite of what we say. And do. And say the same, but do the opposite. So it's like a different sort of realm of it. But again, it's allowing this idea of, you know, okay, it's okay to have fun. It's okay to be yourself and the individual can, can't choose, choose their own level.

And so they're kind of just wanting to move around and not say anything they can, or they're allowing them to have like a shared group experience, which then allows us to get into another activity that's maybe more communicative. Like we're being able to share more about ourselves. So it's a very incremental push into some of that.

Being able to start with what's the point, a jump in jump out, which is more physically activity, a more physical activity, but based off the side that you're going to mess up. And then getting into maybe a more of a sharing activity that commonalities, like what do we have in common as an entire group that make us unique?

And then from there it gets us really prepared to do low ropes, which is problem solving and communication. We've had all these fundamental skills and help create a forest. We've had that initial challenge of knowing now it's okay to be in this way. Well, I know how to mediate this environment. Now I feel more comfortable.

I feel comfortable working with the facilitator. I feel comfortable knowing that I'm going to have to like somehow self-regulate and self-mediate the environment, but I can be relying on my fellow peers here in this environment and make it work. Right? I, I've participated in, well, I just call it ropes courses, which is probably not, this is a generic term.

Um, but I always say that like, the low ropes courses are always my favorite part because I, I love a puzzle. Uh, and high ropes makes me really nervous. So I appreciate your comments on low ropes courses. You know, adventure West Virginia is largely known, um, or one of the big components of that program is the first-year trips program, but you're from the outdoor education center.

So if a student wants to get involved with the OEC, how did they do that? Absolutely. So the, to get involved, we have a couple of ways in, um, right now where we are going through a website redesign, it's gonna look a little different right now, but on the add visual West Virginia jobs page, there's a good outline of both the challenge course facilitation.

And we also have the zip line canopy tour, which is a little different than what we're talking about. It's a little bit more of a recreational activity, but still falls the same core and the sort of philosophical progression of, you know, being able to start. In an environment that kind of propagates, you know, accessibility and the ramps it up a little bit.

So it's still the same idea that you're facilitating and guiding an experience for individuals. Uh, a process. We kind of been talking about the individual side of the benefits of challenge, but from our perspective, the individual from an employee side, the God perspective, we, I mean, every single one of our employees is required to go through a 40 to 60-hour skills training, even before they're even considered the workforce.

Uh, and the great thing about it is our positions all in, they're very technically laid in. You have to know to do high angle rescues. We teach individuals how to do, uh, lowers off certain elements. It also has a great deal to do with group facilitation, risk management, making decisions, reading a group, asking prominent questions, understanding experience will flow group dynamics, uh, an individual who is.

In all walks of the university life, whether it, regardless of their nurse engineer or whatever, like they're going to learn skills that really prepare them for the next professional step and the way they can get involved is being able to take one of our semester classes. We do teach two semester classes, one challenge course specific, one came towards specific, and then we offer weeklong trainings in the after the spring semester is concluded as well that are specific to more of the technical facilitation.

Not so much of the. Roped a group of person to person facilitation side of things, the experiential, uh, philosophies and, and foundations. So there's a lot of ways in a while, some individuals also take a route where they become more involved with first year chips and they get cross-train were just fantastic.

First year trips by far I think is toot our own horn real quick. But I think a great national standard for what it's like to actually be trained and be a qualified, an entry level facilitator. God, what have you in our field but also it has all kinds of different sort of principles that really relate to any type of discipline across the entire university spectrum.

Great. All right. So, uh, on this podcast, what we'd like to do is we kind of like to have a pop culture moment, but I think reflecting on it now, we haven't actually talked too much about pop culture in every episode, but what we really tend to do is more of a snapshot of wellbeing at the current time. And for the past couple of weeks, you know, it's been really focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes that have happened, I mean, at the institution, but also just in larger society.

So a lot of the programs that you've described obviously are facilitated in person and at the outdoor education center, and that's obviously not happening right now. Um, so what is adventure West Virginia doing now during this pandemic, and how are you staying connected to students. Right. So, uh, I do want to give a shout out to, uh, Trisha Chan, uh, John Green and Marian Holmes.

They're all colleagues and mom, but they've actually done a fantastic job doing some social media development to allow us to stay connected. It's, it's, it's, it's not necessarily a peer to peer connectivity. I can be, I think especially if folks are connected pictures and the video content we're putting out there, but they've done a great job and how it was like, one of them.

First things we jumped on board and was like, this is going to be a little bit of a new normal for us. What can we do right now? What can we mobilize into and do really good? And they took it and we, I think daily nail, do Instagram stories. I am not hip, nor am I with it. So I don't really know exactly what's the w what Instagram does or anything like that, but I know it's fantastic and they've been putting a lot of good effort and it was under that.

So I definitely want to give them kudos for like just the coordination and the thought process and the creativity. Uh, the next stage though is as we learn more about the long-term impacts, these public health, uh, announcements and, and suggestions are individual West Virginia. I think the, the, one of the core strength we have as a department is how quickly we can pivot and be able to dedicate resources to be able to engage our communities.

So. Our prime community right now is the incoming freshman class and the university as a whole. So we are putting a lot of strong emphasis and a lot of resources into online program development. So a lot of stuff we do at DVC we can't do in person, but we can facilitate a pretty good environment with zoom or a lot of environments where it can be 2030 40 50 60 people, whatever.

They're still going through the initial progression that I spoke of this a little bit ago. What's the point? I would say jump in, jump out. But like I said, those activities into themselves are all at the wound of the facilitator and how they are been to be able to address the needs of the groups. So a lot of the needs of will have is the connectivity and the social connectivity piece still on an incoming freshman are one.

And our main responsibility is to create programs that are. To the best of their ability following best practices and industry standards that represent the university to the 10th degree, but also allow these freshmen that are coming in, they have the best possible experience and know that the university is trying their best to create the best possible situation for them during these unmanned Toms.

And that's an invention. West Virginia's responsibility right now is to create an environment. So say a freshman King connect, they can learn who their fellow peers are and they can learn about resources and programs and opportunities with the university and really get a chance to have a connection in a virtual environment through these activities and through these environments that really allow them to understand like, okay, here's what it means to be a Mountaineer for the short term as we kind of sorting and figure this out together.

I think that's the, that sounds kind of cheesy sometimes, but like the mountain was spirit. I mean it's, it's, it's kind of being a rugged and being able to like, be able to persist, which kind of goes back to that challenge idea. Like this is a unique challenge and I think adventure West Virginia steam life, uh, our, our office of wellness too is like, we're, we're, we're pretty well apt to be able to do this because I think we do internally have really good mechanisms to cope, mediate, and we have pretty good wellbeing within our departments.

And hopefully that shows. Great. Well, again, CJ, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate you taking time out. Um, and to all of our faithful listeners, thank you so much. Uh, and we will catch you next time on Wellbeing Wednesdays.