The Great Southwest Expedition
When we first started planning a week-long student retreat for our academy last year, it seemed like an impossible task. The amount of money it was going to take to move ten students and three chaperones from West Virginia to Denver, and then do a whirlwind tour of the national parks in Colorado, Arizona, and Utah, was daunting. Add in the fact that this experience was to be built around working with the students to develop their business plans for starting nonprofits or social enterprises, which required the development of a workbook and curriculum, and I was doubtful that we could actually pull it off. But with the assistance of several incredible community leaders, we did, and this has set the stage for an expansion that will make StandWatch Academy a truly unique resource to educate and motivate the lives of students, entrepreneurs, their veteran mentors, and the communities they serve.
Before I go into the details of the trip, I want to explain the reason we chose to go out West. Ever since John Smith set foot on the shores of America, as a people, we have looked west for inspiration and motivation to do great things. The first big step was to move away from the East Coast. Then, our ancestors crossed the Appalachian Mountains to settle Kentucky, Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Western Virginia, and Ohio. Later, they moved beyond the Mississippi and eventually looked to California and Alaska. While all of this was happening, in each generation, a spirit of renewal inspired Americans to do great things. Instilling that same sense of awe and inspiration in the students of StandWatch Academy was why we chose to tour the western national parks. Too often, people from Appalachia feel trapped. Travel changes that, and it is our goal to use that as a tool to help get them focused on their own ways to come back home, start social enterprises, and make our communities better places to live. That’s why we went out west.
On day one, with the help of a couple parents, we left Teays Valley, West Virginia at 5:45 AM and drove to Cincinnati, Ohio to catch a direct to Denver. Once there, we grabbed a couple rental cars, hit Sam’s wholesale club to buy water and snacks, got a quick bite to eat, and then drove four hours to spend the night in the small town of Alamosa, Colorado. We arrived around 10:00 PM Mountain Time, and were happy to get some rest.
Each day, a student was chosen to be the team leader. Teenagers being teenagers, the students quickly renamed the position the “team mom,” regardless of who was doing it that day (both male and female students filled the job). The Mom ensured that each individual was in their assigned vehicle and had all personal items, including phone, wallet, and bags every time we stopped. They then recorded that on a chart called the yellow sheet. Given that on most days we stopped anywhere from six to seven times, this was a big task. They did a great job, and even though we stayed in seven different hotels over eight days, no one lost an item. Responsibility breeds success.
On Thursday, April 5th, we departed Alamosa and crossed Wolf Creek Pass on our way to Durango, Colorado and Mesa Verde National Park. As we reached the peak and started our way down, I got a call from the other vehicle – we had walkie talkies – who said they were hearing popping noises from the back of their car. It turned out that the bags of Doritos and potato chips we bought in Denver were popping open due to the change in air pressure as we traveled over the pass. At 10,856 feet above sea level, Wolf Creek was one of the highest points we crossed during the entire trip. Exploding potato chip bags provided a quick lesson in physics that they would not have gotten in a classroom, or anywhere back east.
We arrived in Durango, ate lunch, and headed out to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde’s main feature is its collection of archaeological sites dating back several thousand years. We hiked the 2.4 mile Petroglyph Trail, passing a cliff dwelling and rock petroglyph around halfway through the hike. The views were amazing, and the students got their first experience hiking in an arid climate. After two hours, we made it back to the cars in good order, hit a sandwich shop in Durango for dinner and headed back to thehotel where we held our first workbook session.
Each day, the students had to complete a section of their business plans, along with a factoid on where we were going the next day. The only guidance on the factoids was, “the stranger, the better.” They’d read their factoids at breakfast the next day, and vote on which one was best. That night, we worked on creating good mission statements, and the beginnings of a 12-month cost/revenue plan. Frankly, I was impressed at how well they embraced the work. These 10 students were special people.
The next day we hit the Grand Canyon and Four Corners Monument. After departing Durango at 7:45 AM, and after doing a quick stop at Four Corners, we arrived at the South Rim Village in Grand Canyon National Park around 12:00 PM. It was crowded. VERY crowded. We had to park miles away and take a shuttle bus to the main visitor’s center. The “trail” we had planned to take was actually a heavily trafficked paved sidewalk for most of the distance. The views were incredible, but the crowds and hectic pace of the park, especially compared to Mesa Verde, made it seem more like Disney World rather than a natural wonder. We did the hike, took some pictures, hit a gift shop, and left. It was my second least favorite part of the entire trip. We spent the night in Flagstaff, Arizona and prepped for the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas.
Hoover Dam day started well, but there was some lingering disappointment and frustrations, at least on my part, from the Grand Canyon experience. We departed on time, and made it to the dam around 12:00 PM, once again. The Hoover dam is an engineering marvel, but the 96-degree heat took a toll on some of the party as we did a short hike up to an overlook of Lake Mead. We hydrated everyone, did the perfunctory dam pictures, and headed to Las Vegas for dinner.
Now, the decision to drive through Vegas was a request from the kids that I reluctantly agreed to. Most of them had never seen anything like it, and they wanted to get a picture in front of the iconic, “Welcome to Vegas” sign. After eating at Red Robin in Henderson, Nevada, we took a drive down the strip, and went to the “World’s Largest Gift Shop,” which amounted to a complete crap-hole of junk and overpriced Elvis figurines. I couldn’t get the group out of there fast enough. Las Vegas was the most, “least favorite” part of the trip. We departed there around 7:00 PM and drove away as fast as possible. Around 10:00 PM, we pulled into the hotel in Cedar City, Utah. We were all exhausted, but still put in another hour or so of workbook time before turning in. I was REALLY looking forward to Zion National Park the next day.
I had never been to Zion before, and I was hoping that it would provide a morale boost to the group. Everyone was still very positive and having fun, but we still hadn’t had that “wow” moment that I was hoping we’d have at some point in the trip. Zion National Park provided that experience. I personally have been to a lot of parks and monuments over the years and can definitively say that Zion is the most beautiful, awe inspiring national park I have ever seen. We hiked the Emerald Pool trail and everyone, including myself, spent some serious money in the gift shop. We wanted to remember every minute of that park. It was simply amazing. The kids came away completely rejuvenated and eager for more. We had lunch in Springdale, Utah, and set out for our next night’s stay in Salt Lake City.
It was a long drive from Zion to Salt Lake, but as it turned out, our hotel was just a short distance from a place called East High School. This was where Disney’s High School Musical was filmed, and nearly every female member of the group was eager to swing by and get their photo taken in front of the school. It was fun to watch them get so excited as we pulled in that evening. East is a real school, but it was a Sunday, so there was no one there. The girls got their picture, and we then went to Pi Pizzeria for dinner. After driving nearly eight hours that day, we did some workbook time and went to bed. Another good day.
Monday put us at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Arches is another one of those iconic western destinations, and our hike to the Delicate Arch gave us the opportunity to view one of the most popular arches in Utah. The hike took about a total of three hours and was the hardest of the trip. There were a lot of people there, but it wasn’t overly crowded. The arch is situated above a large bowl that was formed at the end of a horseshoe canyon. The edges of the bowl slope down at a fairly steep angle but are still safe to walk on. While some of us were getting pictures, a member of our group accidentally dropped two water bottles that rolled all the way down the incline and fell into the crater several hundred feet below. It was kind funny to listen as hundreds of people standing around the arch laughed and shouted in near panicked screams, “don’t go after it, you’ll fall!” No one did. We finished up our pictures, and as the rest of the group headed back to the parking area, I climbed down, got off the trail, found the opening to the canyon and retrieved the bottles. It was actually kind of fun.
After Arches, we had lunch at the Quesadilla Mobilla food truck in Moab, and then went to Hauer Ranch to do a horseback ride through Castle Valley. My family and I had been there before, and I knew the students would have a great time. Over the years, a lot of movies have been filmed in Castle Valley ranging from John Wayne westerns to Mission Impossible. Riding horses through the desert landscape puts you as close to the old west as you can get, and with the exception of Zion, it was the highlight of the trip.
That night, we stayed in Grand Junction, Colorado, worked on the positioning and branding sections of the workbook, and went to bed. Arches and Hauer Ranch made the trip.
After the sun-draining activities of the previous day, we slept in until 8:00 AM and departed the hotel for Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Glenwood is known as a popular outdoor center but is also the place where the famous western gunfighter Doc Holiday is buried. We visited his grave in a pioneer cemetery that was situated on a peak above the town, and then split-up. About half of the students went to the largest hot springs pool in the world, while the rest went on a bike ride up Glenwood Canyon. It was a great view, but after the hard hike at Arches, and spending three hours in the saddle horseback riding, old-age soreness made it a little painful. The students didn’t mind though, and it was still a good time. We ate Chinese food, and then set out for Denver.
The drive from Glenwood to Denver took us through several high-mountain passes, and right by Vail, Copper Mountain, and Breckinridge ski areas. In the space of 100 miles we went from a warm arid climate to snow covered mountains and 30-degree temperatures we arrived in Denver, checked into the hotel at Denver International Airport and got everything ready for the trip back home.
On Wednesday morning, after being on the road for seven days, we turned in the two rental cars. In total, our group had driven 2,460 miles, almost the equivalent of a cross-country trek. We woke up at 3:00 AM Mountain Time to make our 6:50 AM flight back to Cincinnati and made it back home by 3:30 PM on April 11th.
Ultimately, the trip had two objectives; motivate and inspire the kids by introducing them to the areas of the country that have inspired others throughout our nation’s history while helping them complete a short business plan for their nonprofits or social enterprises. During the trip, each of the students completed all of the research and prep work they need to write their plans, while seeing things they might never see again. A summary of the final plans will be available shortly. Once they are made public, I believe people will be surprised by how good some of these ideas truly are. Each student chose his or her own issue and approach to “fixing” the problem, and they include things like improving the foster care system through a faith-based initiative, coming up with new ways to fight poverty and the opioid epidemic, and lifting people up by starting a clothing and apparel company that places its manufacturing shops and good jobs in disadvantaged communities across the United States.
All of these great ideas will have a direct impact on improving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and all were born out StandWatch Academy’s Southwest Expedition. This is the way you bring about change in places where hope is often in short supply. These young men and women are realizing that it may be better to create a job for themselves and their neighbors than go find a job somewhere else. Hope is more than a fleeting thought that crashes against a world that is bent on crushing it. It’s a lesson that can be taught, one person, one experience at a time. StandWatch Academy will continue to teach that lesson.
Stay tuned. More expeditions are coming.
Use of Proceeds Statement
Through the grace of God, we were able to raise enough money to take the students on this once in a lifetime retreat. When we started thinking about this expedition, our first thought was take the group to Washington, D.C. After running the numbers, it became obvious that it would be slightly less expensive to take 13 people out west than it would be to spend a week in D.C. We made the right choice.
In total, we raised $11,350 for the expedition. Some of this came in after we departed on April 4th. Of the total amount raised, we spent $10,517.95. The chart below, breaks down exactly how the revenue was used.
A special thanks to Lecia Gallimore Smith, Madison Sayre, Service Wire Company, City National Bank (WV-OH-KY-VA), Cabell Huntington Hospital, Chris Miller, Dutch Miller Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, Alpha Technologies, Inc., Doug Tate, Patrick Northup, Mike Durant and Pinnacle Solutions, and Casey Hill of Triple Crown Beverage. Without their generous support, this experience would not have been possible.
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