Janet Rodriquez ties in to a rope while her
mentor Evelyn Szeinbaum puts her on belay. Evelyn gives a few last words of encouragement, helping to clear the doubts in Janet’s mind, and Janet latches
on to the start hold.
They have been climbing together for three years, ever since they met through the City Rocks mentorship program based out of New York City’s Brooklyn Boulders
climbing gym—a program designed to give underprivileged students the opportunity to meet and rock climb with an adult mentor. But as Evelyn and
Janet found, it extends much beyond that.
“I think it helps [Janet] think about other possibilities that she hasn’t thought about,” Evelyn says. “If I know that she can do a climb, I can
push her through it.”
Partnerships between students and their mentors are fluid friendships that follow few strict guidelines or expectations. “We aren’t really supposed to
be authority figures,” Evelyn explains. “We should be on the same level. You should still be an adult and set a good example, but you’re just there
to be a friend.”
David Owen founded City Rocks three years ago as part of a decades-long career rock climbing and guiding, as well as working with at-risk
youth and mentorship programs.
“Climbing is a great platform for mentorship, because it fosters partnership, stewardship, problem solving, and commitment,” Owen says. “They lend themselves
well to each other.”
Owen, who holds a Master’s Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University, has worked for organizations such as the Federation Employment
Guidance Service, Institute for Student Achievement, New York City Outward Bound Center, and the United Nations Development Program.
It was during his work at for the Central Park Conservancy’s Experiential Education Program that he built a wide network of partnerships with schools and
youth agencies across the city.
“I realized that there was a niche for consulting in New York,” Owen says, and he turned his passions for climbing and mentoring into the City Rocks program.
In cooperation with the Brooklyn Boulders Foundation – a non-profit for inner city youth – and the Brooklyn Boulders gym, Owen was able to get the
The non-profit organization takes 50 students from East Side Community High School and International High School in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The schools
are both federally funded, Title I schools educating students living at or below the poverty line.
Students voluntarily enroll in the program and commit to meeting with their mentors for at least four hours per month, though most pairs
will meet more often. Mentors join the program as volunteers and commit to a nine-month relationship with their mentee, along with a four-hour
Jill Cai, a mentor of a Chinese immigrant, says “I’m shocked at how well they matched us up. It’s more like a friendship. We just end up laughing all the
time when climbing.
“I’m amazed at how quickly she transitioned from somebody who’s never climbed to being a really good climber,” she adds. “She’s able to see good beta and
has good climbing IQ.”
Chynna Krouser is another mentee in the program and has climbed with her mentor Ariel for three years. “My favorite part about participating with Ariel
is getting comfortable with each other,” Chynna says. “She has helped me find my strengths and weaknesses and pushed me to achieve more. And I feel
as though I have done the same for her.”
Many of the students, especially from the International High School, are immigrants and use the program as a springboard to make new connections, learn
about the culture of the city and practice their English.
The year’s crowning event is a yearly trip to the Gunks, a trad-climbing mecca steeped in history. Come spring, mentees and their mentors
load onto busses and head for the hills to meet professional guides and spend the day on the rocks. For most students, the trip is their first day
on real rock. And for some, it’s one of only a few opportunities they’ve had to leave the city.
“The Gunks is like a real life aspect of climbing in the wilderness,” Rodriguez says, “and tests your climbing skills that you have been practicing all
year in the gym.”
The trip, just as the rest of the program, is entirely donation based. Through the generosity of Brooklyn Boulders, students can have access to the climbing
facilities, gear rentals and classes when they come in with their mentors. To see one pair through a year at the program requires $1,200.
Using rock climbing to
foster a mentoring relationship has proven enormously successful in the program’s three years.
“In this program climbing offers such a great way to build a mentor-mentee relationship,” Mentor Trevor Simpkin says. “We have to build trust in each other,
and that’s a cool relationship … [rock climbing] is a perfect activity to build confidence, have fun and create a solid relationship.”
According to the information provided by City Rocks, 100 percent of mentees graduate from high school compared to the 73 percent average of both schools
involved. All City Rock students report that the program helps them put in more effort at school and push through challenges in their personal lives.
More than 85 percent of mentees felt that they “can do more things on their own because of their mentor.”
In the program’s three years, “It’s been more successful than I ever imagined,” says Owen. He hopes to expand City Rocks to reach 100 students next school
To learn more about City Rocks, to reach out directly to the program or to donate, check out the website of the Brooklyn Boulder Foundation here.