When Charlie Kelly, then 15, called a meeting at his high school, he figured maybe 20 people would show up to hear his idea for a new community outreach program designed to help underprivileged middle schoolers through rock climbing.
Nearly 300 students appeared, many clamoring to look good on paper for their college applications. Some came just to heckle, asking, as he tried to outline his plan, if he'd filed for 501(c)3 status. Would the program be tax exempt?
A month later Such Great Heights introduced its first eight middle schoolers, drawn from the area around New Haven, Connecticut, to rock climbing. Since then it has done the same for nearly 50 youth.
"They're all struggling with the same things," Kelly, now 17, said of the participants. "What we do is surround them with motivated, enthusiastic mentors who really do care about them. That lives with them for a long time."
In the past Kelly competed on the youth circuit, placing 11th at Continentals, but one day he realized he didn't like the competition scene. Kelly said Such Great Heights was a natural progression that brought together his passion for service and climbing.
The program developed quickly. For an eight-week period at each middle school, a group of academically troubled kids gets together with graduate students to discuss their problems, in school or at home. The culminating experience for each group is a trip to the Connecticut Rock Gym.
For some, it is a watershed experience. A boy at an alternative school for poorly performing students wrote such a compelling essay about his climbing experience that he gained acceptance to a central magnet school.
This fall the program is to be used as a model and implemented at a few surrounding high schools. Kelly also plans to take it wherever he attends college a year from now.
Still, first things first. Deciding he had better answer the doubters at that first meeting, Kelly filled out the paperwork to designate Such Great Heights a tax exempt 501(c)3,and signed, sealed and delivered it.