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I consider it a high honor to have been called to serve at Teen Mania’s Honor Academy a few years ago. During my time there, the Lord completely delivered me from bipolar disorder and depression. Teen Mania will always have my support prayerfully, financially, and my highest recommendation due to the solidity of leadership and the Lord’s endorsement on that place.

I. Introduction:

Teen Mania is an evangelistic Christian youth ministry headquartered in Lindale, TX that is probably best known for it’s ‘Acquire the Fire” and “Battlecry” events held in about 30 major U.S. cities annually. In addition to these rallies, Teen Mania operates a 1-2 year residential program known as the “Honor Academy” at their Lindale campus. Honor Academy attendees (called interns in their first year and graduate interns in their second) participate in a variety of activities that use didactics, mentoring, and group activities with a significant component of experiential learning. The principal experiential learning events occur about every five weeks and are called “Life Transforming Events” (or LTEs). One LTE, the “Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime” or “ESOAL”, has recently been criticized by some former Honor Academy interns. Though ESOAL is typically rated as the favorite LTE by most former interns, these criticisms have been picked up and reported by local media (KLTV, channel 7) in the Tyler-Longview area of East Texas and discussed extensively on several internet blog sites. (Ref 1, 2)

About The Oversight Committee

For these reasons, Teen Mania assembled a team of local professionals to serve as an “oversight committee” to review all phases of the ESOAL LTE. The members of the oversight committee participating in this review have various degrees of familiarity with Teen Mania. All have backgrounds in youth work and/or some phase of health care. The charge to the committee was to review “the planning, the schedule of training leading up to ESOAL, and the conduct of ESOAL during the actual event.”  Integral to this charge was an independent “review of safety measures in place for all planned activities.” (Ref 3) The names, professional backgrounds, and disclosures of the oversight committee affirming these findings are appended to this report. The remainder of this document details the conduct of this review, including the committee’s research about these types of events, the committee’s findings based on that review along with a brief discussion of these points, and specific recommendations keyed to these findings.

II. Background information about ESOAL and Scope of this Inquiry

The LTEs in the Honor Academy curriculum, as is common with most experiential learning approaches, are meant to “stretch” the interns physically, mentally, and/or emotionally in some way. For instance, the “Endurance” LTE required participation in the annual Tyler Azalea Festival 10K run. The “Peak Challenge” LTE is an aggressive hike up Hallett’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Thus ESOAL, while conducted on premises at Teen Mania’s campus, both in name and intent, is meant to stretch the interns who participate. (Ref 3)

ESOAL participation is voluntary and not required for completion of the Honor Academy. Those who elect not to participate are assigned to the “Service” LTE which facilitates and logistically supports ESOAL. Clearly, the nature of this LTE is to stretch its participants; thus, some participants who initially elected to voluntarily participate may find portions overly demanding and want to exit ESOAL. If a participant intern finds any portion of ESOAL to be beyond their abilities, for any reason, then they may “ring out” by going to a bell that is carried throughout the ESOAL LTE and placed each day in a central location. Once an ESOAL participant “rings out”, they are reassigned to the Service LTE and support the remainder of ESOAL in that capacity. Part of the committee review consisted of inquiring about whether there was undue and subtle pressure to either participate in ESOAL or to not “ring out” once they had begun. Also of interest to the committee in this review were the reasons that led participant interns to “ring out”.  (Ref 4)

III. Conduct of the review: Issues identified, scope of the inquiry, and questions to be answered.

All members of this committee served voluntarily and donated the time required to perform this review for Teen Mania. Unfortunately, some who had initially agreed to serve were unable to attend because of other commitments. For committee members who were not able to attend meetings, video transcripts were provided to keep up with the committee’s review activities and discussions. The committee was given unfettered access to Teen Mania’s records of past ESOAL events. This included Honor Academy enrollment information (including some fitness and medical information), ESOAL post event surveys, and ESOAL illness and injury records. Teen Mania video of ESOAL events and links to television reporting done by KLTV, channel 7 was also provided to the committee. The committee toured the ESOAL event areas on Teen Mania’s campus. The committee also interviewed current interns who had participated in ESOAL: both “finishers” and those who “rang out”.

Teen Mania made clear at the outset that they wanted an independent review of ESOAL and that the committee itself, within the broad charge given above for this review, should determine the scope of the review and its conduct. The committee met as a group on the Teen Mania campus in Garden Valley, TX three times from January through March, after which time this document was prepared and circulated only among a few committee members involved in drafting the report in the April-May timeframe. It was put in this final form for review in early June.

Teen Mania provided about 70 pages of summary materials in a notebook for each committee member at the initial meeting in January. Additional materials (as outlined in this report) were provided when requested. Committee meetings were videotaped and members that were unable to make a meeting were provided video transcripts. David Hasz and Heath Stoner made themselves available to the committee to provide clarifying information as requested for this review. All other materials were researched and developed by committee members from open sources. The sources for this information, (most of which is available online for the interested reader) are referenced in the body of the report (appearing in parentheses) with reference citations appended at the end of this report. (ibid, Ref 4)

A significant amount of time was spent in the initial two meetings defining the scope of this review and identifying questions to be answered, consistent with the broad charge to the oversight committee. The following is a brief summary of those discussions and the essential questions that the committee decided to address.

1. Who participates in ESOAL? Is it truly voluntary, or is there “pressure to participate? Are current participants “fit” to participate, and how is that determined?

2. Is ESOAL “safe” for those who participate? Is the monitoring of “evolutions” adequate? How does ESOAL compare to other events in terms of illness and injury? What are the best comparison points for ESOAL?

3. Is the overall staffing for ESOAL and the training of staff for the ESOAL LTE adequate? Is this all “internal” training or is there “external training” or resources that might be useful?

4. What data is currently gathered? Is it an adequate set of metrics? What additional data might be gathered? How does it compare to comparable events?

IV. Literature Reviewed:

As noted above, while ESOAL incorporates some unique elements, there are other experiential learning programs similar to Teen Mania’s LTEs that “stretch” participants. What that means on a practical basis is that there is a body of literature that can serve to address the above questions. While not meant to be exhaustive, the following discussion of the historical development of these programs from the referenced literature provides the basis for comparisons and grounds the committee’s findings and recommendations in the broader context of “challenge courses” which provides useful benchmarks.

Use of an event to “stretch” a participant beyond a “normal comfort zone” is not unique to ESOAL. There have been at least four types of organizations and/or settings using experiential learning events that utilize similar approaches: the military services (e.g. obstacle and challenge courses), wilderness/mountaineering programs (e.g. Outward Bound, Summit Expeditions), schools and colleges (e.g. Project Adventure), and businesses (e.g. corporate challenge or “ropes” courses). Historically, the military has conducted this type activity longer and many camps and other organizations use a hierarchical military-like framework, just as ESOAL does.

Military obstacle courses and challenge courses have been used for decades. Based on several sources, their use in western military organizations began with Georges Hebert (1875-1957), a French naval officer who developed what he termed the “Natural Method” of physical education. According to Hebert, this included physical, moral and “virile” qualities in an outdoor environment. Interestingly, the genesis for his ideas came from observations of tribal warriors along the west coast of Africa training in a series of physically demanding events. Hebert believed that “virile” qualities could be obtained by practicing certain exercises that used falling, jumping, climbing and/or walking on unstable surfaces. True to his navy background, the obstacles he used for these exercises were patterned after obstacles found on the decks of ships. (Ref 5)

Hebert’s ideas found a receptive audience in military circles. Many of his events incorporated naval ropes and rigging. These particular elements were widely copied and persist today in modern ropes courses. In the military, these courses eventually followed one of two formats. Timed courses to develop or refine individual physical skills and agility were termed “obstacle courses” whereas courses that were untimed and often used teamwork to complete a group task were termed “confidence courses” or “challenge courses”.

The U.S. military uses both obstacle and challenge courses to build endurance, teamwork, and an understanding of individual and corporate accomplishment. Fort Belvoir’s Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC) is the first documented site of a U.S. military obstacle course, but there is anecdotal evidence of other courses dating back to the 1920’s. The Belvoir course was constructed by Brig. Gen. William Hoge and was designed to teach recruits how to handle themselves and their equipment in simulated field conditions. Belvoir’s obstacle course incorporated “walls to climb over, hurdles to jump over, barbed wire to crawl under, ditches to swing over, and pipes to crawl through.” The course was put into operation at the ERTC during the spring of 1941. (Ref 6)

Kurt Hahn (1886 – 1974) was a German born educator and political activist who developed an influential educational philosophy that was eventually used by Outward Bound. Hahn believed in giving students opportunity for leadership and reflection on the results of their actions. Interestingly, Outward Bound also had a “naval” tie in its early beginnings. Young British merchant seamen who came under fire in WWII were initially unprepared. Teaching young British sailors how to respond appropriately under fire before they left port (i.e. were “Outward Bound”) became a high priority.

As Outward Bound moved from wartime training to a post war program, the techniques pioneered in wartime necessity were funneled into the first “Outward Bound School” in Aberdovey, Wales. This school, like the initial training for the young merchant seamen, created a series of intense, life experiences in which a young person’s self-confidence and capacity to cope with a set of life circumstances could be enhanced. As Outward Bound moved across the Atlantic, Hahn’s educational philosophy continued to guide its development. Hahn distilled his philosophy into ten principles that he believed created a caring and adventurous learning environment: self-discovery, creativity, responsibility, empathy, success/failure, collaboration, diversity, relationship with the natural environment, solitude/reflection and service. The first Outward Bound program in the U.S. at Marble, CO is usually credited with use of the first modern ropes course in the United States in 1962, though the military was clearly using similar ropes course events in WW II (and perhaps earlier). (Ref 7)

In the late 1960’s, mountaineering and wilderness programs began to proliferate, including a few Christian programs using these approaches. Tim Hansel founded Summit Expeditions in 1968 and after a near fatal accident, captured much of his philosophy of “wilderness ministries” in a series of books. His well-known, “You Gotta Keep Dancin” was published in 1985. (Ref 8)

In the 1970?s, Project Adventure began using challenge course elements in school physical education programs in Massachusetts. Project Adventure has conducted a 20-year safety study that probably provides the best benchmark for ESOAL from a safety vantage point. (Ref 9) From the success in public schools, other avenues opened. Challenge courses were incorporated into counseling, youth-at-risk, and substance abuse programs. By the 1980?s the idea of using challenge courses for teamwork training spread to the corporate world, and today many businesses use challenge courses to train executives in communication and problem solving, risk taking, and team building.

The increasing popularity of these programs in a wide variety of settings appropriately brought about study of the effectiveness and safety of experiential learning in what is now generically called “ a challenge course”. A useful compendium of this literature has been assembled by Dr. Aram Attarian at North Carolina State University. (Ref 10)

In addition to the academic literature, an entire industry dedicated to construction of challenge courses and conduct of these types of events has developed. There are trade associations and consensus standards that are meant to guide providers of these courses. The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) provides equipment standards as well as training and certifications for those conducting challenge courses. The ACCT and its member organizations recently guided the development of a new ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard for challenge course construction. Materials on the ACCT website and websites of member organizations detail these resources which were used in this review. (Ref 11)

V. Findings, Discussion, and Recommendations:

The findings outlined in this section have been expanded somewhat, but are broadly keyed to the initial questions found in section III above.

1. Who participates in ESOAL? Is it truly voluntary, or is there “pressure to participate? Are current participants “fit” to participate, and how is that determined? ESOAL participants, other than staff members (and spouses of staff) who occasionally elect to participate, consists primarily of 18-22 year-old interns who are fairly healthy based on enrollment data which includes some fitness and health information, as previously noted. While interns are encouraged to participate, the committee found no evidence of coercion or pressure. The current questionnaire identifies many issues, but these are not clearly translated into bars to participate or activity restrictions. While there is some attention to preparation (workouts and physical conditioning) for ESOAL and other physically demanding LTEs, there is no standardized assessment for “fitness” to train (work-out) and/or participate.

Recommendations: 1) Use of validated consensus screens for physical activity (e.g. PAR-Q) 2) Revise current questionnaires with medical input and insure adequate vetting of serious conditions in the questionnaires, preferably by the individuals own physician or a competent clinician retained by Teen Mania. (Ref 12)

2. Is ESOAL “safe” for those who participate? Is the monitoring of “evolutions” adequate? How does ESOAL compare to other events in terms of illness and injury? As would be expected, some interns who wish to participate are “low-fit” and/or have chronic diseases. In certain cases, these conditions might potentially compromise health and certainly impact successful completion of ESOAL. Based on a preliminary review of the injury and illness records from ESOAL, the experience in this event is comparable to that of Project Adventure’s experience; and far less than the injury and illness experience seen in competitive sports data from the CDC (High School Sports) (Ref 13) The preparation for staff involved in the conduct of ESOAL is extensive and highlights safety. As an example, there is special attention paid to water discipline in the conduct of ESOAL in hot and humid conditions. So, from the committee’s vantage point, there is adequate monitoring of the various evolutions, but the committee, particularly those with health care backgrounds, felt strongly about the following two recommendations.

Recommendations: 1) Have two EMTs available at all times when conducting ESOAL, 2) Consider, as a minimum, BLS training for all staff involved in ESOAL.

3. Is the overall staffing for ESOAL and the training of staff for the ESOAL LTE adequate? Is the military motif necessary or “overdone”? 1) The committee found the overall staffing and training adequate for the conduct of ESOAL itself. As noted above, and perhaps not unexpected with the health care representation on the committee, the coverage in the clinical facilities was felt to be inadequate. 2) ESOAL, from its inception, has been organized like a military training exercise. Apparently, this style of organization has led to much of the criticism of ESOAL by invoking images of a “military boot camp” or of “Navy Seal Hell week”. Accordingly, the committee explored the reasons for organizing ESOAL in this manner as part of this review. While one might criticize the overly zealous use of a military organizational structure, the committee found that the use of the military structure provides considerable advantages. Briefly, using a military framework provides proper hierarchical “command and control” over the “evolutions”, a term used primarily, but not exclusively by the military for tasks or stations in a military training exercise. Further, a military style organization provides accountability for all participants, so that an individual may be located quickly in a dynamic environment with multiple events ongoing. In addition, the hierarchical command and control of a military framework also affords efficiency that allows many groups to rotate through a given ESOAL evolution in “round robin” fashion. Finally, the accountability this structure affords, as in the military, provides needed oversight in the field environment to achieve an acceptable margin of safety. (Ref 14)

Recommendations: 1) Consider enhancing training of key ESOAL staff with training/certification via American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) or similar organizations training for- and conducting comparable events. 2) Use the abundant, open domain military publications for field exercises (e.g TB MED 547-Heat Injury) to enhance the safety of ESOAL. These work well in any event using a hierarchical military structure.  (Ref 15)

4. What data is currently gathered? Is it an adequate set of metrics? What additional data might be gathered? The committee found deficiencies in the collection and vetting of data from participants. There was inadequate information solicited to determine whether there should be a bar to participation based on overall fitness. While enrollment data included some health information and a release, it was not reviewed by a competent medical professional. Data regarding injury and illness care during ESOAL was recorded in a set of clinic logs. Though detailed, it was not optimal. Most entries appeared to be first aid clinic visits, not injuries. In individuals with multiple minor complaints each was logged, thereby giving the appearance of multiple events from a single individual’s clinic visit. Year-to-year comparisons were difficult. With little additional effort, mostly in revamping intake forms, data could be enhanced to allow better year-to-year comparisons that could more accurately guide improvements in event safety.

Recommendations: 1) internally: Use simple injury/incident surveillance tools like “push-pins” on a campus map to visually find patterns suggesting immediate hazards and to identify needed improvements while ESOAL is ongoing. Revise incident and injury intake forms to provide sufficient detail to allow better year-to-year comparisons. That will necessarily require finding sufficient staff time to collate data after ESOAL is completed each year. 2) Externally: Consider Teen Mania’s participation in ACCT or other organizations that gather data from its membership and then perform benchmarking activities. Key elements needing refinement are: using ICD-9 coding (standard diagnostic coding), noting severity and functional limitations, particularly any restrictions in participation (“lost time”), and need for- and outcome of- any follow-up care.

VI. Summary and Implementation.

Pertinent summary findings by the committee follow:

1) The military organization of ESOAL is justifiable as it provides hierarchical command and control. Key benefits of this are enhanced safety and the efficiencies afforded in rotating individual units through various events (evolutions).

2) Historically, there have been a variety of organizations using outdoor, experiential learning events. Thus, there are data from other organizations to which ESOAL can be compared. Based on best evidence from several organizations, ESOAL’s injury and illness experience appears comparable, but the data were insufficient for a detailed comparison. Data gathering and benchmarking should be improved. Recommendations have been made regarding soliciting better information to ascertain participants “fitness”, using better data collection and collation methods during and after ESOAL, and “tapping” other organization’s learnings (benchmarking) by affiliating with trade and professional organizations that have developed consensus guidance (e.g. ACCT).

3) Along with membership in the trade and professional organizations, asking staff involved in ESOAL to obtain safety and outdoor learning credentials (ACCT or others) could further enhance safety.

4) Finally, insuring an adequate number of health care providers (ideally two onsite EMTs) while ESOAL is in progress will insure an added measure of safety.

While Teen Mania will undoubtedly require time to review the committee’s findings and the feasibility of implementing these committee recommendations, this report should provide the basis to safely conduct ESOAL in coming years.

References:

  1. Teen Mania Ministries, from Wikipedia Website, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_Mania
  2. LTE Information from Honor Academy Website,http://www.honoracademy.com/index.cfm/PageID/1579/index.html
  3. ESOAL Oversight Committee from Honor Academy Website,http://www.honoracademy.com/index.cfm/pageid/4176/index.html
  4. ESOAL Oversight Committee Notebook: Materials compiled by Teen Mania to acquaint the committee members with ESOAL. These materials were clarified by David Hasz and Heath Stoner in the initial January meeting.
  5. Certification Track Training Manual 2010, Blue Ridge Learning Centershttp://www.brlc.org/
  6. Historic Ft. Belvoir: Leaders in Excellence: Ft. Belvoir Obstacle Course, http://www.belvoir.army.mi?history.asp?id=WWII
  7. History of Outdoor Education: Timeline, from Wilderdom website,http://wilderdom.com/history/HistoryTimeline.html
  8. Hansel, Tim. You Gotta Keep Dancin’. David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, 1985.
  9. Jillings, A., Furlong, L., LaRhette, M. & Ryan, B. (1995). Project Adventure 20 year safety study. Unpublished manuscript. Available online:http://projectadventureinc.blogspot.com/2008/09/project-adventures-20-year-safety-study.html
  10. Attarian, Aram. Challenge Courses: An Annotated Bibliography, 2nd Edition. NCSU Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management & Alpine Towers International, 2005. Available online:http://www.alpinetowers.com
  11. Association for Challenge Course Technology. http://www.acctinfo.org/index.cfm
  12. Physical Activity Readiness-Questionnaire (PAR-Q), rev 2002. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, Ottawa, Canada. Variety of formats available; see: http://www.nasm.org/search.aspx?q=PAR-Q,http://www.csep.ca/cmfiles/publications/parq/par-q.pdf
  13. Sports-Related Injuries Among High School Athletes —United States, 2005–06 School Year. CDC, MMWR, September 29, 2006, Vol. 55, No.38. Available online:http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm5538.pdf
  14. Department of Army, Training and Doctrine Command, TRADOC Pam 385-1: The TRADOC Model Safety and Self-Assessment Guide, Appendix C: Obstacle Course Criteria, 17 March, 2009. Available online:http://www-tradoc.army.mil/tpubs/pams/p385-1.pdf
  15.  Department of Army, Medical Department, TBMED 507: Heat Stress Control and Heat Casualty Management, 7 March 2003. All Army TBMED series available online:www.army.mil/usapa/med/index.html