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Leadership Ranch enhances communication via challenge

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by Ruth Scott

SBJ Contributing Writer

On a chilly March afternoon at the Leadership Ranch in Republic, Tim Eberle leads the way around his outdoor classroom, which features a rope and challenge course. A trail through the woods connects eight sites, each with about 10 activities.

For now, brown is the predominant color of the surroundings. The trees are still bare, and a few remaining patches of snow and numerous mud puddles cover the soggy ground. But as Eberle speaks, he paints a picture of springtime, when this wooded area will come alive with color and activity.

Eberle began operating the ropes course in 1983. Since then, it has grown to include about 40 different activities. At one site along the trail, every member of a group must successfully scale a 10-foot wall. A 12-foot pole stands at another site, encircled at the base by a tire, which the group must remove from the pole.

These activities require cooperation and communication, according to Eberle, who believes most people need a lot of work in these areas.

"People don't need to practice competition; they need to practice cooperation," he said. Most of the activities on the course are non-competitive, with the only exception being a tug-of-war, usually reserved for the end of the day.

"After a day of cooperation, I let them be competitive," he said.

Eberle works with all ages and all types of groups. He has done ropes courses with the Southwest Missouri State University volleyball team, with staff members of several area schools, and with children of all ages.

"Anybody that has to work together and spend time together can benefit from this experience," he said, "whether it's a family, a ball team or a Sunday school class."

A zip-wire extends overhead, crossing over the creek. Nearby, a trapeze hangs a few feet away from a high platform. Participants must leap from the platform to grab the trapeze. Harnesses are used for these activities, which have been designed with safety in mind, Eberle said.

"The kids like the high stuff more than the adults," he added. "Most of the adults are usually scared to death."

While the high ropes course is a lot of fun for kids, Eberle said those activities really don't teach as much cooperative effort as some of the others. But he believes in the importance of motivation. He wants the ranch to be an interesting, motivating environment.

"I think, what would be neat? What would be fun? Then I try to do it." His No. 1 goal, he said, is to stimulate self-motivation. "People do what they want to do. The trick is to get a group of people to communicate well enough to want to do the same thing, to identify common goals."

Eberle said support is the biggest factor necessary for a successful group. "A high level of support is needed for the group to be a success. On the course, you can see that if the group is not supportive, they don't do well."

For businesses, Leadership Ranch can be a chance to learn about decision-making while there's not a lot at stake, he said.

"I think the bottom line is, do you want your employees practicing their decision-making skills on a $50,000 decision? They're better off fine-tuning their group skills, communication and decision-making while practicing on things that don't have such big consequences."

Eberle described the activities as mini-laboratories in which participants can analyze patterns of decision-making without major consequences.

"It tunes up people's abilities to work together," he said. "It's a perfect reflection of who and what you are; in these activities, people act very similar to the way they act in real life."

And as in real life, there are both group and individual activities, and some require more physical exertion while others call for more thinking.

"There's an opportunity for everyone's strengths to show up," he said. The goal is for the group members to see each other's strengths and their need to be more mutually supportive.

Eberle said what makes him happy is getting children to think, to see the "light come on" when they come to a new realization.

"I am equally fascinated with the adult groups. I still learn enormous things from them," he said, adding that "it's like dealing with another creature."

While kids usually come to the ropes course excited and eager to participate, Eberle said, he finds that adults often "hate it at first. They can be very uncooperative and have terrible attitudes." But it doesn't take long before things start to turn around.

"Fifteen minutes later, they're all laughing and having a great time. The process of coworkers accomplishing things together in a fun, interesting setting really does build morale."

Eberle said he focuses on providing a high quality, safe learning environment by thoroughly training his staff.

"I don't have a lake, a river, cabins or mountains," he said. "What I do have is a strong staff of facilitators. I have gone to great lengths to train highly qualified facilitators. Trainers and teachers are responsible for 50 to 80 percent of the success of a program."

Eberle said that he also makes it a point to match the facilitator with the group.

An adult group, for instance, would be led by an adult with life experiences comparable with those in the group, while a younger adult might facilitate for a group of teenagers or elementary-school children.

"I spend a lot of time and money on my facilitators," he said, "because they are so critical."

Eberle doesn't stop when the weather prohibits visitors from coming out to the ropes course; he just takes the ropes course elsewhere. With several portable activities, he visits schools and businesses. In the winter, he spends a lot of time in elementary classrooms. Each week his programs put him in contact with 1,000 children in 46 classes.

"The goal is to teach social skills," he said, "but if I just went in and started talking about social skills, they'd listen for about two minutes. So I always bring in animals or things they haven't seen before."

He recently took a selection of animal skulls with him to a school.

The older classes discussed each animal's teeth and the differences between omnivores, carnivores and herbivores, while the younger classes had a lesson on dental hygiene.

"They'll listen to the social skills part in order to hear about the animals," he said.

Eberle often draws from his experiences working with the Division of Youth Services, he said. "They are a fantastic organization, and they taught me a lot."

His time spent managing a construction company also benefits him in his current position, he said.

"I learned a lot about cooperative skills and group dynamics through that experience."

In addition to the ranch and the school programs, Eberle has been taking groups of kids on summer trips for years, giving them the opportunity to see new places and experience new adventures.

What does the future hold for Leadership Ranch? The next big development on Eberle's agenda is a building with a gymnasium, so the ranch can operate year-round. He would like to see it become an educational community center.

"I think if your heart's in the right place, if you do your research and get good advice, and if you're willing to work hard, you can accomplish what you set out to do," he said.

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