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Janet Sevier Gilbreath Award 2003

Learning the Ropes, a Project of Higher Ground, Wichita

2003 Winner
Janet Sevier Gilbreath Special Project Recognition Award

Sometimes young people need a little help “learning the ropes”—gaining self-confidence, taking responsibility, making healthy choices, and staying away from drugs and alcohol. In Wichita, that help is available to troubled teens through an innovative adventure-based program called, appropriately, Learning the Ropes. A program of Higher Ground, Learning the Ropes offers prevention, early intervention, and substance abuse treatment each year to more than 400 adolescents, most from culturally diverse, low-income families. The service blends experiential programming-- such as a ropes challenge course, weekend excursions, and camping trips-- with traditional counseling. It also offers culturally competent, bilingual services to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking families.

Learning the Ropes was one of 21 programs nationwide selected in 1998 to be funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Local Initiative Funding Partners program. The Health Fund nominated Learning the Ropes and served as the local lead funder with a matching grant of $150,000. Following the original grant, the Health Fund made a grant of $19,669 to update the Ropes Challenge Course, the centerpiece of the adolescent program. A third grant of $101,918 spurred development efforts to generate long-term sustainable funding for the program. The final grant ended in February 2004.

In the first five years of the program, 1,580 teens were served—265 identified as needing the most intensive level of therapy lasting from three months to one year. Program goals were not only met, but exceeded. Follow-up surveys of youth participating in early intervention activities found 94% reported abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Six-month follow-up with clients receiving more intensive treatment found 80% reported abstinence from mood-altering substances and 89% had no new legal charges. Clients also consistently report improvements in family relationships, emotional health, and school work. In addition, all licensing visits have resulted in ratings above 95%.

Growing from a small agency to a mid-sized agency in a very short amount of time challenged leadership to design and implement new policies and procedures, new data management systems, dramatic new marketing and development approaches, and new staff training programs. The current program is proof that leadership met the challenge. It serves more than 400 youth and 90 family members each year. Follow-up reports continue to validate the alternative, holistic approach of Learning the Ropes. The program has expanded to include working in schools on issues such as prevention of gang violence and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Substantial on-going funding for the $450,000 annual budget for Higher Ground comes from the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas. In addition development efforts led to support from EXCEL Corporation and other smaller corporate sponsorships. One of Higher Ground’s sustaining strategies includes offering the ropes challenge course as a team-building experience for corporations.

Another highlight of this project is that it was included in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Connect Program that helps organizations develop relationships with legislators in Washington DC. Its story about a successful client also earned Higher Ground an invitation to a workshop sponsored by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on telling the non-profit story.

In every respect, Learning the Ropes and Higher Ground exemplify the highest standards of nonprofit work in health. The very low rate of recidivism when compared to national substance abuse treatment standards, development of volunteer and community support to sustain the program after the Health Fund grant ended, and development of sound business and financial practices make Learning the Ropes the Janet Sevier Gilbreath Special Project of 2003.


Representing Higher Ground staff are Mary San Martin, Executive Director; Shirley Toy, Asst. Director and Development Coordinator; Margaret Maniaci, Clinical Coordinator; Shannon Black, Counselor and Case Manager; Debbie Miller, Counselor and Case Manager; Michael Hunter, Experiential Coordinator; Nancy Chavez, Counselor and Case Manager; Carlos Wriedt, Counselor in Training; and Gloria Rodriguez, Counselor in Training. Tiyospaye Board members in attendance are Mike Padilla, Luis Balandran, Efraim Lujan, Charles Claycomb, Delia Jackson, and Nalini Johnson.

Awarded May 12, 2004

Learn more about the Janet Sevier Gilbreath award

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