Soaring among the trees and crawling in tight, dark caves changes hundreds of young lives each year at Outdoor Odyssey.
Quiet and nestled in the woods near Boswell, Outdoor Odyssey is an adventure camp that has provided leadership and mentorship programs since 1998. “Growth Through Adventure” is one of the guiding principles to use physical challenges, such as rock climbing and high ropes courses to create opportunities for personal growth and learning to work as a team.
Maj. Gen. T.S. Jones was inspired to develop the camp because he “was a troubled youth who may not have finished high school had it not been for a mentor.” He promised his mentor that he would go to college and graduate.
Without the help and support of his mentor, Jones would said he would “not have been a college graduate and would never have become an officer in the Marine Corps.”
He wanted to give other kids this same experience and provide them with valuable leadership skills. His service in the Marines provided the “skills and perspectives of leadership that led to the orientation of Outdoor Odyssey,” Jones said.
The mentor program works in partnership with school districts in western Pennsylvania.
The program is designed to help children in need succeed in school through the assistance of a mentor, according to the program’s website.
Each mentee is paired up with a mentor within his or her school district and spends a week of the summer at Outdoor Odyssey learning leadership skills.
‘Develop my dream’
Many mentors continue working in the program.
Tiffany Diaz and Taylor Sigut are now program coordinators at Outdoor Odyssey who both started as mentors when they were in high school.
From the first Leadership Academy she did when she was 15-years-old, Diaz said she was “ locked onto Outdoor Odyssey and their mission.”
As she progressed from mentor to junior counselor to counselor to full-time staff, she was able to understand the reach of Outdoor Odyssey.
“Outdoor Odyssey has, without a doubt, shaped the person that I am today,” Diaz said.
“Outdoor Odyssey provided me with direction and helped me develop my dream and passion for helping others. ... I have discovered how much of a difference I can make in the world and that no matter how minuscule it always has an impact.”
One of Diaz’s most meaningful experiences was her first staff training that she completed before becoming a counselor.
The training occurs over multiple weeks, with strenuous physical and mental activities.
The counselors rely on each other for support and to accomplish their goals.
This experience allowed her to create a deep bond with and rely on a group of “incredible people.”
“There’s not many places where you can be completely yourself and not only be accepted, but be appreciated,” she said.
‘Taught me so much’
Diaz hopes that there is never a time in her life where she is not involved with Outdoor Odyssey in some way.
Sigut said mentoring another young person was the most meaningful part for her.
“My camper is an incredible individual,” Sigut said. “When I started mentoring her, she was in elementary school. Now, she is a high school student who has graduated to our Leadership Transition Program. ... Knowing that I could positively impact her life even a little bit is so rewarding and has taught me so much.”
A Leadership graduate, Sophia Naugle is a senior at United High School and has been a mentor for two years.
She was originally drawn to the program because it provided her an opportunity she could not get anywhere else. In order to become a mentor, a candidate must complete a week of training focusing on gaining leadership skills and working together as a team.
Naugle said being a mentor helped her “think more about the lives and opinions of others and actively aim to put others first while bettering myself.”
She would tell anyone considering becoming a mentor to “get involved and take the opportunity and run with it.”
The mentor program enabled her to be a leader not only to her campers, but to people in her own community.
“It was life changing and definitely an experience that I will carry through all parts of my life and future endeavors,” she said.
Naugle plans to go to college to become a research pharmacist.
Outdoor Odyssey showed Naugle that her dream “is completely attainable with a hard-working mindset and goal in place.”
‘Have fun ... be myself’
Lainey McNulty is a sixth-grade student at Westmont Hilltop Elementary School and has had an Outdoor Odyssey mentor since she was 8 years old. She said that her mentor has helped her “have fun and be myself.”
McNulty’s favorite memory from the program is when she was going on a hike and there were no more small hike packs left so she had to carry a large one. “The whole time, people were trying to carry it for me, but I didn’t let them,” she said, noting that she was very proud of herself when she made it to the end of the hike.
Throughout Outdoor Odyssey’s 23-year history, the camp has seen many changes in the mentor program and in the programs that are offered.
In the past decade, Outdoor Odyssey has introduced programs for wounded veterans and their families called Semper Fi Odyssey. The program helps veterans transition back into civilian life while the kids experience a camp resembling the mentoring program. In addition, Outdoor Odyssey has also started mentor programs in Africa “for some of the most disenfranchised children in the world,” the organization said, to develop mentors and to teach leadership skills to better their communities.
Outdoor Odyssey shows that mentorship reaches far beyond the structured program. Both its mentors and mentees have gone on to make countless contributions to their communities. Jones would like school districts to create mentorship systems to reach all students.
“Many, many of our current social problems that result in the expenditure of millions of dollars annually could be ameliorated through mentoring efforts – bullying, drug use, school failure, unemployment,” he said.