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The Grandfather Challenge: Challenging At-Risk Kids, One Hike At A Time!

Jason Matthew Nipper was a very gifted, outgoing, and happy person with a keen sense of humor and engaging personality. He loved music, reading, and all aspects of nature. Although he was greatly troubled by mental illness, he found that the days which he spent hiking in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina brought him great peace and satisfaction.   Jason always wanted to find ways to help other people, and found great joy when he could help a friend.

Jason was very smart, and graduated from an International Baccalaureate (IB) high school program. He earned a full, four year scholarship to the University of Florida, but eventually had to drop out of college because of the instability and anxiety created by his mental illness. As do the great majority of people suffering from mental illness, Jason self-medicated with substances, which ultimately only complicated his mental condition. He continued to struggle with everyday life, and tried valiantly to cope with his mental illness. Jason passed away on June 24, 2014, and is greatly missed both by his family and everyone that ever knew him.

More than anything else, Jason wanted his life to have “meaning.” Because Jason had such a strong desire to help others, his parents James and Cheryl Nipper sought to fulfill that desire and honor his life by organizing The Jason Project and “The Grandfather Challenge.” They hope that Jason’s intense love of nature and hiking, coupled with his desire to help others, will live on through the young persons who participate in this program. Their greatest desire is that student participants will, through mentoring, perseverance, servant-leadership, and completing a rigorous and demanding physical challenge, find it easier to overcome some of life’s challenging hurdles.

Following their son’s death, the Nippers formed a non-profit organization called The Jason Project, Inc., and obtained IRS 501 (c) (3) charitable tax-exempt recognition. Because their son Jason spent a great deal of time at and loved Grandfather Mountain so much, the Nippers created a program called “The Grandfather Challenge,” which combines a series of challenging and rigorous hikes on Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC with outstanding character-building experiences to inspire and encourage at-risk youth.   James and Cheryl believe that this is a perfect way to fulfill Jason’s desire to help others and to create a legacy for their son and provide meaning to his life.  Although the program serves at-risk kids suffering from mental problems and/or drug addictions, the program also seeks to assist any special kids who are struggling with personal adversities, including family, school, or other personal problems or challenges.  Now in its second full year of existence, “The Grandfather Challenge” has been implemented in six different county school systems in Western North Carolina, representing 15 high schools and 12 middle schools.

Community support has been remarkable. The Grandfather Mountain State Park of North Carolina (through its Superintendent Sue McBean) has issued a Special Activity Permit to the project, and the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation (with the support and encouragement of Jesse Pope) has issued a special pass for entrance to the Grandfather Mountain attractions. Various donors have graciously provided financial support, while others have offered encouragement and prayers. Jason’s parents are deeply appreciative of the community support they have received for this exciting program!

Through tax-deductible donor support, The Jason Project, Inc. foundation pays all costs associated with the hiking program, including the providing of hiking boots, raincoats, socks, backpacks, professional hike leaders and other costs. At the successful completion of each round of hikes, the youth participants are each given a Certificate Of Completion and a gift certificate at an awards ceremony in their honor. Bella’s Italian Restaurant in Banner Elk has proven to be a favorite venue to host these recognition dinners.

Testimonies received from students, teachers, and counselors validate the effectiveness of this exciting program. A 15 year old student who suffers from autism and struggles in life told his counselor at the end of the first hike: 

“It was the best day of my life !”

A teenage girl who suffers from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem told her counselor: 

“I have never thought of myself as a leader. I don’t want to ever forget this feeling.”             

A high school student that attends a special class for Exceptional Children told the Nippers a year after he completed the program:

“I am not as angry as I used to be. I am a better person.”

The above statements are real, and reflect the impact that this program has on at-risk kids, who need encouragement, leadership, improved self-esteem and confidence, and recognition from adults who truly care about them and their futures. Such is the essence of The Jason Project and “The Grandfather Challenge.”

Anyone seeking further information about “The Grandfather Challenge,”  or who may wish to submit a youth candidate for participation and/or who may wish to sponsor a student or student group, may contact James or Cheryl Nipper at (828) 765-6561 or (904) 354-7378, or via email at [email protected], or visit their Go Fund Me page at GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.

For James and Cheryl Nipper, The Jason Project has been a bittersweet journey, but they now affirm that “the sweet has outweighed the bitter.” They take solace in the fact that their son Jason would love this adventure created for at-risk kids, and would be profoundly proud of those kids who successfully tackle and complete “The Grandfather Challenge.”