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People Helping People: A Series from ASU Students, Fourth Article Centers Around the Mountain Alliance

On Appalachian State University’s campus, Dr. Wendy Winn offers a Seminar in Professional Writing to students who are majoring in the professional writing field. Through this class, and a partnership with High Country Press, the students involved were able to learn and then write feature articles focusing on nonprofit organizations throughout the High Country. The following is the fourth article of the series, written by Savannah Clemmons, and it centers around the Mountain Alliance and what this organization does, and could continue to do, for the community. 


Mountain Alliance: Help Build the Future Leaders of the High Country

By Savannah Clemmons 

At 11:55 a.m. on any given school day, the staff of Mountain Alliance sits in an empty classroom in Watauga High School. The room — situated with desks, tables and a common area of chairs arranged in a circle — evokes an open and friendly environment.

Five minutes later, a school bell rings. Not too long after, a group of students rushes into the room, bringing energy and enthusiasm.

The students sit together across the room, making good use of the space dedicated to promoting and organizing the services and mission of the nonprofit.

Since 1990, Mountain Alliance has provided local high school students with an incredible range of opportunities to develop skills in leadership, service and community engagement with challenging and engaging experiential learning programs.

At its home office at Watauga High School, the organization operates to encourage growth and development in local youth and has established a variation of local partnerships.

Each year, Mountain Alliance serves roughly 160 students who are active in the organization’s programming initiatives.

Executive Director Zack Green says that Mountain Alliance’s program opportunities are “all about the youth.” Programs range from weekly after school programs to weekend-long extended trips and even a few specialized programs that involve students in traveling leadership experience for a few weeks at a time.

MA’s work began almost 27 years ago when Jerry Cantwell, a substance abuse counselor and lecturer at Appalachian State University, and Dr. Bill Herring decided to create a program that directly addressed several issues concerning adolescents in the High Country.

Green says that Mountain Alliance was formed because Cantwell and Herring were among “a group of people that felt like there was not enough opportunities to outreach a wide range of students.”

The creation of the organization that came to be known as Mountain Alliance aimed to reduce high-school dropouts at Watauga High School, and to provide positive and diverse alternatives to potentially dangerous activities in which teens might participate.

Green says that the goal of the programming has always been to mitigate diversity challenges at Watauga and to promote interaction and relationships between students from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We have found that outdoor adventure activities in particular have really been able to bridge the divide between many groups of students,” he said.

Mountain Alliance offers several different types of programs, each occurring at different frequencies.

The organization seeks to provide students with at least two after school trips each week and two longer weekend trips each month. Many of the outdoor adventure trips consist of taking advantage of the High Country’s many hiking trails, climbing areas and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

“We try to provide a lot of different types and lengths of activities in order to be inclusive of student’s different schedules and time commitments,” said Green.

Mountain Alliance also creates programming that encourages students to develop an intrinsic value of service and community involvement. It has developed partnerships with many other nonprofit and service organizations over the years.
Students involved in Mountain Alliance volunteer at the Hospitality House of Boone at least once per month. The organization is also beginning to work more frequently with the Health and Hunger Coalition, another local nonprofit dedicated to providing important health and food services for individuals around the community that are in need.

MA has also worked with Horse Helpers of the High Country, a horse rehabilitation service located in Valle Crucis.

Another important service goal of the organization is focused in environmental stewardship and responsibility. Students routinely participate in river cleanups around the High Country, including “The Big Sweep,” an annual event at which volunteers clean the New River.

MA has created initiatives that seek to employ leadership and involvement inside the classroom, as well as outside. The service has worked with Watauga High to ensure that the school library remains open after school for four days during the course of each week. The organization has also worked with ASU students in the Reich College of Education, who volunteer to tutor students during the library’s afterschool hours.

The initiatives also go way beyond providing fun and engaging activities for students.

“Each of our programs serves a much deeper purpose for the students,” Green said. “All of our opportunities and programs have learning objectives and are leadership-focused.”

One of the organization’s most prominent and influential programs is the Rolling Leadership Academy, a two-week summer excursion on which students engage in a variety of activities that challenge and build leadership skills.

Each year, students arrive for the Rolling Leadership Academy without fully knowing which activities they will enjoy. Green says that, while the students know what to pack and the overall purpose of the trip, they do not know the full itinerary until they depart.

The academy takes students across many different cultures and landscapes, as the group is challenged to think more, solve problems and to be stronger leaders. Past leadership academies have taken students to meet senators, climb mountains and to serve a diverse range of people in ways different than their work in The High Country.

As the academy focuses on building leadership skills, it is important that each student is able to build their confidence while coordinating and guiding their peers. Green says that each day of the academy, a different student is chosen to be the “leader of the day,” and is tasked with being an example and helping other students.

As the constant travel is one of the most difficult parts of the trip, that students are able to learn and grow from the experience.

“During the academy, the bus is our classroom,” said Green.

Program Director Rachel Witmer says that her experience working at Mountain Alliance has allowed her to witness firsthand how much students mature over the course of four short years of high school.

“Working here for seven years has really given me an awesome opportunity to see these students grow and watch them change,” she said. “I get to see them break out of their shells and grow into more confident, community-minded individuals that want to make a difference in the world.”

Witmer says that much of the growth comes from the confidence-building elements.
Along with the Rolling Leadership Academy, the outdoor programs offer students the opportunity to try new activities and to accomplish tasks that they could not do before.

“On the adventure trips, students really push themselves and challenge themselves,” Witmer said. “The confidence comes as students help plan and lead these trips.”

Witmer says that she grew up going to Girl Scout Camp, an experience that had a lasting impact on her and her career choice.

“The camp counselors had a big impact on me.” Witmer says. “They showed me it was okay to be myself, and I realized that that’s what I wanted to do for others.”

After taking classes with Jerry Cantwell and becoming familiar with Mountain Alliance through friends, Witmer found that the nonprofit offered her a unique opportunity to have an impact on local youth and further the cycle of mentorship.

Through Mountain Alliance, individuals from across the community serve as mentors and offer their skills to help educate and impact students. Many of those people are students at ASU.

“We get a lot of people from the Recreation Management department,” Witmer said. “Sometimes, we go and talk to classes about Mountain Alliance. A lot of them volunteer because it aligns with the things that they want to do.”

While Recreation Management students volunteer on the outdoor programs, Social Work students help out in other aspects of the program.

“We actually had a social work major that was assigned to do a school project with us and ended up staying and volunteering because she loved it so much.” Said Witmer.

Looking around at a high-energy classroom filled with students laughing and talking, Witmer smiled and said, “That’s how it brings you in.”

In addition to volunteers, Mountain Alliance gets a substantial amount of financial support from the community. Zack Green says that it is funded by a wide range of sources such as grants, donations and local support from Watauga County and the Town of Boone. The nonprofit also receives support from Mast General Store, Watauga County Schools, High Country United Way and Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge.

Along with public grants and funding, it seeks private funding and sponsorships. Some programs, like the Rolling Academy, require students to apply and do some fundraising by requesting sponsorships from local businesses and individuals.

Since its creation 27 years ago, Mountain Alliance has sought to engage the youth of the High Country and compel locals to get involved in the positive development of the region’s future leaders. Supporting maintain MA’s impact on students can be as simple as donating funds to the organization or providing sponsorships to individual programs. Volunteering to lead or guide an outdoor trip also provides an opportunity to support students on a more personal level.

If you would like more information on how to get involved or support Mountain Alliance, visit its website at mountainalliance.org.