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‘The Grandfather Challenge’ Hiking Program For At-Risk Youth Opens 2021 Season

The healing power and majesty of Grandfather Mountain cannot be denied by those among us who have experienced its beauty, wonder, and adventure. Although he was struggling with mental illness throughout his mid-teens and young adult life, Jason Matthew Nipper found peace and serenity as he and his parents hiked the challenging trails of this wonderful mountain called Grandfather.  

Jason passed away in 2014, and his parents James & Cheryl Nipper are pleased to announce the opening of the 2021 Season of their unique and challenging hiking program for at-risk youth taking place at Grandfather Mountain. This program was formed in honor of Jason, and focuses on teenage students who suffer from mental disorders and/or drug addictions, and also serves kids struggling with other personal problems for reasons beyond their control, including instances of parental abuse or neglect, placement in foster homes, and similar obstacles and challenges in their lives. After being unable to host this program for nearly two years because of covid related restrictions, Jason’s parents are thrilled to be able to resume their program this Fall.

Jason’s Story

Jason was a happy, outgoing, and gifted young boy with a keen sense of humor and an engaging personality. He loved music, Nintendo 64, Play Station, reading, hiking, and all aspects of nature. His favorite times growing up were those spent with his family at their cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. Life changed for Jason when he reached his mid-teens when he started developing symptoms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety. Despite many struggles, he still succeeded in earning an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree in high school and was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to his favorite school, the University of Florida. But, Jason continued to struggle with everyday life, and tried valiantly to cope with his mental illness.

Through it all, he found that the days which he spent mountain hiking brought him the greatest peace and satisfaction. And, even though he was struggling himself, Jason always tried to help his friends when they had problems in their lives. Like so many others with severe mental illness, Jason self-medicated with substances, which ultimately only complicated his mental condition. Jason passed away at age 26 in June of 2014. He is greatly missed both by his family and everyone that ever knew him. Because Jason loved hiking so much, and loved helping others, he would be so very proud of the kids that complete “The Grandfather Challenge!”

Creation of Foundation and  Mission Statement

More than anything else, Jason wanted his life to have “meaning.”  His parents James & Cheryl Nipper, hoping to fulfill that desire and honor their son’s memory,  formed a non-profit corporation called The Jason Project, Inc., which has qualified as a tax-exempt Charitable Foundation under IRS Regulation 501  (C)  (3). 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 at-risk youth participants, including those youth who are suffering from mental illness and/or drug addiction, will, through this program, learn meaningful life lessons, and find it easier to overcome some of life’s challenging hurdles.

Because of Jason’s abiding love of the outdoors and mountain hiking, one of the Foundation’s goals is to organize outward-bound type, intercept wilderness excursions and similar programs which are designed to build self-confidence in struggling youth, as well as trust and a positive rapport with adult mentors.

As part of their “outreach” efforts, James & Cheryl have established a special program called “The Grandfather Challenge,” through which at-risk youth navigate the rigorous and challenging hiking trails at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC. One of these hikes takes you to the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountain chain and affords incredible views along the crest of Grandfather Mountain. As these hikes take place,  adult hike leaders teach these young people to respect this very pristine and special nature preserve and to recognize and appreciate God’s beauty and creation.

Each hike is led by two or more qualified and experienced adult hikers, and each child is mentored, encouraged, and supported by caring adult leaders who strive to instill self-confidence,  trust, respect, and a strong commitment to complete a rigorous, challenging physical goal. The Foundation provides hiking boots, socks, backpacks, and raincoats for each student hiker. 

At the end of the four hike series, the students’ accomplishments are recognized at a special Awards Dinner, at which each participant is given a special Certificate Of Completion and other recognition.   

Jason’s parents fervently believe that this program not only provides an exciting wilderness adventure to those who participate but also builds confidence and self-esteem in themselves and trust in others, similar to the ideals pursued in various “outward bound” programs.  Their Foundation’s Mission Statement is   “To provide healthy and rigorous outdoor excursions and challenges where at-risk youth can be encouraged and inspired to rise above their adversities and excel mentally, spiritually, and in life.” 

Impact On At-risk Students

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.”

Community Support and Alliances

James and Cheryl Nipper have received broad community support for their program.  The Grandfather Mountain State Park of North Carolina has supported this program and issued a Special Activity Permit allowing group hikes, and local charitable organizations such as the High Country Charitable Foundation,  AMY Wellness Foundation, and the Grandfather Community Foundation, together with many private donors, have provided generous support and encouragement.

Avery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman has heartily endorsed the program, and the staff and administration of various Avery County schools have helped make the program a success. Jason’s parents are deeply appreciative of the community support they have received for this exciting program!  Now in its sixth season, this program is now serving students in Avery, Caldwell, Catawba, Lincoln, and Gaston counties, and with the support of AMY Wellness Foundation, the Nippers hope to expand to Mitchell and Yancey counties next year.

Professional Hike Leaders

Jason’s parents are very excited and appreciative of the cadre of diverse, experienced, and energetic people from various walks of life who have joined their team to serve as mentors and hike leaders. These hike leaders provide leadership lessons, role-modeling, and wilderness adventure, with an aim to instill more confidence and self-esteem in these at-risk students. These men and women have rallied around their cause, committed themselves to the goals of this program, and given them  courage to continue their efforts. The Jason Project, Inc. is very grateful to these men and women who are committed to using their leadership, compassion, and technical skills to provide these kids with a challenging, meaningful and exciting experience that they will never forget.

Hike Regimen Highlights

“The Grandfather Challenge”  features four major hikes which are undertaken in a four-week series, with each successive hike becoming more difficult and challenging.  These hiking trails at Grandfather Mountain State Park offer some of the most rigorous and challenging hiking trails in the Southeast and include areas rated as either moderate or strenuous.  Some areas feature ropes and ladders and provide some of the most phenomenal views existing in the High Country. The fourth and final hike of the series is called the “Grand-Daddy” hike in which the students traverse along the crest of the mountain to MacRae and Calloway Peaks, then down the east side to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a rigorous hike that passes through three different counties (Avery, Caldwell, & Watauga), and takes a full day of vigorous hiking and mountain climbing to complete.

Reflection and Perspective

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.”

Contact Information and Referrals to Program

The Jason Project, Inc. is a tax-exempt,  IRS 501 (c) (3) non-profit foundation.  For further information or to submit a youth candidate for participation, please contact James or Cheryl Nipper via email at  [email protected] or call 828-765-6561 or 904-221-6483.  If you wish to donate to this project please visit  GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.