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The Jason Project Launches ‘Appalachian Trailblazers’ Program For At-Risk Youth

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 beautiful, challenging trails in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Jason passed away in 2014, and his parents James & Cheryl Nipper formed a non-profit entity called The Jason Project, Inc., and launched “The Grandfather Challenge” program in 2015 in honor of their beloved son. James and Cheryl believe that this was 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 Jason Project programs serve at-risk kids suffering from mental problems and/or drug addictions, it also assists any middle and high school youth who are struggling with personal adversities, including family, school, or other personal problems or challenges beyond their control. 

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 is 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 these very unique wilderness hiking, adventure, leadership and mentoring programs. The Foundation provides backpacks, hiking boots, raincoats, and all other costs associated with these programs. At the end of these outdoor adventure programs, the students’ accomplishments are recognized at a special Awards Dinnner, at which each participant is given a special Certificate Of Completion and other recognition.

The 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.”  

The “Flagship” Program — The “Grandfather Challenge”

The “flagship” program of The Jason Project is “The Grandfather Challenge,” consisting of four major weekly hikes along the rigorous trails of Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC. The underlying goal of “The Grandfather Challenge” program is to use the adventure of mountain hiking and climbing, coupled with the leadership skills of experienced mentors and hike leaders, to teach at-risk kids that through perseverance and commitment, they can overcome their unique challenges in life.

Now in its fourth year, this program is now serving middle and high school students in Avery, Caldwell, Catawba, Gaston, and Lincoln counties.

The “Appalachian Trailblazers”

The “Appalachian Trailblazers” program centers around a two-day, 15-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, and was recently created as a supplement to “The Grandfather Challenge.”  This wilderness adventure focuses on teaching at-risk youth to gain more self-confidence and become more successful by learning the values and methods of personal goal-setting, and learning to become leaders in their churches and schools.

The “Appalachian Trailblazers” Program Goals

This program centers around casual discussions about personal goal-setting and developing the leadership potential of each student. Leadership roles are assigned, and the values of teamwork are taught and demonstrated. Students are taught that there are good people in life who set helpful “blazes” or “markers” for us to follow in order to reach stated goals and get to where we want to be, and that they too can return to their schools and be leaders or “trailblazers” within their own schools and communities.

Avery Middle School Students Complete Pilot Program  of the “Appalachian Trailblazers” 

In early May of this year, ten students from Avery Middle School in Newland completed the “Appalachian Trailblazers” hiking program along local areas of the Appalachian Trail.

The very special students who just completed this program are Coby Townsend, Andrew Chicoine, Alvin Juarez-Romero, Aiden Dale, Faith Hodges, Jamie Black, Job Torres, Maddux Englehour, Zach Bennett and Isiah Lindecamp. Each of these very special students did a wonderful job of completing the “Appalachian Trailblazers” program and in so doing, they all demonstrated courage, skill and commitment to purpose.

Avery Middle School Principal Ruth Shirley carefully selected the students most likely to benefit from and fully complete this rigorous physical challenge, and continuously provided counsel and encouragement to the students under her care. Ms. Shirley, together with school teacher Jenny Forbes Townsend, also served as chaperones for the group. These fine educators are highly dedicated to their students, and they both provided leadership and encouragement to these students as they undertook this extended, 15-mile hike. Their contributions were invaluable and helped make this program a tremendous success for these kids.

These hikes were conducted and supervised by experienced hike leaders Bill Hoag and Larry Gibbs, who led this group during this two-day wilderness adventure, providing lessons of leadership, teamwork, courage and respect. These real-life lessons taken in the wilderness setting make a positive impact on these kids, encourages them to face their struggles and challenges, and helps to instill the concept that they can learn to be leaders in their churches and schools.

Hike Regimen

Students selected for this program undertake a two-day, 15-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, starting at Carver’s Gap, Tennesse. They first hike to Round Bald followed by Jane Bald, enjoying the most stunning views in all of the High Country area. From Jane Bald, the group then ascends Grassy Ridge Bald, which at 6,189 feet is one of the highest grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains, and exceeds Grandfather Mountain’s Calloway Peak elevation of 5,964 feet.

At about six miles into the hike, the group reaches Yellow Mountain Gap where the Appalachian Trail intersects with the Overmountain Victory Trail, leading to the Over Mountain Shelter, where the group spends the night in an old red barn. 

On Day Two, the group departs from the Over Mountain Shelter, and continues hiking north to Little Hump Mountain and then takes a steep climb up Big Hump Mountain, again experiencing breathtaking views. The trail then leads to Doll Flats, a nice spot for having lunch. This section of the AT ends near Elk Park, after a total two-day hike of approximately 15 miles.

At the conclusion of their two-day hike, the students were treated to an Awards Dinner at the First Baptist Church of Crossnore, where each student was recognized for their achievements.

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 these unique wilderness adventures created for at-risk kids, and would be profoundly proud of those kids who successfully tackle and complete “The Grandfather Challenge” and/or the “Appalachian Trailblazer programs.

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 james@jamesnipper.com or call (828) 765-6561 or (904) 354-7378. If you wish to donate to this project please visit GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.

Anyone seeking further information about the “Appalachian Trailblazers” or the “Grandfather Challenge” and/or who may wish to sponsor a student or full school group can contact James or Cheryl Nipper at (828) 765-6561 or (904) 354-7378, or via email at james@jamesnipper.com, or visit their Go Fund Me page at GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.