Reflections from VOBS Alumni Chris Coleman
Chris Coleman, President and CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and former Mayor of St. Paul, has an Outward Bound story; a story that changed his life.
A St. Paul native, Chris enjoyed summers at his family’s cabin in the Northwoods but did not necessarily think of himself as an outdoorsman. It was really when my older brother started getting into camping, and backpacking, and the Boundary Waters that my interest in all of those things was peaked,” Chris explained. For a high school graduation present, Chris’s dad gifted him an Outward Bound Boundary Waters expedition with Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS).
No Shortage of Challenge or Lessons Learned
His Outward Bound experience proved extremely challenging and, in the moment, seemed like an obstacle too hard to overcome. Chris recalled, “I got to climb on the Palisades, which was one of my absolute favorite things of all time. And when we were doing our long trip, we completely miscalculated the length of time it was going to take us to get up this river… so this trip we thought was going to take us three hours took us three days. It was an interesting adventure!”
As Chris went on to reflect, he recalls thinking that his Outward Bound trip would be more about learning to eat pine needles and live in the woods. He says, “I thought it was a wilderness survival school. Yet about halfway through, I realized that it was just as much an urban survival school.” He went on to explain that the things you learn while Outward Bound are the things you need to survive in your daily life. How to get along with challenging people. How to partner and work together. How to depend upon one another.
“I learned that in order to advance, you have to put your trust in others and they have to put their trust in you,” Chris said. He remembers the first time he stepped off a cliff to rappel on the Palisades on Lake Superior: “My partner was a 16-year-old girl, half my weight, who was on belay holding onto my safety line. I stepped off the cliff and thought, ‘I hope she holds on to this!’ In those moments, you realize what it means to be dependent on others in all of life’s moments.”=
Another key life lesson centered on canoeing technique. Chris learned that paddling together–one person paddling on the right and the other on the left–would get you to your goal more efficiently. “I’m a stickler now,” he said, chuckling. “If I see two people paddling on the same side, it drives me crazy.” He notes that in our day to day, we all have unique roles and responsibilities to help a project move forward.
This concept has been central to Chris’s work in City Hall and at Habitat for Humanity. “When I put together work teams, it’s all about making sure that people understand their role and responsibility, that we do our job and we’re held accountable [to each other],” he explained.
Transformative Wilderness Experiences
Outward Bound was just the first of many wilderness expeditions Chris was able to take. A year after his VOBS course, his family gathered as his father shared the news that he was ill and had only six to nine months to live. “In the next breath he pointed to me and said, ‘You’re going to Glacier,’” Chris said.
Chris had planned to work a summer job in East Glacier Park Lodge. When he protested that he should stay home, his father insisted he go as planned. “I didn’t fully understand why that mattered, but my father did,” he said. “He understood it would be another transformative moment in my life.” His father passed away at the age of 56, and Chris remains ever grateful for the gifts he brought to his life, not the least of which was the gift of outdoor education.
Chris ended up working in Glacier and the Tetons each summer during college. Fast forward years later, when he was Mayor of St. Paul, he initiated a project to bring groups of kids to Glacier National Park. “These were kids that had likely never been outside the city of St. Paul,” he said. “These were kids who may have heard gunshots outside their homes, yet the scariest thing they could imagine was sleeping outside or walking along a cliff on a mountain.”
One each trip, Chris noticed a profound transformation in the participants, which affirmed for him the impact of introducing kids into nature and getting them out of their comfort zones to do previously unimaginable things. “When I saw how it changed them, I realized the importance of that opportunity that I had when I was a kid,” he said.
VOBS incorporates routine reflection into each course curriculum. Chris has incorporated that practice into his life and work. “I really believe that reflection in your life is critically important,” he said. “We must study history in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. Thinking back about the things that shaped you, about the people who had an impact on your life, and about how you affected other people–all of those reflections help me as I go forward.
The leadership qualities of grit, determination and resilience developed at VOBS also stuck with Chris through the years, and he believes these are bedrock to success in life. “Unfortunately, so many of our kids are growing up without these, and it’s very hard for them when they’re confronted with adversity,” he pointed out. “During their wilderness courses,” he added, “kids develop those skills that will be critical to helping them navigate difficult times in their lives.”
One of the stories Chris loves to tell is about a group of kids hiking in Glacier on the Highline Trail. The first section is a narrow trail with a steep, 400-foot drop. One young man shrunk with every hesitant step that he took. When he finally got through the section, he sat down on a rock and cried. Chris asked him why he was crying. “I’m afraid of heights,” the boy said. “That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But the reason I’m crying is because I’ve never done anything like that and I made it!” By the time the group returned a couple of hours later, the boy was confidently skipping along the narrow trail. Chris had to remind him to pay attention to where he was walking. “In just that one brief period, he was getting set up to be successful in anything (else) he chose to do,” Chris said.
Everyone Should Experience VOBS
Chris wonders where he’d be if his father hadn’t sent him to Outward Bound or encouraged him to go to Glacier. He believes it is vitally important to create opportunities for children to experience the wilderness in whatever form possible, whether it’s a VOBS trip, paddling an urban lake, or going to a park.
“I would not only recommend the experience of Outward Bound, I would insist upon it. If it weren’t for my experiences in the wilderness, really starting with Outward Bound, I don’t know where I would be. I don’t know what kind of person I would be. I don’t know that I could have ever achieved the things I’ve achieved in my life, and I certainly wouldn’t have passed those things on to my children. As teachers, as parents, as community members, we’ve got to figure out a way to get more kids out into the wilderness because it changes them forever!”
— Chris and his wife Connie were surprised this summer with an invitation from their children to hike with them in Glacier. It came as a surprise because, for years growing up, the Coleman children were reluctant participants in annual summer backpacking trips. Chris is glad they’ve come to enjoy the outdoors as much as he has and looks forward to future wilderness adventures with his family.