BLACKSTONE - Amanda Notz, a life skills teacher at Blackstone-Millville Regional High School, pauses about three feet from the top of a 25-foot-tall fiberglass rock climbing wall that has been erected in a corner of the school parking lot.
The wall has three climbing sides and an automated belay and hydraulic system that allows climbers to slowly descend from the top.
"Don't look down," U.S. Army Sgt. Logan O. Saunders yells up.
Notz adjusts her harness, makes one last reach and then taps the buzzer on top of the wall before lowering herself back down.
She lands safely, grinning ear to ear.
"That's what it's all about. Building confidence and overcoming your fears," says Saunders, a recruiter from the Army recruiting station in Hopedale, Mass., who was at the school for three days this past week to host the 2nd Annual Army Fitness Challenge.
More than 300 students and teachers at the high school participated in the challenge, a three-day outdoor wellness event of one-minute competitions, held at the high school track, consisting of sit-ups, running, and push-ups. Students were also encouraged to compete against each other in the rock wall climb.
According to Saunders, the challenge is a community relations event aimed at building a relationship between the Army and the school and helping the local community address obesity, childhood diabetes, high-blood pressure and other health-related risks associated with poor fitness levels.
Saunders, who was joined by fellow recruiters, Sgt. Jason Martinez and Staff Sgt. Joseph Rouille, said the challenge is a one-of-a-kind program and that Blackstone-Millville Regional High School is the only school in the country doing it. Helping out were Private Reid McMullin, who graduated from BMR in 2009; Spec. Jonathan Pantaro, who graduated in 2006; and senior Jason Duffy, who enlisted last month and will begin basic training when he graduates in June.
"We held the first challenge last year and since then, other schools have contacted either our school or the local recruiting station with interest to have this event at their school," said Ryan Gordy, a physical education teacher who helped bring the program to BMR.
Both Gordy and Saunders were quick to point out that the intent of the Army Fitness Challenge is not to recruit students, but to build a better relationship with the students whether they are interested in a career in the military or not.
“We want to break the barrier that sometimes exists with joining the military, and the school has seen how just an event can change a student’s attitude and motivate them to succeed,” Saunders said.
The challenge is also about staying healthy.
Obesity rates are climbing among teenagers. Currently, one in five youth 12-19 years old is overweight, compared to one in 20 in the 1960s, and the rate is expected to
grow to one in four by 2015.
Soldiers are required to take a physical fitness test at least twice per year. There are three events which are measured: push-ups, sit-ups, and a timed two-mile run. Soldiers are required to score a minimum of 60 points on each event (50 points per event in order to graduate Army basic training).
The Army Fitness Challenge, while not as strict, uses the same three events in a format designed to be more kid-friendly.
"Its' a great way to break up the monotony of the school day and take part in some friendly competition that emphasizes health and well being and confidence building," said Saunders.
"It was fun," said one student, lowering herself down from the rock climbing wall. "I'm afraid of heights so I wasn't sure about climbing up, but once I got up there I realized I couldn't fall."
Gordy says the challenge has been incorporated into the school's physical education curriculum.
"It not only gives the students a benchmark to compete against each other, but there's a health component as well, which is extremely important," he said.