Team Building, Tarzan Style: Hemlock Overlook Celebrates 20 Years

Posted: October 17, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Teams getting ready at Hemlock Overlook
It’s a little bit ‘Survivor’ and a little bit ‘Fear Factor’ at Hemlock Overlook.

By Tara Laskowski

Picture yourself on a tiny wooden ledge, 40 feet in the air. On the ground below stands the guy in your office who forgets to turn on the printer before he sends a document to it. Or maybe below you is the resident assistant you’ll be working with in the next hall, who blasts Britney Spears music all day long. Either way, you’re not sure you trust these people. And yet they are there, far, far down on the ground, holding a rope that secures the platform you are about to step down on.

If they lose their grip, you’ll fall.

But you step down on the platform, partly because you don’t want to seem scared, partly because your other teammates are cheering you on, partly because you just want to see what happens. And lo, and behold, down there on the ground, your cubicle neighbor or your teen-music-loving RA holds you up. You stay put. Trust is earned.

Scenarios like that play out nearly every day at the Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education. The groups and teams that pass through the center’s Team Development Courses come away with a fun and educational experience, no matter how wary they may be at first.

“It’s a little bit ‘Survivor’ and a little bit ‘Fear Factor,’” says Matthew Marcus, assistant director of Hemlock Overlook, who has been leading visitors through the various activities at the center for more than four years. “However, instead of being competitive and working against each other, it’s cooperative, with everybody helping each other.”

Where There Are No Walls

Nestled in 5,000 acres of parkland along the western border of Fairfax County, the 225-acre Hemlock Overlook seems worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Northern Virginia. It provides a shelter of trees and greenery that adds to the intimate atmosphere and makes the experiential, adventure and outdoor education activities all that more unusual and all the more memorable.

The center is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Its unique partnership with George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has allowed the center to provide services to more than 25,000 people of all ages each year.

Whether it’s a group of elementary students flying down a 300-foot zip line, or a team of businesspeople working on communication and trust lessons on the challenge course, the center’s activities are never the same day to day.

Zipwire at Hemlock Overlook
The zip line suspends you high above the forest floor.
Creative Services photos

“The best part of working here is seeing people becoming better people. There is a sense of specialness about the place that becomes more so after going through the course. A lot of education takes place outside the classroom. Learning often takes place better where there are no walls,” says Director Susan Johnson.

Learning Activities for All Ages

And the center does make a difference. In the past 20 years, it has challenged individuals, organizations and communities to grow, change and develop. The Team Development Course is the busiest and largest of any college in the country—in fact, says Johnson, some colleges with similar outdoor education facilities bring their groups to Mason’s center because they like the course and setting better.

Hemlock Overlook also offers other learning activities, including an environmental education program for elementary and middle school children. The land is rich in history, as well. The administrative staff is housed in an 1870’s farmhouse, and the employees can spout off all kinds of historic facts about the land, including where Civil War soldiers camped.

The employees embrace the mission of the center wholeheartedly. Many part-time employees, some of whom are Mason students, live onsite in cabins. All employees go through training sessions to learn about safety, leadership and activity strategies.

Johnson hopes to expand the presence of Hemlock Overlook on the campuses of Mason, perhaps building a challenge course at Fairfax or Prince William.

And Marcus just hopes to keep spreading the mission of Hemlock Overlook to as many people as possible. “The tasks might be simple, but the learning is monumental,” he says. “And it’s also fun!” His enthusiasm is contagious for all employees. When the newest element, the Total Team Challenge, was built in 2003, priorities were set: “The first thing we did was play on it,” he says.

Hemlock Overlook towers
At Hemlock Overlook, participants have to put their trust in teammates.
Hemlock Overlook photo

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