On any given afternoon, you can hop in a car, drive seven minutes from campus, and, within minutes, be hanging 75 feet off the ground.
Empower Leadership Sports and Adventure Center, located on South Main Street, uses five ziplines, two suspension bridges, a cargo-net traverse, and a tightwire multi-vine traverse for airborne team-building exercises. Founded by former Army Ranger Joe Dering in 2009, Empower uses adventure and athletic activities to foster confidence across a variety of age groups and professions.
Since its opening, Empower has grown from serving around four thousand people a year to 10 thousand, including groups from across Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. The business is still growing: in July 2014, Empower opened a second location in Middleburg, VA.
General Manager Dan Jaskot invited us on a canopy tour to talk more about the business and experience the course for ourselves. As two people with a rational appreciation for the dangers of heights, we knew that stepping off the ground and trusting a 375 foot wire to hold us up would be a serious case of mind over matter. By the end of the course, however, our fears were forgotten as we ran off a ramp on a tree 75 feet in the air and, connected to a cable, flew through the forests of Middletown.
Jaskot guided us through jumps, glides, and even a fall. Throughout the experience, he maintained an air of casual professionalism, providing an atmosphere of confidence but with an emphasis on safety and problem-solving. When one of us (Sofi) fell through a rope bridge, he skillfully assessed the situation, pulled her back up onto the bridge, and guided her the rest of the way across, making sure she was calm and secure. Dan, regrettably not holding the camera at the time, chuckled from the other side.
Back on the ground, we had a chance to speak more with Jaskot about the origins and philosophy of Empower.
The Argus: When did Empower first get started?
Dan Jaskot: We opened up in April of 2009. The owner of Empower is a gentleman named Joe Dering—he’s a Portland native, Army Ranger—and he started to develop the idea in 2006, 2007. Around that time he did two active tours of duty, so it was a process, and we opened the doors in April of ’09.
A: Why Middletown?
DJ: There’s a good piece of the land here for it, and I think the idea was to do something that would give back to the community. It’s something that [is] completely different. We feel there’s nothing like Empower in the state of Connecticut, and the idea was to put out a facility that brings a feel-good experience toward a group of people that I think could benefit from it. He’s got a lot of roots close to home here—that’s why Middletown. It’s central; you’ve got New Haven, Boston, New York City, and a lot of schools and communities that could benefit from the team-building stuff that we do a pretty good job with.
A: Have you been involved since the beginning?
DJ: Yeah. I was hired in—I think I signed the contract in February of ’09. I was teaching at the time, and I think May 1 was my last day of teaching. I had a small window to come out here and start off as Joe’s operations manager. My interview consisted of coming out here when they were putting in the first platform, so it’s pretty cool to see now what it’s turned into.
A: What makes ziplining a powerful tool for team building?
DJ: I get that question all the time, like, “How is ziplining team building?” One of the things that we talk a lot about with our groups and we preach through our adventure activities is before you even think about leading other people you have to learn to teach yourself and coach yourself through some adversity, or look at something and have that doubt of “I don’t know if I can do this,” and calm yourself down and go through a process where you can say, “You know what, I’m going to go for it, I’m going to be okay at the end of it, and I’m going to feel better about myself when I’m done completing it.” So that’s one thing: it’s the individual aspect of being part of a team. You have to be able to take positive, calculated risks and learn to put yourself out there so you can grow.
The other part that’s really awesome is that on those platforms, when you have a corporate team of 10 or 12 people up there, hootin’ and hollerin’ and rallying each other and cheering each other on, and being there for the person who’s nervous, or just joking around with each other, it’s a bonding experience that you can’t have on a rock wall because you’re by yourself. Or you have a belayer on the ground.
You’re up there on those platforms, and it’s a positive, esprit de corps sort of thing for groups… they can talk about that for months, years to come where [people say] “so-and-so was shaking on the tightwire but they got across.” That’s how we use the canopy tour for team-building leadership development. We also run a wide array of ground-based activities that are objective-based problem solving in groups communicating under the stress of competition, so maybe sports teams. With Joe’s military background and my background in education, those sorts of things are awesome supplements to that treetop experience.
A: What attracted you to Empower, moving from education?
DJ: One, I was a phys. ed/health teacher, who had some exposure to using adventure to teach social skills. And I was teaching in Springfield, Mass., and I thought that was a really cool way to get some tough spots up there; you know, I was dealing with some kids who were going some tough times as incoming freshmen to a new school. I always had [the idea that] this adventure stuff is a really great way to teach some skills or some team skills.
Joe, the owner of Empower, was actually two years ahead of me in high school. We played sports together, we played football and baseball together here at Xavier in Middletown, our families had a bit of a relationship going in, and I found out from my parents that, “Joe’s thinking about opening this leadership development place. You should talk to him.” We hooked up and got on the phone, and had a couple of meetings, and I was like, “It is. It’s teaching.” Your classroom is different. It’s not a gym; it’s a platform 75 feet in the air or it’s a fairway that’s composed of 12 different obstacles. When you break it down, you’re still teaching; it’s just a bit of a different audience and it’s definitely a different venue.
A: How has Empower been empowering to some of the groups that have participated?
DJ: Most notably, I ran a program for a group of teachers in Glastonbury public schools, and they’re team leaders. And their task as team leaders is to put on events, and to do coat drives and field trips and that sort of stuff. When I first met with them out here a lot of the talk was all the teachers complained about how it was extra responsibility, and how they won’t get their grades done, and what I said to them is that part of it as a team leader is you have to be willing to lead them down that path. What we’re going to do—yeah, it might take away from your personal time, but we’re part of a team, so we need to do something and sacrifice for the benefit of the team, the benefit of the group.
And we got quite a bit of resistance from a couple of them—well, not resistance, but [they were] sort of unsure… And I said it takes some guts, it takes some courage. And we got up on the zipline course and did the first two zipline rides and they rappelled from that 45-foot platform. For me, I said to them that this signifies the risk you’re going to have to take to put yourself out there to try something now that in the long run is going to benefit you as a teacher in front of your students but also as a team leader. That would be an example to me.
Another example would be—we run a lot of programs for athletic teams, high school and college, and we design those programs to be challenging physically as well as challenging their team and leadership abilities. A lot of time when they’re running up the hill to complete some sort of task, we’ll hear “I can’t do it!” And the idea is you have to rely on yourself and rely on your teammates and push through whatever that fatigue is because it’s going to benefit you as an athlete, whether it’s football or lacrosse or basketball or tennis. We try to use our adventure offerings, whether it be something in the air or on the ground, to simulate what a sports team might go through in a competition, or what a group of eighth-graders should be prepared for as they transition to high school, or high school to college. So we try to simulate those sorts of feelings and emotions and situations through activity. In the end, [it’s about] the phrase “experiential learning”: what we feel is that people learn much better when they have their hands in it and they’re active and they’re doing something that they can connect six months down the road…it starts to fire all these things in their head, like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”