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Marcellus resident brings outdoors to city students

Owning acreage in Marcellus is a long way from growing up in Staten Island. For John Powers it is a dream come true.

"I always liked the outdoors," he said. "I studied forest engineering at ESF and stayed." He was a teacher and guidance counselor for the Syracuse City School District. Four years ago he left to found Orenda Springs, an experiential learning program on 140 acres.

Why? "As a teacher," Powers said, "I realized that it was important for students to get out of the classroom so for years I took students on field trips. Many only see the four blocks around their house and what is on TV and there is no connection to the outside world. Research shows that attention deficit disorder, obesity, mental health issues can be traced back to the lack of outdoor activity.

"I took a big financial leap to get this thing going," he continued. "The biggest challenge to me as a teacher is that kids are not learning -- not because they are stupid but because they bring a condition for failure. Rather than try and come out losing they just quit. A lot are two or three years behind grade level."

Powers latest addition to his program is horses and cross country skiing. When we talked last week, students from Blodgett Middle School in Syracuse had just left. He described their visit:

"At first they couldn't even touch a horse, they were scared. We had them groom them, touch them, feed them, lead them and eventually ride them. Two girls refused to get on the back of a horse. By the end of the day all of their teammates encouraged them. You should have seen their faces. It was as if they had climbed Everest."

For Powers this is his reward. "We try to turn kids around to make them believe in themselves. There's tons of research that shows the greatest indicator of success is not IQ but their self motivation," he said. "We give kids opportunities to build on success."

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