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Resilient by nature: Martin-Gatton CAFE professor transforms lives through outdoor adventure

Resilient by nature: Professor transforms lives through outdoor adventure

VERSAILLES, Ky. (June 5, 2024) — Roger Brown, Ph.D., University of Kentucky alumnus and now faculty member, has supported the Life Adventure Center (LAC) through many stages. The Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass is a nonprofit organization in Versailles that uses outdoor adventure and reflection to foster resilience in individuals affected by trauma.

Formerly Life Adventure Camp, the center was founded by a small group of UK graduate students, two of whom are Brown’s parents. The camp provided five-day wilderness living experiences to low-income and special needs youth at a forested property in Estill County, Kentucky. Brown was in pre-school then. Some of his earliest memories are home visits with his parents to recruit campers and bumping down rugged dirt roads to deliver supplies to camp groups.

“When your parents take on projects, you naturally understand what is important to them,” Brown said. “As an adult, I’ve understood that a service mentality is very strong in my family. It’s part of the reason I wanted to teach.”

As an undergraduate student and English major at UK during the 1990s, Brown spent his summer breaks working as an LAC counselor. He delayed his graduation one year to help LAC expand into year-round programming, creating a new three-day curriculum of after-school training for elementary students. The training used group challenges to teach participants about communication, cooperation and trust.

“When the training was completed, students were given reward options of a day trip to explore a cave, canoe down a creek, hike in the forest, attend a UK basketball game or work on a farm,” Brown said. “Even with lower-arena tickets on offer to see the eventual national championship basketball team, students’ overwhelming first choice was to go to the country and work on the farm.”

This observation — that students loved agriculture despite the hard work — made a lasting impression on Brown.

In the early 2000s, Brown moved to Alabama for doctoral studies in forestry. The Life Adventure Camp combined with the Cleveland Home, a former orphanage. In 2005, the Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass opened in Versailles. With newly available resources, including land in Woodford County, LAC expanded its mission to helping behaviorally challenged children who may be affected by trauma and expanded its existing services to adults.

Brown returned to Central Kentucky and has served LAC since 2011 as a volunteer board member, a position once held by his parents. His LAC service complements his work as an associate professor in the UK Department of Agricultural Economics.

As a board member, Brown is involved in programming at LAC and fine-tuning its mission of using outdoor adventure to unlock internal resilience; more simply put, helping people realize they are resilient by nature.

“To help students learn in my classes, I must challenge them,” Brown said. “But it’s critical that I think carefully about those challenges. Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t best. A trauma-informed approach to resiliency is about cultivating a growth mindset and recognizing the individual needs of each student.”

Brown’s teaching philosophy is simple: Challenge students thoughtfully, encourage them sincerely, and they’ll perform successfully. As a teacher, he gives his students multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of the course content, recognizing that learning is a process. The same is true at LAC.

“Life Adventure Center recognizes that a one-time experience is often not the most impactful,” Brown said. “The kind of programs we really like to offer have multiple interactions over a long period of time.”

The staff at LAC consists of trained outdoor adventure professionals who walk participants through whatever challenges they may face as a group or as an individual. Multiple LAC staff are assigned to a group allowing youth to focus on the group task at hand, but also provides space for individuals who may need to process their experience. The staff also specialize in equine-assisted learning, mindful-based awareness and challenge course safety.

LAC staff will schedule initial sessions with group leaders to determine their goals. It is important to fully understand the scope of the challenges participants may face before deciding what programming is necessary, especially for young students. Gathering background information and meeting with group participants give LAC staff the tools necessary to help individuals overcome their anxieties and reach their goals.

LAC has relationships with many schools in the Woodford County area. This allows teachers and administration to identify students who may need individual investment. The LAC mobile unit is another tool staff have to reach areas that may not have access to the LAC campus.

As Brown reflects on his family history with LAC, his awe of how far the organization has come shines through. As former president and now a board member, he is grateful for the opportunity to continue supporting a cause close to his heart.

"The support, encouragement and generosity of the Brown family has been a priceless gift to Life Adventure Center,” said Julie Breitigan, executive director at LAC. “Although our organization and best practices have changed in many ways since 1977, we're privileged to carry on the legacy of supporting those that need us the most through resilience building outdoor adventures."

Roger Brown standing in front of an outdoor climbing wall as students climb behind him
Zip line
Welcome sign
Climbing wall

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