Left: The view from One Logan Square. Right: Me being totally sure of myself before rappelling down it...

A Philadelphia organization helped me take a step last week — over the edge of One Logan Square, 418 feet down the side of a skyscraper.

And it’s the same organization that for years has helped kids like 14-year-old Lucas Semin take a different type of step — one that pushes them out of their comfort zones and the confines of the city and into the woods where they’re forced to use skills they might never have used before.

Outward Bound School, a national non-profit that’s billed as the world’s oldest and largest adventure-based education program, was founded during World War II on the principal that kids need character and leadership skills to better face challenges that life throws at them. The organization partners with local schools and offers reduced-price programming for kids to get out and learn through hiking, building and conquering challenges outdoors. This year, it will serve some 4,500 Philadelphia middle and high school students.

“I personally had the time of my life this summer,” Lucas, a Waldorf School student from Fairmount, said about his time with Outward Bound School. “It was the highlight of my summer and it was only 10 days. I kind of wish there was more.”

In Philadelphia, Outward Bound lost its local funding from the School District of Philadelphia in 2011 after public school budgets were slashed. The board brainstormed ways to fundraise. Instead of holding a luncheon or an awards dinner, it wanted to fundraise through something that mirrored its own mission.

So in 2012 it partnered with Over the Edge, another organization that helps send participants rappelling down the sides of buildings for the sake of fundraising. This year, participants like Mayor Michael Nutter and the Phillie Phanatic were attached by cords to the top of One Logan Square overlooking the Parkway and they walked their bodies down the entire side of the building to raise money and awareness for Outward Bound. I did it too, and I’ll be honest: It was terrifying.

Where you get off when you finish rappelling.
Where you get off when you finish rappelling. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Dozens of people took part in the rappel on Thursday and Friday last week, many of whom fundraised thousands of dollars in order to do it. According to Philadelphia Outward Bound Executive Director Katie Newsom Pastuszek, that money raised goes to defraying costs so that public and charter school students can participate in their programming at reduced rates, somewhere around 10 or 20 percent of the actual cost of their personal adventure.

It’s so kids like Lucas can get out like he did this past summer and participate in a 10-day experience on the GOAL course, an adventure designed for 7th graders that takes them backpacking, canoeing and rock-climbing through the wilderness near the Delaware Water Gap. Pastuszek said these types of programs allow for kids to tap into their potential as leaders and helps them to realize they can do things they never thought they could.

Lucas was pretty candid with me about what he learned.

“Before going on the GOAL course, I was a bit bossy, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “And then, going on the GOAL course, I really got to work with a team, and it taught me how to listen to other people and work better as a group.”

For both Lucas and I, Outward Bound helped us to do something we’d never done before — something we wouldn’t have done had the opportunity not come along.

The view from the top of One Logan Square.
The view from the top of One Logan Square. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

I headed up to the 25th floor of One Logan Square on Thursday already sweaty and nervous. Mostly because I was running just a few minutes late and that sort of thing makes me anxious. I had forced myself not to think about what I was about to do for the last several days. It was sort of a “don’t look down” mentality.

Once I arrived, I signed my life away on a waiver and was outfitted with all the rappelling gear, which is basically a bunch of harnesses, a radio, some gloves and a helmet (ya know, in case anything goes wrong 418 feet above the ground). We made our way up to the roof for a short demonstration on the wall of how to rappel from the Over the Edge folks who showed us how to properly feed the cord into the harness so you can actually move down the side of the building.

When it was my turn to rappel, other safety experts from Over the Edge brought me to, um, the edge, and I finally started freaking out a bit. I’d realized my shoes were a little slippery and maybe I wasn’t really cut out for all of this. I continued the “don’t look down” mantra.

After hooking me up to the various cords and harnesses, I was told by the safety expert to stand on my tip-toes on the edge of the skyscraper. (My stomach just dropped again as I’m writing this. Truly terrifying.) The two people assisting me were helping me get used to using a lever to slowly lower myself down — a lever I apparently couldn’t get used to.

So while standing on the edge of a skyscraper, I am told by these people to put my body in an “L” shape, begin to lower myself and essentially start to sit on the sky. My body was telling me “hell no.” After trying for several minutes to actually get my body to do this, I finally took a step backwards and started to walk my legs slowly down the side of the building while feeding cord into the lever.

The first few stories were awful. I was shaking and refused to look around. But after I’d gotten into a bit of a flow (I was still going slower than the people around me) I forced myself to look. To the left was Billy Penn atop City Hall, the right was a breathtaking view of the Parkway I’d never seen before. And below, a bunch of people waiting to pull me to safety.

There were a few snafus on the way down. I got distracted waving to a person inside and kinda lost my flow once. Another time toward the end, I completely fell away from the building and was embarrassingly hanging there with my back to the wall and just kinda swinging around. But I made it.

I got to the bottom safely, and ran to take off my harness. Still terrified, I made my way back to work for the rest of the day, still shaking. But I was proud that I’d done it. I think I high-fived like 10 random people in the lobby at One Logan Square, and at the time, I felt like I could do anything. I realized that Lucas and I had some things in common about what Outward Bound had done for us. There was one difference.

Will I ever rappel down a building again? The jury’s still out.

Will Lucas ever conquer his fears in the wilderness again? He says he can’t wait to go back.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.