Chugiak-Eagle River Star, Mike Nesper, Associated Press
In this Jan. 9, 2012 photo, Eagle River High School Adventure Program students form a circle surrounded by Lycra spandex during on exercise in Eagle River, Alaska. When a transfer enters the halls for the first time, a current student eats lunch with the new student and gives them a tour of the school, walking them through their schedule. It’s all thanks to the school’s Adventure Program.

EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — You'll never see a new student eating lunch alone at Eagle River High School.

When a transfer enters the halls of ERHS for the first time, a current student eats lunch with the new student and gives them a tour of the school, walking them through their schedule.

It's all thanks to the school's Adventure Program.

Funded by a United States Department of Defense grant, the pilot program's focus is to ease the transition into the building for new students — many who come from a military background. The program also promotes academic success.

Just a year old, the program is already having a positive effect on its students. A parent of one student told counselor Gayle Morrison this is the most involved in school he's ever been — and it's all due to the Adventure Program.

"It's definitely making connections and a difference," Morrison said. "They're all a lot more confident."

Weekly academic checkups have helped increase students' grades as well, she said.

The program is run by Morrison and teachers Melissa Casey and Kirby Senden. Casey said she focuses on "soft skills" — or social-emotional learning — while Senden, a physical education teacher, focuses on "hard skills," such as rope climbing.

"The kids learn things about themselves and how to be better people by doing activities," Casey said.

In Casey's class Monday, Jan. 9, about 15 students attempted to lower a "helium stick" to the ground using only their index fingers. The initiative was the most difficult of the day because it took the most teamwork and cooperation.

Once finished, Casey led a debriefing where students discussed what did and didn't work. Casey tied the challenges faced during the exercise to real-world experiences and students' home lives.

The more committed students benefit most from the class, junior Tyler Baurick said.

"If you actually take it seriously, it does change the way people act around you," said Baurick, who's been with the program since its inception.

Baurick is one of seven model facilitators who have taken an introductory peer leadership class and now assist Casey teaching other students in the program. Model facilitators also lead freshmen orientation, plan twice monthly lunches and coordinate social events, Casey said.

Baurick said the adventure program has given him a new skill set.

"Before this, I was always shy talking in classes," he said. "It slowly opened me up to be able to talk in front of people."

Casey let's her model facilitators lead, which is a welcome break from traditional learning, senior Kelsey Reeves said.

"She steps back and let's us run the class," Reeves said. "It's nice because it's not all teacher-run."

Reeves, who's been with the program since it started, is the school's lone peer ambassador. She spends an hour each day in Morrison's office, providing support for students.

Reeves helps with everything from homework to listening to students' concerns outside of school.

"It's not counseling, but it's definitely peer mediation," Casey said.

Morrison said her goal is to have six peer ambassador's next year — one available for students each hour of the day.

With 42 percent of the ERHS population coming from military families, Adventure Program is geared toward those students, Casey said. Kids who moved several times growing up often lack interpersonal skills, she said, which the program teaches.

"For some of them, their parents have been fighting in this war for eight years," Casey said. "They don't know how to say they need help when they need help."

Model facilitator Logan Harmon said the biggest benefit he's gained from the program was learning leadership skills.

"It teaches you to be serious when you need to be," he said.

The program teaches crucial life lessons in an enjoyable way, Harmon said.

"It's something to look forward to in the day," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

The school plans to keep the program going after its three-year grant expires, Morrison said. The program's popularity continues to grow, and other teachers outside the program even use the student model facilitators, she said.

"We're excited," Morrison said. "We love this opportunity."