Will Canadian educational beacon go dark?

A unique adventure tourism site in New Brunswick is run entirely by students. But its founder is retiring.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    AN EDUCATIONAL BEACON: Eighteen students run a restaurant and an outdoor adventure program at Cape Enrage, New Brunswick.
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This time of year, the winds blow colder and harder at Cape Enrage, whistling around the white-and-red lighthouse.

For 138 years, it warned mariners off the fog-wrapped cliffs of southeastern New Brunswick. It still fulfills that purpose. But today the site is a Canadian beacon of another sort.

Each summer, thousands of tourists are drawn to this remote site – 45 miles from the nearest highway – where an adventure travel program is run entirely by high school and college students.

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Helmeted visitors whiz over a daunting chasm on a zip-line, while others climb the 150-foot rock faces, or take in the 45-foot Bay of Fundy tides from kayaks. There are hiking trails and campgrounds, a gift shop, and a restaurant.

"We work until the job is done, and we do it right and we're proud of what we've done," says Kate MacFarlane, a university student who has worked here six years in a row. "It's a down home, apple-pie atmosphere – no drinking, drugs, or sex – and quite a social experiment."

The unique program – which has won accolades from Attractions Canada (Best Developed Outdoor Site) and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada – is the vision of Dennison Tate, an award-winning educator from Moncton, New Brunswick. He's retiring this fall, and the program's myriad admirers fear the 12-year-old program may not survive his departure.

Mr. Tate grew up on tiny White Head Island, two ferry rides from the New Brunswick mainland, and watched as the federal government automated each lighthouse and, ultimately, tore down the historic buildings that once housed lightkeepers and their equipment. "These were cultural icons," he says. "It was watching part of our history be destroyed."

He attended the one-room island school and, later became a physics teacher at a Moncton high school. He began churning out a staggering number of finalists at Canada-wide physics competitions.

"You usually get from people exactly what you expect from them, so it's important to expect a lot and to give them the tools and opportunities to do it," Tate says of his teaching philosophy, which earned him a 1993 Canadian Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. "I always give students a lot of responsibilities and a lot of authority."

Teaching and historic preservation suddenly came together during a 1992 visit to Cape Enrage. Tate and his wife, Ann, had long enjoyed hiking in the area, and they were shocked to see how quickly the complex had decayed in the three years since automation. Vandals had sacked the buildings, and the Coast Guard planned to raze the 60-year old lightkeeper's house.

The Tates and their teenage daughters drew up a plan: hire motivated students, rescue the buildings from the elements, then try to secure permission from provincial and federal authorities to create a seasonal youth-operated adventure center on the site. Admission fees would be voluntary – so nobody would be denied access for lack of money.

That's exactly what they did, though the path was far from easy. The red tape was considerable – the government was loath to reverse its demolition plan – and the Tates had to front more than $50,000 just to get the project off the ground. They've invested untold (and unpaid) hours painting, scraping, building, cleaning, training, and grant writing.

"We saved and maintained the structures, which is what the public probably focuses on," Tate says. "For Ann and me, the focus was really the students, and training them how to run a business or an organization, to develop a work ethic, and to learn to work with people."

Teaching, he says, is something he can't escape, even eight years after retiring from Harrison Trimble High School. "When I wasn't working with students, I was one."

Ms. MacFarlane says most students embrace the challenge and the unusual environment at Cape Enrage, where they live for six days at a stretch. "We're an hour from any kind of town, we don't have access to television, and for a long time there wasn't even an Internet connection, so we had to go back to basics," she says. "It's a tumultuous time, growing up, and being there gives us the space to be kids again."

It's also become a major draw for remote Albert County, where many rely on summer tourism to make it through the year. "The rest of us in the industry have seen a positive impact because of what Dennison and Ann have done at the Cape," says hotel operator Kathy Weir, president of the local tourism association. "It's very important to all of us that the site and the adventure tourism are open next year."

But that's far from certain, because the Tates are retiring and the province (which owns most of the property) is unwilling to run the student-driven activities itself. While the grounds will be open next year, nobody has been found to take over from the Tates.

It's not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to fall into crisis when their visionary founders retire, according to John Palmer Smith, director of the Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Money can dry up as donors lose confidence, while projects suffer from the loss of institutional memory.

"You can't rely on the visionary leadership so heavily that the organization is in danger of not surviving the transition," Mr. Smith says, adding that the board and the leader must plan well in advance for the latter's eventual departure. "Everybody needs to understand that these organizations serve a larger public purpose and not all of their eggs should be placed in one basket."

But the Tates say they're hopeful that somebody will step forward to carry on their vision "We don't want to take it with us, but we don't have anyone to leave it with just yet," Mr. Tate says.

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