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An action shot of a student attached to a safety harness and taking a leap into mid-air.

Fear Factor

Melinda is so scared she's shaking. That's a problem when you're 30 feet off the ground clinging to the side of a tree.

"I can't do it," the 14-year-old wails to the crowd below. "If I fall, you guys are gonna get me, right?" Melinda is silent for a moment, then cries out: "I'm gonna die!"

Finally, after several agonizing minutes, Melinda leaps into mid-air. The crowd of about 25 teens from the San Mateo County Probation Department, all here to try out San Francisco State's Fort Miley Adventure Challenge Course, bursts into applause.

From inner-city youth to corporate executives, about 4,000 people come to the course each year to take the Fort Miley challenge -- a nerve-jangling exercise that involves leaping into the air from vertigo-inducing heights, walking tightrope-style along a cable bridge, and sliding down a 75-foot cable.

The purpose is to build self confidence, teamwork, leadership, and decision-making skills, said SFSU Pacific Leadership Institute Director Ezra Holland, who runs the course for the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.

Opened in 1980, the course is located in a shady grove near the Cliff House in San Francisco. Despite the heart palpitations, the course is not really dangerous. Jumpers are attached to harnesses and ropes that prevent them
from falling to the ground.

Still, these high-altitude feats seem dangerous, which is just the point.

"We're trying to scare these kids into going down a new road," says probation officer Michael Klingler who, along with his wife, deputy probation officer Lori Smiley-Klingler, has brought Melinda's group to Fort Miley.

"These kids are so hard on the streets. Here, they're small and quiet and vulnerable," adds Smiley-Klingler. "This is just a great confidence builder."

The change is evident by the end of the day, Holland says. After just one jump each, the San Mateo County teens are beaming with a new sense of pride and accomplishment.

Melinda is now back safely on the ground. "Oh, God, it was scary," she says, climbing out of the ropes harness and getting back in line to do it again.

-- Tracie White

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