When Anna Topolewski arrived on the mountaintop last week, she admitted to being nervous "and a little scared."
Why, I asked Anna, who is director of services and administration for PATH Ventures, an affordable housing developer.
"Everyone is telling me this is going to be a life-changing experience," she said. "What does that mean?"
You'll find out, I told her, probably making her more nervous. But, as a member of the Leadership Long Beach Retreat Team, I didn't want to spoil the surprises awaiting Anna and the other 22 members of the Leadership Long Beach Class of 2013.
Every year the new Leadership Long Beach Class starts with a weekend retreat at Cedar Lake Camp 7,000 feet high in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear.
This year's class is a diverse group, including members of the Long Beach Fire Department and Police Department, an elementary school principal, a manager of Habitat for Humanity, a financial services administrator, a real estate investments sales associate and representatives from the Port of Long Beach, Long Beach Transit, Meals on Wheels, the Long Beach Airport, Westerly School, Community Hospital, the Long Beach Gas & Oil Department, the Salvation Army and the Museum of Latin American Art.
The participants are already leaders in their respective fields and have a lot of responsibilities at work, as well as their homes and in volunteer work.
"The Leadership Retreat is an opportunity
The idea is to have these 23 people, who didn't really know each other when they arrived, leave the camp 48 hours later as a team ready to work together to make Long Beach a better place to live and work.
That's an ambitious goal, but it's one Leadership Long Beach has been striving for since 1989. More than 1,000 people have graduated from Leadership Long Beach programs to help strengthen the community.
How do you mold 23 strangers into a powerful team in 48 hours?
You take them to the mountains and enlist the aid of Lodestone Adventures, a team-building and leadership training company, owned by Loren Werner, better known as "Big Red" because of his flowing red hair and beard. Big Red looks exactly like someone you would expect to operate this kind of outdoors training program.
Big Red is low key in his approach, but there is no question who is in charge when the physical activities begin. Big Red and assistant Karol Thompson put the Class of 2013 through challenging activities, including climbing 30 feet or more up trees and diving into space to catch a trapeze bar.
"We believe that each group member already possesses personal strengths and unique styles of leadership," Big Red said. "We use challenges by choice and experiential education to impact the way group members interact with each other."
I saw firsthand how emotional and powerful that interaction can be. Not everyone in this class is as physically fit as they would like to be. They were never asked to do anything they didn't want to do, but they were challenged to do more than they thought they could. For instance, if you could climb 10 feet with little problem, then try 15 of 20 feet.
Many had a fear of heights, but, with the help of class members, many did much more than they ever thought they could.
They did do a great job over the weekend. Olivia Maiser, Retreat Team leader and director of communications in Long Beach Auditor Laura Doud's office, said it would be great if what happened on the mountain could be bottled with the crisp mountain air.
But that would make it too easy. There's still a lot of work for this class to do now that the members are on the flatlands.
The retreat is just the start of the program. Now, they have nine more classes, meeting every month to learn about different parts of our community, such as public safety, government, education, media the arts and health.
"In those sessions, they will learn about the difficult challenges Long Beach faces in each, and they will connect with experts in the community who are facing these challenges every day," Williams said.
By the end of the program, Williams said, we no longer will have 23 disparate individuals, but we will have a well-connected corps of community leaders who support each other and work together.
And, like Anna Topolewski, they will have a life-changing experience of bonding with so many people in such a short period of time.
Or like, Bill Cruikshank, operations director of Meals on Wheels, said as he left the mountain: "I'm a little sore, but my spirit is on fire. What a tremendous, life-changing experience."