Getting people outside to help look in
Project U.S.E.

By libby kesil
Staff Writer

Getting people outside to help look in

LIBBY KESIL Co-founder Phil Costello and staff members Nancy Medrow and Jennifer Reich outside the administrative offices of Project U.S.E.LIBBY KESIL Co-founder Phil Costello and staff members Nancy Medrow and Jennifer Reich outside the administrative offices of Project U.S.E.

Project U.S.E.’s recent work includes program at RFH, RBR schools

By libby kesil

Staff Writer

RED BANK — Project U.S.E. has found itself doing some work close to home lately.

Recently, the local adventure-based organization, which offers programs designed to encourage self-discovery, as well as understanding of nature, leadership, communication and problem solving, helped launch new programs at Rumson-Fair Haven High School and Red Bank Regional High School.

Project U.S.E., which stands for Urban Suburban Environments, is a non-profit experiential educational company which was founded in 1970. Its administrative offices are located 76 E. Front St.

Project U.S.E. owes its longevity to its founders, but also to the enthusiasm and dedication of approximately 60 staff members such as Jennifer Reich, director of operations, and Human Resources Coordinator Nancy Medrow.

Reich, a native of New Jersey who lived in Colorado before returning, has an environmental background. Medrow, who wanted a career change, was an environmental engineer for a consulting firm before coming to the company.

"We work with just about every population: second-graders to adults," said Reich. "We have even had bridal parties come out and do a ropes course."

"About 15,000 teachers and students a year come through the project," said Reich. "You have to be able to shift gears from college students to urban kids."

According to Phil Costello, a company founder, the company made a long-term commitment to the city of Newark in the mid 1970s, which grew to become the Newark Wilderness Coalition. Currently it has over 45 participating schools, community organizations, youth programs, and state agencies.

The company recently began developing similar relationships in Jersey City, Paterson, Asbury Park, Camden and Atlantic City.

Project U.S.E. was founded in 1970 by Costello and Jose Gonzales. As teachers at Trenton Central High School, they became involved in a program called Action Bound, incorporating Outward Bound principles in urban schools to address problems in urban communities.

When the Board of Education decided to discontinue the program, Costello and Gonzales decided to start their own educational company, after hearing from numerous teachers that they had made a positive difference with the students with whom they had worked in Action Bound. They had few resources but a lot of determination and energy, according to Costello. They also knew that the program they were offering was unavailable elsewhere in the state.

Originally, Project U.S.E. primarily worked with "at-risk" and disadvantaged youth, urban schools, community education centers and alternative high schools.

Today, it has a client base of over 250 public and private schools, community organizations and agencies, mostly within the state.

The programs were created according to the four goals which Costello and Gonzales drafted when they founded Project U.S.E. The goals are promoting the concept of experiential education, having a positive effect on the future direction of education in the state, developing experience-based program models that focus on current social, recreational, environmental and educational issues, and developing a resource that would assist schools and community organizations in developing their own experiential programs.

The company offers a variety of programs to clients ranging from corporations to public schools.

Its Special Projects Division encompasses the development of challenge courses and experiential education curriculums. It designs and builds challenge courses at schools, and provides staff training, safety inspections and course maintenance. The goal of the project is to teach teamwork, leadership skills, encourage friendship, and increase self-confidence in a fun environment.

Wildcat, the oldest program, is based at the Wildcat Mountain Wilderness Center, located in Wawayanda State Park in Sussex County, which is home to various wild species. According to Reich, when they take a group of kids there, it’s easy to forget they are in New Jersey.

"We’ve seen bald eagles and black bears. I haven’t seen coyotes, but I’ve heard them in the morning," said Reich.

The center offers outdoor education courses to schools, community organizations, youth programs, state agencies, and corporations on a year-round basis.

Activities include hiking, backpacking, basic outdoor living skills, low- and high-challenge courses, team-building, rock-climbing, rappelling, environmental education, canoeing, sea kayaking, ecology, service learning projects, cross-country skiing, journal writing and cultural journalism.

It also conduct courses at Genesis Farm near Blairstown and Tannery Falls near Swartswood Lake, both in northwestern New Jersey. Other course locations include the Pine Barrens and coastal areas of southern New Jersey.

The High Impact Training is an experientially based program provided to a variety of corporations and businesses throughout the country. The program combines interactive classroom techniques with creative challenges and teaches participants to work efficiently as corporate teams. The team techniques learned can be used in the workplace, said representatives of the company.

The Trek and Edison Prep programs are funded by the Juvenile Justice Commission and provide services to adjudicated youth. The Trek program offers expeditions from 30 to 40 days in the state and along the eastern seaboard. Edison Prep, a residential program, offers computer classes as well as training in horticulture, landscaping and carpentry. They also offer counseling, art classes, sports and physical fitness and adventure education.

The newest program offered by the company is called Exploring New Jersey Waterways by Sea Kayak and Canoe. Participants explore local rivers, streams, creeks, and coastlines by sea kayak or canoe and learn about local ecology.

It has also led groups in building, transporting and erecting osprey towers along southern New Jersey coastal areas.

"A lot of kids say they haven’t been anywhere. They ought to know what some of the coastal issues are, " said Costello.

Project U.S.E. promotes itself through job fairs and teacher conferences, among other ways, according to Reich. They do not market themselves outside of New Jersey, although they do have a few clients out of state, according to Costello.

For more information, visit their Web site at