La Center students ‘climbing’ into real-life lessons

LA CENTER — The questions inside Room 415 at La Center High School are coming fast and furious: How tall is too tall? What are the costs for having a more natural-looking structure? Will there be cover for rainy days? Can students of all ages and abilities use it? Is there a benefit to having bouldering options?

The students are working with engineers and project managers from Swinerton Builders to design a rock-climbing wall for their school and the project is entering one of the more complicated phases — when expectations and desires butt up against real-life things like budget constraints.

“This whole thing is really real-life,” Chris Evans, a Swinerton project manager, tells the class when questions start to revolve around how many ideas on the students’ wish lists are going to be feasible within the $100,000 budget. “This is exactly what happens when you have a budget constraint … you have to start to compromise.”

La Center High School Swinerton Climbing Wall
Joe Echeverri, an architect with Basetti Architects who is working with the Swinerton Builders to help La Center High students better understand the entire design-build process, tells La Center students about their design options for a climbing wall on Thu., Nov. 17. Photo by Kelly Moyer
La Center High School Swinerton Climbing Wall
A few of the design options presented to La Center High School students on Thu., Nov. 17, during the students’ after-school building class, where La Center students work with teachers and experts from Swinerton Builders to design and construct a climbing wall at the high school. Photo by Kelly Moyer

Swinerton, the Portland-based company currently building the ilani casino-resort on the Cowlitz Indian Reservation just a few miles east of La Center High School, is funding 80 percent of the project and has sent staff members to the after-school class to help students understand the intricacies of designing, planning and building a structure within a constricted budget.

Cameron Coleman, another Swinerton project manager who has been helping the La Center students grasp the concepts real-world builders deal with on an everyday basis, says the high-schoolers have impressed him with their knowledge and curiosity.

“The questions they’re asking are the same questions that the grown ups ask,” Coleman says. “This has been a great experience for us.”

La Center teachers Brian Zylstra and Shawn Link got the ball rolling on the climbing wall project. Instrumental in getting grants and designing the school’s challenge course 15 years ago, Link says she was thrilled when Zylstra said he’d contacted the Swinerton Foundation about helping the school add a climbing wall to its network of team-building, outdoor recreation equipment.

“I’ll ask for anything … but Brian is less likely to take risks like that,” Link says. “So when he got off the phone with the Swinerton Foundation, he was giddy.”

Not only had the Foundation folks agreed to help fund the climbing wall project, they’d also offered to provide design and building experts to come to La Center High School and provide real-life learning opportunity for a select group of students.

The school year had already started, so Zylstra and Link hustled to turn the opportunity into an after-school class and find students willing to give up their free time to gain design and building skills.

The group of about 15 students meets twice a week, right after school, with Swinerton experts and their La Center High School teachers. They’ve gone to the ilani casino-resort site to see how Swinerton operates in real-time. They’ve gone to a climbing wall center in Portland to get a better feel for the various climbing and bouldering wall options. And they’ve worked with Swinerton designers to come up with a plan that will create a climbing wall for future generations to enjoy.

Students Ali Dozier, Hailey Grotte and Andrew Swaynie say they’d like to see the climbing wall become more than just a place for La Center kids to get a little exercise.

“There’s so much that goes on here … so many different groups are separate from each other,” says Dozier, 16, a junior, about the tendency many high school students have to self-segregate and stick to their own peer groups. “I think the climbing wall could be used for more team-building things. If you’re climbing, you have to trust the people who are there with you. And, right now, I think it can be hard for people to trust each other.”

La Center High School Swinerton Climbing Wall
La Center High School students (from left to right) Hailey Grotte, 14, Ali Dozier, 16 and Andrew Swaynie, 15, are part of an after-school class that is learning real-life design and building skills with the end-goal of designing and constructing a climbing wall at La Center High. Photo by Kelly Moyer

Swaynie, 15, a sophomore, agrees that the climbing wall could be used to bring people together. The class to build the wall has already done that, he adds: “I don’t see most of the people in this class outside of this class. But I’ve already made some new friends and met people I probably wouldn’t have met.”

Grotte, 14, is one of the youngest students in the after-school class and also one of the only female students in the group. She says her childhood love of Legos and of putting things together prompted her to join the climbing wall design class.

“I’ve learned how much effort and planning … and more planning, goes into this,” Grotte says. “And I agree that this is a way to bring people together.”

The students, along with their teachers, say they could see the climbing wall — set be installed before the end of this school year — become a teamwork-building center for students of all ages and abilities in La Center.

Although the Swinerton Foundation has agreed to fund $80,000 of the estimated $20,000 project, using donations from the company’s owner and nearly every major sub-contractor working on the nearby ilani casino-resort, the La Center students are trying to, as Link put it, “have some skin in the game” and raise 20 percent of the funds needed to purchase, transport and install the climbing wall.

La Center High School Swinerton Climbing Wall
Chris Evans (left, near wall) and Cameron Coleman (right, near wall), both project managers with Swinerton Builders, the Portland building firm currently constructing the ilani casino-resort on the Cowlitz Indian Reservation, meet with La Center High students on Thu., Nov. 17, to discuss design options for the high school’s future climbing wall, a project that is 80-percent funded by the Swinerton Foundation. Photo by Kelly Moyer

“We do things like sell candy bars and have bake sales, so coming up with $20,000 is tough,” Link says. “But it’s important for them (the students) to see what it takes to actually do something like this.”

To help raise the money, students have been pitching their cause in person at the ilani casino building site — where they collected nearly $1,500 in donations from passing around climbing hats for workers to throw cash into — and online through the group’s GoFundMe site. Other fundraising ideas include donation days at local businesses, like Burgerville, and allowing families or community members to purchase some type of “stake” in the climbing wall.

“We’re figuring it out right now,” Zylstra says of the group’s outreach to La Center families and community members. “Right now, we have the GoFundMe site, so that’s an easy way for people to donate.”

If you’re interested in helping the La Center students reach their goal of $20,000 to build the climbing wall, visit

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