January 5, 2017
John Helion flips the phrase "on the ropes" on its head. Now in his mid-60s, the WCU kinesiology professor can occasionally be found on the University's ropes course teaching adventure education with gusto.
It's not just physical education students who are taking his classes, but also Honors College students and those in communication studies and business. "Adventure education gives you Fortune 500 skills," he explains. The course objective is to develop as an individual and as a member of a group. The challenges presented in the course enhance participants' soft skills such as problem solving, perseverance, and communication.
Community service is also part of Helion's professional and personal adventure. Annually over winter break, he shepherds groups of WCU students to areas affected by hurricanes or other disasters, beginning with a Hurricane Katrina relief trip in January 2006. "We were in Mississippi and Alabama for five years. We've spent five of the last six years in North Carolina working on damage done by Hurricane Irene."
This January, he and 15 students (11 from WCU) are part of a 20-person service trip helping a North Carolina community rebuild after last fall's Hurricane Matthew. There's no academic or service-learning credit for the students, he notes. "I believe in helping people just because they need it."
Helion teams with WCU alumnus Gene White '75, M'80, chair of East Stroudsburg University's physical education department, who recruits ESU students. WCU's College of Health Sciences and the Honors College provide vans to transport students to the site, a church usually houses the group, and the community feeds them. "We moonlight as carpenters and our students put up rooves and tons of sheet rock." Up to 20 students participate each year and Helion estimates that at 50 hours per person per week, they've provided roughly 8,000 hours of community service to citizens in need.
Helion is also recognized for his professional service and has an office full of awards, trophies, and plaques that describe his work and his teaching as "outstanding" and "extraordinary." He just received the Elmer B. Cottrell Award, the highest award granted by the Pennsylvania State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (PSAHPERD). The Cottrell name may be familiar to the WCU community, since the College of Business and Public Management named its Entrepreneurial Leadership Center for Elmer's son, Edwin.
"To be placed among the most passionate people in our field – I am just so honored," he said of winning the Cottrell Award. "It's especially meaningful to be honored by the state organization I've been active in for more than 25 years."
The awards, however, come in second to teaching and guiding his students. "The most rewarding part of my career is watching my students succeed and go on to be state organization VPs, earn their doctorates, become professors and, when they come back to campus, they credit me as contributing to their success. They pass on their knowledge and can change the world for the better – that's what's important."