Profiles in Innovation: An interview with Dr. James Kielsmeier

By Rich Obenschain

Jim Kielsmeier stopped by the office the other day and I had a chance to ask him about his involvement with the beginnings of La Vida and what he is up to in “so-called retirement.” Jim was the instructor on the Outward Bound course in 1969 that Scott Dimock visited in Colorado when the idea of La Vida was first hatched. Scott came back to New York City and through Young Life’s work in Harlem led by Dean Borgam and Bill Milliken, the first groups began to travel up to Saranac Village in the Adirondacks for a La Vida patrol. Men like Steve Oliver, Tuck Knupp, George Sheffer Jr., Pete Weaver and John Murray helped establish La Vida in the early years. Jim was the director of La Vida in 1976 and 1977 and helped develop the Sherpa training program, the marketing materials, and an Outward Bound style, 15-day patrol format that included, a ropes course, rock climbing and both backpacking and canoeing. Later Jim led two winter La Vida patrols of skiing, snowshoeing and sleeping in igloos. He also served on the La Vida Advisory Board for many years and in the early 1980s, helped facilitate La Vida’s partnership between Young Life and Gordon College.

Jim had a passion for combining community service with education and finished his Ph.D. in education at the University of Colorado in 1979, worked for the American Youth Foundation in St. Louis for a few years, was the president of the Association of Experiential Education and then in 1983 started the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) of which La Vida was one of the original members. The NYLC moved to the University of Minnesota where Jim was an adjunct professor and due to his leadership began to offer a wide variety of leadership development experiences and professional development conferences. Linking experiential education and service at NYLC became known as service-learning NYLC convened the first National Service-Learning Conference in 1989 which has been held annually since then. In 1993 Jim and NYLC helped write Federal legislation funding service-learning in every state.

Jim has presented and taught on service –learning throughout the US and in 19 countries. He retired as Founder/CEO of NYLC after 27 years where he serves as an Honorary Board Member and continues to write and speak. Recently he keynoted National Conferences in the Netherlands and Taiwan.

One of the things I remember most about my time serving with Jim is his ability to see potential for service/learning and leadership development through a wide variety of experiences and mediums. Through Jim’s initiative, I participated in three great adventures: leading some adventure days for Adirondack state prisoners and helping them to work as a team in order to go over “The Wall”, leading 25 Cherokee kids on a trek to retrace the Trail of Tears by bicycle from North Carolina to Oklahoma on its 100th anniversary, and leading a group of bicyclers in Michigan to research the Underground Railroad in and around Grand Rapids.

What a great legacy Jim is leaving by involving others in opportunities for leadership, initiating programs that teach social justice and racial unity through shared service and promoting stewardship of natural resources. His latest venture is Growing Hope Farm in Hastings, MN where he is both a volunteer and chairman of the board. The farm is located near his home in Minneapolis and promotes food equity, organic growing practices, and building bridges between cultures, faiths and urban and rural people by rebuilding connections to the land. Jim’s wife Deborah, who he met on La Vida, serves as an associate pastor at Christ Presbyterian church in Edina, MN and they have 3 grown daughters and 6 grandchildren.

Rich, Jim, and Nate at the La Vida Office.

Rich, Jim, and Nate at the La Vida Office.

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