Mount St. Joseph University

Not Bound By Borders: The Patrick Harmon Story

Mount News: alumni magazine

By: Elizabeth Bookser Barkley

File Under: alumni, giving, travel study

People climbing a snowy mountain.

Although the setting for his job is new, Patrick has been involved with Outward Bound since the age of 16 when he participated in a three-week course in the North Cascades of Washington State, which convinced him of the truth of the OB slogan, “You’re capable of more than you know.” Not many years later, in 1999, a Mount sociology degree in hand, Patrick signed on to work with the same educational organization whose mission he summarizes as “taking people outside their comfort zones into inspiring, challenging and unknown environments where they can grow.”

Outward Bound traces its roots to German educator Kurt Hahn, who believed in character-building schools that incorporated practical skills into curricula. During World War II, Hahn accepted an invitation from a friend to teach survival skills to British sailors, another evolution toward modern OB schools. Today there are schools in 30 countries across six continents.

Patrick explains that “outward bound” is a nautical term to describe “a ship leaving the harbor. A ship is safe in harbor but was never built to stay in harbor.”

Patrick’s life has been a series of departures from the quiet waters of the harbors of his life. At 14, he spent the summer in Santiago, Chile, at the home of a friend. That summer he “hung out with people who had few material possessions” and realized the contrast between the culture of consumerism in his home country and a culture where “you could throw out a soccer ball to 15 Chilean kids and they could have a great time for hours.”

Some of his willingness to move outward is a credit to his father, Mike, and his mother, Fran, professor emerita of history at the Mount. Both traveled when they were young, his father working on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s. Active in the Civil Rights Movement, his parents put down roots in one of Cincinnati’s racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Kennedy Heights. Fran, as coordinator of an international exchange organization, interacted with many young people from other countries. Over the years, the Harmons hosted exchange students from Egypt, Greece and Switzerland.

So it seemed only natural for Patrick to yearn for travel. His final year of high school was completed in Argentina, and then he headed for the Mount.

That Argentinian year was “a transformative experience,” says Patrick. But it took his Mount education to provide a framework for interpreting it. Like other Mount freshmen, Patrick sampled liberal arts and sciences courses before he landed on a major that fit.

Sitting in a sociology class with Dr. Meneleo (Bing) Lintonjua, the light went on for Patrick. “His life story intrigued me,” he remembers, referring to Dr. Lintonjua’s experiences in his native Philippines, a Third World country. Dr. Lintonjua’s classes, including Sociology of the Third World, stretched students to think beyond their own city and country and to take a global perspective.

Patrick finally settled on a sociology major because “I had already had many global experiences, but when I got immersed in academics, I realized ‘Oh, this is what those experiences were all about’ and I finally began to understand a lot of what I had seen up to that time in my life.”

Some of his fondest memories at the Mount revolve around “small, intimate classes where we could have meaningful discussions and debates” and “inspiring teachers who made an impact.” And then there were the “immersion courses” he loved for the “hands-on exposure” to the Appalachian, Cherokee and Mexican cultures.

He still vividly remembers his trip to Juarez, Mexico, with Marge Kloos, D.Min., SC, now dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities, as “an amazing week, where we spent time on both sides of the border.”

The nineties were “the right time to take the trip,” he says. “Now Juarez is in the news almost every day as ‘Murder City.’” Two years ago Sister Marge made the decision to cancel the class which had run for 15 years because the Juarez border “is too dangerous for average citizens. The State Department lists it as the most dangerous place for U.S. citizens to travel to.”

But Patrick and other students who enrolled in the class over the years were able to travel to a clinic in Anapra, Mexico, a suburb of Juarez, and to live with families in Mexico for three days. Because of Patrick’s earlier travels to Latin America, he was “fluent in Spanish and was able to talk to the families. He was an effective companion during our trip to the kids on the border,” says Sister Marge.

Near the completion of his Mount studies, Patrick took an AmeriCorps position to work with ReStoc, Race Street Tenant Organization Cooperative, in Cincinnati’s inner city. Although he worked more with adults than youth, he got to know some of the local teens “who would hang out on the corner. I knew they were tough, but I also knew they respected me.”

So when Patrick’s first Outward Bound assignment involved working with at-risk, previously incarcerated teens in Florida, he had a sense of what he was getting into.

“I was scared out of my mind because I didn’t know if I could work with gang kids,” he remembers. Plus, he was “kind of a mountain guy” and he would be taking kids out on boats in the Everglades.

Within weeks, he was hooked on working with these 13- to 18-year olds, most of whom had “struggled with addictions, lacked mentors in their lives and didn’t believe that they could achieve much.” By the end of the experience, they were running 10 and paddling 20 miles a day. And, as importantly, they learned to work as part of a team and to use principles of conflict resolution as an alternative to physical violence. Patrick says with pride that OB experiences have a 30 to 40 percent higher success rate of teen rehabilitation than imprisonment.

After two and a half years leading, paddling and camping with at-risk children (and getting up-close and personal with alligators), Patrick felt the mountains calling him to return. He spent his next four years with OB outside Red Lodge, Mont., a “rugged wilderness area,” trading encounters with alligators for sightings of grizzly bears. During winters, he took stints at leading dog sled trips in Ely, Minn., where he had to adjust to sleeping outside in minus-40-degree conditions.

In 2006, Patrick went to work a course in Big Bend National Park in Texas, where he ran into a man who was starting Outward Bound in Mexico. Within three months Patrick was driving to Central Mexico to “start an Outward Bound school from the ground up” in Valle de Bravo, three hours west of Mexico City. Although he could build on his previous OB work, this job challenged him to create budgets, work with sales, build a staff, raise funds and coordinate communications. His official title was program director, but he says with a grin, “for the first few years it should have been ‘Someone Who Held It Together.’”

Like other OB programs some of the offerings were aimed at professionals or students in private schools, but half the courses in Mexico served at-risk kids, including some who had committed at least one homicide after having already served jail time. In his six years in Mexico, Patrick lived in rural communities where he formed close bonds with families and children. He keeps a picture of two of them, their faces reminding him of “the reason I do what I do in the end. They are the real payment. I worry about them as they are the future, and I want them to have hope for it.”

In contrast to Patrick’s most recent home which was nestled in the hills near Valle de Bravo, his present apartment in Hong Kong “overlooks the sea. It is quite beautiful here. The water of the sea is an amazing blue.”

OB Hong Kong hosts a huge program for sailing (not one of Patrick’s strong suits) so a fringe benefit of the new position is that he has to learn. His daily routine involves overseeing safety, including monitoring typhoons, catching near miss patterns to prevent serious incidents before they happen, developing staff trainings and acting as a liaison between the school and outside agencies. Working with “inspiring people” is one of the joys of his new job. Fellow OB staffers come from all over the world: Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa.

Patrick writes, “I have an enormous amount that I can learn here and I know that I have much to offer — that’s important to me, it really is. I must know that I am needed on the team in order to really plug in and make it work, otherwise I am just punching the clock.”

Patrick doesn’t plan on staying in Hong Kong forever. He and his family “are interested in settling down in Montana and fixing up a house. But not yet. There are still so many parts of the world we have never seen. We still have lots of adventure in us.”