The Life-Altering Impact of Student Loan Debt

A look at the very real ways student loan debt can impact your life and how to make wise college choices.


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Particular adjectives frequently accompany sound bites and headlines on the topic of student loan debt—“crippling,” “burdensome,” and “overwhelming,” just to name a few. Student loan debt is a “crisis,” people are drowning in it, and it is seen as a threat to the economy at large. It is hard not to come away with an appropriate level of concern regarding student loan debt, yet, in admissions cycle after admissions cycle, swarms of college applicants continue to make decisions that set themselves up to be just as financially crippled, burdened and overwhelmed in adulthood as the headlines forewarned. The first question is why?

Some blame lies in the pervasive belief that a student should strive to attend the most prestigious school to which they are accepted. Such a narrow mindset takes “value” and how one’s undergraduate experience fits into “the larger picture” completely out of the equation, leading many to believe that paying exorbitant tuition costs, while something to grumble about, is ultimately a fait accompli—an unpleasant but unavoidable reality.

Another key factor is that teenagers, even exceptionally bright examples of the lot, are notorious for concluding that known dangers will never personally affect them (i.e. I am aware that drunk driving can be deadly, but I know I’ll be fine). Not surprisingly this same faulty bravado seems to enter into decisions around financing higher education.  

In the past 30 years, tuition prices are up 538 percent, aggregate student loan debt is now in the trillions, and the average debt load is more than $30,000. But we acknowledge that numbers, even numbers this staggering, can seem distant and abstract. Thus, we aim to present the very real and tangible ways in which student loan debt can impact your life, in an attempt to impart that decisions made at 18 can have significant consequences at 25, 30, and beyond. 

Impact on career options

A recent survey found that only 13 percent of workers worldwide actually enjoy their jobs—talk about a depressing statistic. No one’s goal is to join the 87 percent for whom work leaves something to be desired, but being boxed in by cumbersome student loans makes you far more likely to be part of this unsatisfied cohort. While there are plenty of people satisfied and fulfilled by their careers in lucrative professions, there are also many who despise their jobs but are stuck in a type of indentured servitude, working long, stressful hours just to meet their massive monthly student loan payments.

Those carrying student loan debt are less likely to choose careers in the non-profit or public interest sector. To a teenager, this might elicit a response along the lines of, “Big deal, I’ll just have to take a job where I have to make more money.” However, as this same individual progresses through college he or she may realize that his/her true passion lies in a field such as social work, teaching or public service. Unfortunately, due to loans already accrued, a switch into a lesser-paying field may prove untenable. In a world where workers switch jobs an average of every 4.4 years, this desire or need to shift careers on a dime can likewise be hampered by the burden of debt. Student loan debt is simply the number one enemy of career flexibility.

Individuals with high levels of student loan debt are also statistically unlikely to start their own businesses. Acquiring a small business loan typically requires being relatively debt-free. Even if indebted graduates could get financing to start their business, those needing to make monthly payments cannot afford to endure the growing pains inevitable with any independent venture. Eliminating this option from consideration is a shame as a recent survey indicated that 55 percent of small business owners are happy with their jobs—a pretty big jump over 13 percent.

Effect on lifestyle

The only debt-burden larger than student loans that most people will take on in their lives is that of a mortgage. In recent years, 30-year-olds with student loan debts have become less likely to take on mortgages than their debt-free counterparts—some by choice, others solely because they cannot get one. Those with high levels of debt are also more likely to be refused more simple lines of credit such as credit cards or car loans. 

Debt can have other powerful effects on your available choices in adulthood that would have seemed eons away at 18. Holders of student loan debt are far more likely to delay marriage for financial reasons than those without. One survey found that 23 percent of graduates choose to put off having kids until their student loans are paid off.

Future education

It’s important to realize that a college degree, while necessary, is no longer sufficient for entry into many of the most sought-after professions. If you plan on getting a graduate degree to enter the profession of your dreams, explore that cost before committing to taking massive undergraduate loans.   

The average cost of attending a top MBA program is more than $111,000, and that doesn’t even account for living expenses and the opportunity-cost of forgoing two years worth of paychecks. The average law degree will also run you a total in the six-figures. The cheapest medical school will still cost over $200,000.

Many graduate degrees that allow entry into lower-paying jobs also cost a good deal of money. Obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree will more than likely cost two to three times your future annual salary. If your passion lies in the arts, let no one persuade you from the plan, but you need to have exactly that—a plan. Racking up massive undergraduate debt and then taking on additional graduate debt for the purposes of entering a low-paying job is a set-up for disaster, or at the very least, living with your parents until you are 45 (which likely also qualifies as a disaster).

Keep focused on the bigger picture

Author Stephen Covey, in his "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," suggests that it is wise to “Begin with end in mind.” In other words, if as a high school senior, your dream is to one day pursue a doctorate in Marine Biology, you would plan accordingly, working backward to ensure that your ducks are in a row (a pun if we’re talking about sea ducks). Where do most marine biologists live? Where are they employed? How much do they make? What are the best doctorate programs in the field? What do those programs look for in terms of undergraduate candidates? What institutions did these candidates attend and what did they study? Which of these colleges can I afford? Is prestige a big factor in this field? How much would I owe in student loans if I attend my first choice and how might that influence the other future steps I’ve outlined above?

Of course, not every high school senior can map out his or her entire young adulthood from soup to nuts. The reality is, most cannot, and that’s absolutely OK. Even if you will be entering college with an “undecided” label, you can still project still financial realities into the future and consider them. You may want to become a banker; you may want to open a bakery. Either way, it would certainly be nice to have the choice.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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Calendar

January 2018

Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

Where:
Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM
Telephone: 919-348-0472
Contact Name: Missy Currin
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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Ages 5-18 try curling, a sport built on a tradition of sportsmanship and sociability. Equipment provided. Wear warm clothes and sneakers.

Cost: Free

Where:
Triangle Curling Club
2310 So Hi Dr.
Durham, NC  27703
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Sponsor: Triangle Curling
Telephone: 919-818-1177
Contact Name: Dina Gerber
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Enjoy a sneak peek of the new Goldfish Swim School in Wake Forest. Meet staff, learn more about Goldfish Swim School programs and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
Goldfish Swim School Wake Forest
14460 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27614
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Sponsor: Goldfish Swim School Wake Forest
Telephone: (919) 435-3753
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Celebrate community heroes on MLK Day at Marbles. From 10am-2pm, meet real community heroes like a paramedic, teacher and police officer. Be a hero by packing food for Backpack Buddies to...

Cost: $7 ages 1 and older

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Rale, NC
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Spend the afternoon helping to maintain and beautify the area around Good Hope Farm in honor of MLK Jr. Day of Service. All ages. Volunteers age 15 and younger must be accompanied by an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Good Hope Farm
1580 Morrisville Carpenter Rd.
Cary, NC
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Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday with cake, crafts, storytime and various activities for kids of all ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Northgate Mall
1058 West Club Blvd.
, NC
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Book Harvest hosts the Dream Big Book Drive, a community-wide celebration of diversity, literacy and books for all children. Donate new or gently used children’s book, volunteer to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Book Harvest
Telephone: (252) 497-BOOK
Contact Name: Daniele Berman
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Celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and view digital art created by local youth. Enjoy refreshments, networking and artwork created by youth in the community based...

Cost: Free

Where:
Microsoft Store at the Streets at Southpoint Mall
6910 Fayetteville Rd.
Suite 174
Durham, NC  27713
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Sponsor: Microsoft
Telephone: (919) 361-3140
Contact Name: Sherry del Rosario
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Enjoy the story "Snowballs" by Lois Ehlert and enjoy time outdoors. Ages 18 mos-3 yrs with caregiver. Register online. 

Cost: $2/child

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Take a magical journey through China's divine culture. Classical dance, music and storytelling highlight this live show. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $80-$150

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC
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Rising kindergartners and their families learn about Wake County magnet elementary programs. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Washington Magnet Elementary
1000 Fayetteville Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy stories with Amy Godfrey.

Cost: Free

Where:
The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St.
Durham, NC  27705
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Learn what wild animals do in winter as they hibernate, migrate and stay warm in the cold woods. Ages 3-5 with adult enjoy a hike, do a craft and learn how to help...

Cost: $3; no fee for accompanying adult

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
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Enjoy the first live theatrical production based on Shopkins, the wildly successful brand launched in 2014. The Shoppies and Shopkins characters will take to the stage in performance featuring...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Website »

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Take a magical journey through China's divine culture. Classical dance, music and storytelling highlight this live show. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $80-$150

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC
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Website »

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Explore a part of art. Ages 2-5 with caregiver. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/member, $8/nonmember

Where:
N.C. Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Explore a part of art. Ages 2-5 with caregiver. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/member, $8/nonmember

Where:
N.C. Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Join local churches and community organizations for a public celebration honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Friendship Chapel Baptist Church
237 Friendship Chapel Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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A wonderfully kid-paced hour featuring music, play and dancing with toddler stars singing on the mic at Cotton's gently amplified & participatory music show. Children delight in...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
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Sponsor: Pump it Up
Telephone: 919-828-3344
Contact Name: Owner/manager Kellie Paterson McHugh
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Head out to Lake Crabtree to learn all about our most commonly seen mammal. Spy on the gray squirrels that abound in the park. Park staff will answer all your gnawing questions about squirrel...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Celebrate Zaniac's first year in business by attending an open house event with free course demos, hands-on activities, a scavenger hunt and cake. Sample camp and after-school programs,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Zaniac
1206 Parkside Main St.
Cary, NC  27519
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Sponsor: Zaniac
Telephone: 919-342-8536
Contact Name: Matthew Pepe
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Learn how to express yourself with color, pattern and imagery as you make your own art book with artist Anna Podris. All ages and skill levels welcome. Materials provided.

Cost: $10/member, $15/nonmember

Where:
Artspace
201 E. Davie St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Telephone: 919-821-2787
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Make a craft and sing favorite songs. Ages 11 and older. Register online. Choose course #111599.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

Where:
Page-Walker Arts and History Center
119 Ambassador Loop
Cary, NC
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Website »

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Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Learn what wild animals do in winter as they hibernate, migrate and stay warm in the cold woods. Ages 3-5 with adult enjoy a hike, do a craft and learn how to help wildlife friends...

Cost: $3; no fee for accompanying adult

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
Website »

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Enjoy a puppetry arts program inspired by the children's book "The Interrupting Chicken" by David Ezra Stein. Ages 4-9. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Carrboro Branch Library
900 Old Fayetteville Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Carrboro Branch Public Library
Telephone: 919-969-3008
Contact Name: Jody Smith
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This annual festival features more than 75 musicians, storytellers, dancers, chefs, historians, playwrights, authors, artists, re-enactors and more. Enjoy dancers, singers, storytellers and...

Cost: Free

Where:
N.C. Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
, NC  27601
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Website »

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Look up close and untangle clues to find the hidden story in works of art. Ages 5-11 with caregiver.

Cost: Free

Where:
N.C. Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Each year, Cranberry Tree Farm donates its unsold trees to the Conservators Center for its animals to enjoy as a special form of holiday enrichment. During this walkabout, watch as wild animals...

Cost: See the website for fees.

Where:
Conservators Center
676 E. Hughes Mill Rd.
Burlington, NC  27217
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Telephone: 888-650-1139
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Learn about local birds and build a bird box. All ages with adult. Register online.

Cost: $18/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Take part in an event run by Triangle TechGirlz. Learn about networks that are connecting objects and devices to make our lives better, in the same way that social media does. From cars to...

Cost: Free

Where:
IBM RTP - Employee Activity & Fitness Center
3039 E. Cornwallis Rd.
Durham, NC  27703
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Sponsor: TechGirlz
Contact Name: Jane Bossert
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Stop in and experience Rock Band at Bach to Rock Music School. The band program starts at age 7.

Cost: Free

Where:
Bach to Rock Music School
958 U.S. Highway 64
Apex, NC  27523
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Sponsor: Bach to Rock
Telephone: 919-446-5386
Contact Name: Kelly Foster
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Take a new or gently-used children’s book for donation to benefit kids in Wake County. Also enjoy special celebrity story times, craft activities, balloon...

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Website »

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Girls ages 11 and older enjoy a manicure and pedicure, makeup application or face painting, and a tiara-making station. Punch and snacks served. Register online. Choose course #111626.

Cost: $11/resident, $15/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
Cary, NC  27513
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Website »

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Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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​Sibshops give brothers and sisters of kids with special needs an opportunity to meet other siblings in a relaxed, recreational setting to explore their feelings in creative, light...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hargraves Community Center
216 N. Roberson St.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Adapted Recreation & Inclusion program: Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation
Telephone: 919 968-2813
Contact Name: Marian Kaslovsky
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Take a hike to listen for owl calls and learn why these creatures are well adapted to living in darkness. After the hike, enjoy s’mores around  acampfire while practicing...

Cost: $4/person

Where:
Durant Nature Preserve
8305 Camp Durant Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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