Rocky Mountain Youth Corps celebrates 25 years of connecting youth with the outdoors
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — James Hix and his crew of 11- to 13-year-old trail workers were hard at work hacking through brush at Stagecoach State Park when they glanced up to see an awesome sight: beautiful kites wafting through the air.
“We look up and are like ‘oh, those are some lovely kites,’” said Hix, a 28-year-old crew leader for the Steamboat-based Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. “After a moment of reflection, we realized ‘those aren’t kites, those are our eight tents 200 feet up in the air swirling around and heading toward Stagecoach Lake.’”
The New Jersey native is just one of the thousands of young people who have called Rocky Mountain Youth Corps their “home away from home” as the popular nonprofit celebrates its 25th birthday.
What started as a humble after-school program for Steamboat teenagers in 1993 has turned into one of the nation’s most effective outdoor programs that educate and train young people to become productive citizens.
“I can’t think of an organization that has accomplished so much as the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps,” said Margi Briggs-Casson, chairman of the RMYC Board.
Briggs-Casson credits Executive Director Gretchen Van De Carr for building the RMYC into a vehicle to give young people, age 11 to 25, a chance to “unplug” from society while they work on maintaining public lands and community projects.
Van de Carr admits she was just kind of winging it.
“I was like a horse that was blinded. I just wanted to work outside with young people, so I took our meager couple thousand dollar budget and engaged 24 teenagers to work on crews with me,” Van De Carr said.
The RMYC’s first project was thinning out a lodgepole pine forest in Northwest Colorado and building a rail fence for a campground.
“The project agencies … BLM, the Forest Service and parks all loved it because they were getting work done very affordably while engaging youth,” Van De Carr said.
In 1998, RMYC left the city’s protective wing and became an independent nonprofit.
Now, with a budget of almost $3 million, RMYC runs 17 crews during the summer, maintaining trails and working conservation projects with everything from rakes and shovels to chainsaws to even more complex machinery. The work covers half of Colorado and parts of Wyoming. Every chore is age appropriate, and all workers get paid except for the youngest crew members, age 11 to 13, called the Service Learning Crew.
Hayden’s Robert Zhushman is in his second year on the Service Learning Crew.
“I thought it would be interesting learning about nature, and it helped me with not being lazy,” Zhushman said about his RMYC experience last summer. “I used to sit on the couch and do nothing for the whole day, and now, my parents are happy, so they sent me again this year.”
Van De Carr said similar youth corps around the country mostly are based on work, while RMYC also stresses education.
“We have curriculum for ages 11 to 25, and it becomes more intense as they get older,” Van De Carr said. “They have educational time every day where they might address different social topics or job-readiness skills like how to do an interview.”
Ben Glassmeyer turned his RMYC stint, which began at age 16, into an eventual career by climbing the RMYC ladder. He’s now a year-round maintenance worker for Steamboat Springs’ Trails and Open Space and runs his own crew.
Better yet, he met his wife on the RMYC crew.
“I’ve identified 10 different families that were born from RMYC. They met at RMYC, fell in love, dated and got married. And there’s probably eight or 10 ‘purebred’ RMYC children out there,” said Van De Carr, who stressed that none of the babies were made during the parents’ actual RMYC stint.
While the younger crews usually work in their own communities and only camp some of the time, the youth age 16 to 18 do regional projects and camp full time while working.
In the meantime, members of the Young Adult Program, age 18 to 25, can be seen living in the forests for up to six months, going from task to task. This week, a Young Adult crew could be found on Buffalo Pass, widening a popular trail and working with the Routt County Riders, a mountain bike group.
“A few of my friends did this in the past and said it was really cool, so I wanted to give it a shot and build some backcountry skills while I’m at it,” said Nicholas Pusateri, a New York native who recently finished a degree in environmental science. “This is my first time in Colorado. It’s been an amazing experience.”
Elvis Vega agreed wholeheartedly as he dug up rocks alongside Pusateri. Vega is a junior from North Carolina State who loves trail running.
“I thought it would be sweet to help out making new trails and giving back to the community,” said Vega.
Vega’s crew leader, Nomi Sherman, has been around the block when it comes to outdoor programs.
“I’m here now because those experiences stuck with me and completely changed my life and how I view the world and interact with it,” Sherman said.
Now the Colorado College graduate and veteran outdoorswoman said she wants to share her knowledge with her crew.
“My goal for the season is to just support them in growing all the ways they want, and to teach them as much as I can,” Sherman added.
For more on the program visit rockymountainyouthcorps.org.
To celebrate its milestone, RMYC is hosting a 25th Anniversary Party from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21 at the RMYC Campus, 991 Captain Jack Drive in Steamboat Springs. The free event will feature live music, a pig roast, bonfire, yard games, door prizes and more.
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