Work matters: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps’ model for building young adults spreading throughout Northwest Colorado | SteamboatToday.com
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Work matters: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps’ model for building young adults spreading throughout Northwest Colorado

Journey Culp wields a pick axe while rehabilitating trail high on 14,065-foot Mount Bierstadt this month with a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps adult crew that was working on behalf of the Colorado 14'ers Initiative. The crew spent four weeks camped lower on the mountain and climbed to its summit every day.
Tom Ross

Building a field operations headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Even as it looks forward to significantly expanding the geographic area it serves, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps has broken ground on a $1.2 million building project with construction of a new crew headquarters at the campus on Captain Jack Drive on Steamboat’s west side.

A public fundraising campaign launching this fall is being counted on to help raise another $231,500 to cover the full cost of the building. To make a donation, go to ColoradoGives.org and search Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

The new field operations building is designed to increase RMYC’s storage capacity by more than 400 percent, and it will house seasonal equipment in a secure place. It will also allow for tool maintenance and seasonal staff work stations.

Other local nonprofits will be welcome to use the new conference room, kitchen and covered porch at no charge.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps goes the distance

The Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Steamboat Springs is part of the Corps Network including the Collbran Job Corps, Larimer County Conservation Corps, Mile High Youth Corps (Denver and Colorado Springs), Rocky Mountain Conservancy Conservation Corps, Southwestern Conservation Corps (Four Corners/Durango and Los Valles/Salida), and Western Colorado Conservation Corps.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Executive Director Gretchen Van De Carr said her organization engages young people for longer continuous periods than the Colorado Corps Network. Instead of working 10 days followed by four days off, Van De Carr said RMYC uses those four days to teach job readiness skills including interviewing, filling out applications, creating a resume and attaining occupational life skills.

Getting down to work

Among the types of projects tackled by the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps are:

• Tree planting and river clean-up for younger members

• Chainsaw work

• Wildland fire certification

• High altitude work on 14,000-foot peaks

• Intricate rock work

• Historic preservation

— Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, the Steamboat Springs nonprofit that has introduced thousands of children, adolescents and young adults to the personal satisfaction and life skills derived from tackling outdoor conservation projects, has begun exporting its successful organizational model to other communities in Colorado.

Already the largest employer of youth in Northwest Colorado, with about 500 young people engaged this summer (about 180 of them earning a little more than minimum wage), Rocky Mountain Youth Corps has begun taking steps to offer its youth programs in neighboring counties from Rio Blanco, to Lake, Summit, Garfield and more.

“We’re embarking on an expansion project that will replicate our young kids programs in nine other counties in Northwest Colorado,” RMYC Executive Director Gretchen Van De Carr said. “We’d already been working in all these counties with the older kids (ages16 to 18) when Garfield County came to us and said, ‘We want to invest some money in putting local kids to work.’ We felt the need and demand for the younger programs there, and the same with Summit and lake counties.”

The anticipated result of the outreach effort is that the Corps, which served 524 young people in 2015, is preparing to serve 919 by 2020.

Building a field operations headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Even as it looks forward to significantly expanding the geographic area it serves, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps has broken ground on a $1.2 million building project with construction of a new crew headquarters at the campus on Captain Jack Drive on Steamboat’s west side.

A public fundraising campaign launching this fall is being counted on to help raise another $231,500 to cover the full cost of the building. To make a donation, go to ColoradoGives.org and search Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

The new field operations building is designed to increase RMYC’s storage capacity by more than 400 percent, and it will house seasonal equipment in a secure place. It will also allow for tool maintenance and seasonal staff work stations.

Other local nonprofits will be welcome to use the new conference room, kitchen and covered porch at no charge.

Regional Youth Program Manager Lauren VandenHurk is supervising two crew leaders working from a van this summer and rotating through the different communities every two weeks.

“Lauren is working overtime to make sure this is something that meets (community needs),” Van De Carr said. The local communities, “have to be involved in recruiting youngsters and finding project work.”

VandenHurk said she quickly learned that one size does not fit all when it comes to providing programs for each community. But the fact that people around Northwest Colorado have already been exposed to the older crews working on nearby public lands, has paved the way for the children’s program.

“Even though we’re all part of Northwest Colorado, every community is unique,” she said. “They’ve seen our crews out there for years, and we’ve had a really positive reception.”

The youngest children in the program, ages 10 to 15, cannot be paid a wage, and that makes those programs more expensive to run.

RMYC’s successful business model leans heavily on its ability to reach “participation agreements” (not contracts) with land management agencies, the U.S. Forest Service for example, to put older work crews, ages 16 to 18 and 18 to 28, to work on conservation jobs. RMYC derives income from the completed work in much the same way a private contractor would, and the crew members are paid a little more than minimum wage. They also have a good shot at AmeriCorps scholarships later and are housed and fed in the field.

“Of our entire budget, about 65 percent of revenue comes from earned income,” Van De Carr said.

The work can range from building new trails to sawing and removing downed timber from existing trails. RMYC helped to ferry building materials for the historic renovation of the Hahn’s Peak fire lookout here in the late summer of 2015. Also in 2015 and 2016, RMYC crews have collaborated with the Colorado 14ers Initiative to lend their muscle and strong work ethic to the ongoing efforts to mitigate some of the wear and tear on trails up Colorado’s tallest mountains.

Life in the field

Reflecting on her own beginnings in conservation work, when as a young woman, she supervised a conservation crew in the forests of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains over a span of 28 weeks, Van De Carr recalled it as a life-changing experience. After an extended period in the field, returning to Eugene, Oregon, to see to some of life’s necessities, was disorienting, she said.

“It’s crazy, you kind of get in this groove where (living in a remote tent) is what feels normal and feels right to you,” she said. “I would come to town and feel claustrophobic. You can’t sleep indoors, and the TV is overstimulating.”

Today’s crews go to town on weekends to wash clothes, purchase food for shared meals and check in with their electronic devices.

Getting down to work

Among the types of projects tackled by the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps are:

• Tree planting and river clean-up for younger members

• Chainsaw work

• Wildland fire certification

• High altitude work on 14,000-foot peaks

• Intricate rock work

• Historic preservation

VandenHurk said each crew goes through several stages of sorting out the roles to be played by each individual member.

“There’s a process of group dynamics that involves several stages,” she said. “First comes ‘forming,’ essentially just meeting one another, but that stage is followed by ‘storming,’ when personalities tend to bump heads a little.”

Happily, storming is followed by “norming.”

“You find your balance and peer leaders,” VandenHurk said. “Sometimes, a crew member will be more of a leader than (an assigned crew) leader. The final phase is ‘performing,’ when you’re really killing it,” and cranking out the work.

On the job

Most work crews comprise nearly equal numbers of males and females. But on a rare, cool day in early August, crew leader Lizzie Morrison was the only woman on a team clearing brush and tree limbs away from the well-used Soda Creek Ditch Trail, just up from Dry Lake Campground on the Buffalo Pass road. The younger women on the crew had already called it a summer to join their high school sports teams.

Morrison, a 2012 graduate with a degree in environmental science from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, was teamed with co-team leader Josh Mielke, of Loveland, who earned his degree in recreation, tourism and hospitality from the University of Northern Colorado in 2016. They were wrapping up a week spent primitive camping with six high school boys, including four incoming freshmen.

Among the group were Callum Becvarick, Cedar Turek, Zane Mess (?), Marat Washburn and Cisco DelliQuadri, all attending Steamboat Springs High School, along with Christian Kovach of Soroco High School in Oak Creek.

The young men were cheerfully attacking the job, wielding pruners and hand saws, but Mielke observed that this wasn’t their favorite work. The harder physical labor of digging out water bars, or “grade dips,” is more their style.

“The harder they work, the more they’re willing to work,” Mielke said. “When we were cutting grade dips to drain water from the trail, they got after it. They were having a blast doing that.”

Morrison mentioned that the youngsters aren’t allowed to bring their digital devices into camp, and in her experience, leaving social media behind makes for a better team dynamic among the teenagers.

Mess said he liked working outside and found it satisfying to “help with the environment.” And although he didn’t have any specific plans for his wages, he really liked the $420 he earned over the two-week session.

Building a future work force

Van De Carr expresses confidence that the jobs her organization carries out do more for the community than completing conservation projects and nurturing self-confident, goals-focused emerging adults.

“A lot of young adults that come here end up staying in the community,” Van De Carr said. “They go to work for other businesses in the community, and we hear from those businesses that these young people are the best workers they’ve ever had. We think it’s because they came through our program.

“It’s the hardest job they may ever have, physically, emotionally – living with 10 strangers … The reward is overcoming adversity. When they’re all done, they reflect on the most profound experience ever and leave saying, ‘These are my best friends forever.’”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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