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Trail work helps Colorado youth unplug

arrow From the Summer 2008 American Trails Magazine

By Jerry Severns

photo of teenagers

Youth from the Denver metro area work together to address erosion in a state park (Photo by Jerry Severns)


It’s three-thirty in the afternoon at the top of 7,000 foot Flagstaff Mountain overlooking Boulder Colorado. Eighty-eight people gather for ice cream and water, lots of water. They are tired, sweaty, caked with dirt, and many will have sore muscles tomorrow. But to a person they feel good; there is a pervasive sense of pride, accomplishment and camaraderie.

These people have completed a trail project that will provide an outdoor experience, usually reserved for hikers and bikers, to people with disablities, people in wheelchairs. Parts of the existing trail have been rerouted or groomed. A culvert and earthen bridge has been installed to raise the trail over a drainage draw. New trail has been built to a ridge-top overlook providing panoramic views of the snow-capped Indian Peaks.

Projects like this take place across the country. Unique to this one, almost half of the participants are young people, the youngest just 11 years old. In addition youth are members of the leadership team that organized the project, including 20 year old project team leader Kim Inglis.

photo: shovelling dirt
Photo by Matt Martinez, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado

“This was a lot of work over the last three months,” says Kim, “but it’s totally worth it when you cruise the trail with our guests in wheelchairs (two people in wheelchairs participated in the project, providing design guidance), and realize just what we accomplished.”

Inglis gained the experience and skills to lead this project in VOC’s youth program. Young volunteers for outdoor Colorado join crews on projects, help select and plan youth projects and participate in training to improve technical and leadership skills.

“You can’t assume that just because they’re kids they can’t take on a challenge and make a difference,” states Fletcher Jacobs, VOC Youth Manager. VOC encourages youth to participate in public lands stewardship at all levels, and in ways that they find interesting. The result…hundreds of young people with more confidence, leadership and teamwork skills, and a growing environmental stewardship ethic.

photo of young kids working
Photo by Matt Martinez, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado

Change is a constant

Kids are all about growth and change, that’s what they do, individually and as a group. To remain relevant and fresh in today’s world VOC’s youth program it is evolving. Two initiatives are new for 2008:

Cairn: Stewardship Challenge

Cairn combines volunteer service, environmental education, and challenging outdoor activities. Monthly stewardship challenges, hosted by partner organizations, expose 14 to 18 year olds to topics like climate change, growth and land development and water conservation. Each challenge encourages teamwork, problem solving and leadership.

To provide opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders, the Cairn Leadership Council helps plan monthly programs and direct Cairn activities.

SWAT – Stewardship with a Team

photo:  teenagers working

Working on the Ute Trail


Kids are social and usually like to hang with their friends. SWAT makes it possible for young people to make a difference with their friends and on their schedule. Work is planned for clubs, church or school groups of 10 to 30, during the week or on weekends. SWAT sessions are usually two to four hours and include time to discuss the work and why it is important.

“You have to meet youth where they are,” says Bevin Carithers, VOC Deputy Director of Community Stewardship, “and where they are today is not where they were 5 years ago and is not where they will be next week.”

VOC is meeting youth where they are, in cyberspace. Profiles on My Space and Facebook share information about youth stewardship opportunities and get kids talking, well ok, messaging. In addition, color posters and matching calendar cards attract attention in schools and churches.

“The initial buzz on Cairn and SWAT has been very positive,” says Ann Baker Easley, VOC Executive Director. “But, we will monitor these programs closely to make sure they are reaching kids and relevant to their lives. If we are going to leave a legacy of land stewardship, reaching kids now is the key.”

photo: smiling girls
Photo by Jerry Severns, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado



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