A Windsor high school student entered Rocky Mountain National Park for 11 days and returned home with new leadership skills thanks to a unique program for young wilderness lovers.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy High School Leadership Corps hosted 17 high schoolers from across the state for an immersive outdoor experience in Rocky Mountain National Park, according to a conservancy news release. The program combined adventure, public service and education in professional and life skills.
Zev Gatto from Windsor found the opportunity appealing as someone who loves the wilderness.
The high schoolers gained hands-on experience working with conservancy field coordinators and park professionals on service projects, the release said. For half their time in the wilderness, the students worked on recreation and conservation field projects. Another portion of the program focused on personal and professional development, such as learning about potential careers in public lands and conservation space.
Gatto said the first few days of the program consisted of getting to know his fellow participants and learning how to set up camp. After a few days, the high schoolers moved on to volunteering at parks service stations and helping build a bridge for a trail in the mountains. On the last day, the experience ended with a 10-mile hike.
“This program helps you build leadership skills but also gets you introduced to the wilderness,” Gatto said. “It’s just a really cool thing to do in the summer.”
The 11-day adventure also came with plenty of opportunities to have fun, including hiking, exploring Trial Ridge Road and making new friends.
“The Leadership Corps is an awesome experience for students to get outside of their comfort zone and also meet and work with people from a variety of places and backgrounds,” Field Coordinator Maddy Brunson said.
This was Gatto’s favorite part of the program, making new friends, because they formed bonds that made the experience and activities enjoyable.
The conservancy further provides participants with free uniforms and gear rentals — removing a financial obstacle to young people getting outdoors and developing a love for natural places. Along with a cool experience backpacking and living in a tent in the mountains, the students also receive $400 stipends upon completion of the program, according to the release.
Donations and sales of the Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado license plates help fund the program, along with financial support from the National Parks Foundation.
Interested applicants for next summer
The leadership corps program, launched in 2017, faced a pause in operations during the COVID-19 pandemic but this setback has only helped organizers overhaul the program to ensure a jam-packed schedule with outdoor experiences and chances for personal growth, the release said.
Ian Stafford, director of Stewardship and Policy at the Conservancy hopes kids leave the program with a positive and life-changing experience.
“We bring together a diverse group of students to live and camp in Rocky Mountain National Park as a unit, with a leadership and teamwork component to daily living,” Stafford said. “At camp, they spend time journaling, taking ownership over the day’s responsibilities and working together to complete chores. The program culminates in a celebratory picnic with their families.”
After a successful wrap of the summer, the conservancy stewardship team is now planning and prepping for next summer, including reading through participant and partner feedback.
Gatto encourages other high school students to apply for this program, with the advice not to be nervous going in.
“It’s a little awkward on the first day, but you guys get comfortable really fast, and then it becomes really fun,” he said.
Environmental Learning for Kids, a nonprofit, provides administrative support and assists with recruiting participants, the release said. If anyone is interested in the program, the team urges family members and students to go to rmconservancy.org.
“One of the very few requirements for this program is that applicants live in the state of Colorado,” Stafford said. “We’ve intentionally removed as many barriers as possible to get a diverse and interesting group of students into the outdoors.”