By Lauren Lecy
If you’re in need of a motivating experience, head to a Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) community meeting.
For some people, gathering in a Denver city park on a hot summer day may not seem like a break. But for MHYC Corpsmembers, monthly meetings serve as a well-deserved reprieve from the often arduous outdoor work they do the rest of the summer. They’re a time for the 150-person staff to sync up, do team-building exercises, talk about successes and challenges, and remind themselves that what they do is making a difference.
MHYC employs young people between the ages of 17 and 24 in one of four career pathways: land conservation, energy and water conservation, construction, or healthcare. All members are providing service in their communities and earning an AmeriCorps scholarship. Land conservation crews, typically comprised of 8-10 members, complete trail building and maintenance, fire and flood mitigation, habitat restoration, and invasive species removal projects. Organizations like local and national government entities and land trusts hire youth corps crews to do work otherwise done by contractors at a much higher rate. In turn, young people get employment opportunities and build valuable skills that lead to future employment in natural resources or down other career or academic paths.
When the MHYC gathers for community meetings, crew leaders celebrate members’ personal accomplishments, and the genuine support and energy from the crew is palpable. This culture creates camaraderie and understanding across teams, and motivates Corpsmembers to carry on and work together to solve issues.
And MHYC isn’t the only place you’ll find this. There are eight certified youth corps organizations in Colorado, all of which are members of the Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA). All youth corps operate under a similar model to MHYC, and CYCA works in their service to provide resources to corps, manage grants, and develop professional development opportunities for Corpsmembers.
GOCO provides funding to CYCA through a dedicated grant program and request-for-proposals process, with $500,000 annually for youth corps local government projects and another $500,000 for projects through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. To date, GOCO has invested more than $3.8 million in CYCA projects.
Corpmembers help restore critical wildlife and plant habitat, remove invasive species, and reconstruct trails across the state. While these impacts are key to our care of the land and recreational amenities, what is perhaps even more profound is the impact that youth corps has on young people’s lives.
Over 1,700 Corpsmembers are employed by CYCA-member youth corps each year, all of whom have access to professional development and character-building opportunities. Corpsmembers are supported in earning high school equivalency degrees, enrolling in post-secondary education, and finding jobs after their service is complete. In addition, because many Corpsmembers are certified in skills like chainsaw use and construction, many graduates have found careers in the outdoors or natural resources. These are long-term impacts on the lives of Coloradans, and we wanted to share the stories of just a few of these inspiring Corpsmembers.
Selena, RidgeRunner chainsaw crew, age 21
Selena first heard about MHYC at an event, and after expressing her interest in working outdoors, was invited to apply. She was eventually accepted into a chainsaw land conservation crew as one of only three female members.
This is no small feat. Selena’s work revolves around cutting and moving trees, which is hard work by anyone’s standards and not something most 21-year-old women can say they do. In talking about her work, she mentioned one experience in particular that was especially challenging but fulfilling.
“We had a tree in a swamp that we had to get out,” she explained. “The tree was split in two places, and we actually had three saws get stuck inside the one tree. When we finally got it down, it was really empowering, and not only because I’m a woman working the saw. We were like ‘We did this,’ and now there’s a beautiful pathway that wasn’t there before.”
In talking about her work, Selena’s “why” stems from her desire to protect our planet and everything it provides, which she says motivates her through the tougher parts of her job.
“I’m super passionate about land conservation,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes when I’m lugging a tree up a hill and I wonder ‘Why am I doing this?,' but at the end of the day, the impact we have is amazing. I do this because it’s the dues I need to pay to help our planet.”
In fact, Selena says that this is the first time she’s been able to do something she truly cares about for a living. She says that the people around her notice how happy she is with her job, even though it’s more work than she’s ever had before.
“Waking up at 4:30 is exhausting,” she said. “But I’m excited to go to work, and I’m excited to be a part of this crew. And at the end of the day, when your feet hurt and you’re tired, it’s a good feeling.”
John, Trailblazers chainsaw crew, age 22
John joined MHYC after hearing about the land conservation program from his sister, who knew he was looking to change things up and relocate to Colorado from Illinois. He’s done outdoor work his entire life and draws inspiration from childhood memories of being outside with his family.
“Doing this work feels like home. Every year, when I was little, I would go up to my family’s lake house and work outside with my grandpa,” he reminisced. “Every morning, my parents would wake us up early and yell, ‘Come on kids, it’s time to go help grandpa!’ Doing this kind of work now just feels really right.”
John credits these experiences for building the work ethic he has today. He was recognized as the “Corpsmember of the month” at a recent community meeting for his dedication and contributions to his team.
“I was always told you give it your all and you don’t stop,” he said. “So that’s why I don’t complain. I just do it.”
When asked about how this job has impacted his life, John recalls how he felt before joining MHYC compared to the person he is now.
“Before this job, I was going through a really hard time in my life and felt depressed every day,” he said. “I was working jobs that I didn’t care about and didn’t want to pursue in the future. Coming here, I’m excited to go to work every day and get stuff done.”
Quinn, GoWild outreach crew, age 23
Quinn works on the GoWild outreach crew, which works in conjunction with the GOCO-funded Generation Wild coalition in Denver’s northeast metro area. The outreach crew helps lead outdoor programming for youth and assists with environmental education. She found this opportunity on an online job board, and with her background, thought it’d be a perfect fit.
“I graduated with a degree in youth ministry and have a lot of experience working with young people,” she said. “I’ve worked in the past for an organization that sends teens to National Parks to live and work, and really enjoyed that experience.”
Quinn works with several partners to make outdoor recreation more accessible to kids and their families. When asked about a particular work experience that stood out, she recalled a time when she helped with a rock climbing workshop.
“A group we were working with at the Boys and Girls Club brought in a ‘bouldering bus’ to provide climbing and slacklining instructions,” she said. “Being able to be there to help these kids rock climb for the first time was really rewarding, especially since it isn’t the most accessible sport.”
She credits her fellow crew members for making this experience such a positive one. Despite working in similar roles in the past, she says the diversity of the people she works with isn’t something she’s experienced before.
“At my last job, everybody looked like me, they thought like me, and they had the same experiences as me,” she noted. “Here, that’s not the case, and it’s been fantastic. I think it’s really important to put yourself in places of diversity as often as you can, because how else are you going to grow?”
Emily, GoWild outreach crew, age 18
Emily also works on the GoWild outreach crew, an opportunity she wanted but wasn’t sure she’d get.
“I applied many months prior but didn’t hear anything back,” she explained. “So I got a different job but was kind of bummed. Then one day I woke up and saw an email asking me to come in for an interview. I interviewed at 1 and had the job by 4.”
Born and raised in a small town in Montana, Emily developed a deep connection to the outdoors and worried that young people today wouldn’t have the same opportunities and access as she did. Her work with MHYC allows her to communicate the benefits of being outside and provide underserved youth with outdoor opportunities they might not have otherwise.
“The outdoors were super accessible to me, always,” she explained. “I’ve always heavily relied on them for my well-being. When I moved to Denver two years ago, it was a really hard adjustment realizing that not every child here has the outdoor access I was so fortunate to have.”
Emily’s favorite part of her job is being able to instill that same love of the outdoors in today’s youth.
“I have a lot of days where I come home and I’m just stoked on life because of my job,” she laughed. “It’s awesome to be able to do something you’re passionate about. I love telling people about what I get paid to do.”
GOCO wishes to thank the the hundreds of corpsmembers working hard to care for and protect Colorado’s great outdoors as well as its partners at CYCA. To learn more about CYCA and opportunities with corps across the state, visit CYCA.org.