Being part of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps made a huge difference in the lives of Ben Thomas, the organization’s executive director since 2014, and a young man we’ll call “David,” who turned his life around after a rough start.
Founded in 1995, with offices in Albuquerque and Taos, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps uses service as a meaningful, productive way of linking community, education and the environment. For instance, its Conservation Program hires young men and women, ages seventeen through twenty-five, to work in teams on conservation-based projects. Projects include trail construction, invasive species removal, forest restoration, erosion control and wildfire prevention. While prior experience isn’t necessary, youth are asked to show up with a sincere willingness to learn and explore, live for stretches in the outdoors and work as a team. All participants gain skills that are helpful for their next steps in life.
“This is more than a job,” says Thomas. “The processing and growth are just as important as the actual work. Instead of drinking beer around a campfire, we’re busting out notebooks and reflecting, working on job applications and learning about the importance of our contributions.”
Thomas first came to Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in 2004. A graduate of the University of Montana with a degree in forestry, he is an avid outdoorsman living in Taos who enjoys mountain biking.
Thomas became acquainted with David years ago when the two men were assigned to a forest prevention task and found themselves working side by side with chainsaws, thinning out trees in the forest. David had experienced a rough childhood during which he was in and out of gangs and jail. He hadn’t graduated from high school or earned a GED by the time he joined Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. One thing he knew from watching his friends and family was that it was easy to get heavily involved with drugs and alcohol.
Breathing fresh air and working in the forest seemed to transform David’s life, says Ben. “When you get into the woods with a chainsaw or any other tool, the playing field is immediately level,” he adds. “You may have a résumé, or you may be building one for the first time, but the outdoors, the forest — it’s the best place to clear your mind and learn about yourself, the environment, the community, anything you want.”
Although Thomas hasn’t been able to keep up with David’s current activities or whereabouts, he does know that David was able to expunge his criminal record, earn his GED and work with a forest service fire crew in Minnesota.
“What an awesome outcome for a person,” says Thomas. “The first day I saw him, I never would have thought this is the route he would take. He was committed. He had a fire in his belly and knew he had to make a change. I truly believe we’re saving the world.”
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps programs go far beyond conservation. The organization offers summer programs for high school kids. Some participants are involved with weatherizing homes, disaster response and service dog training through its Canine Leadership Crew initiative. Its Prevention Program, which is supported by a grant through the New Mexico Department of Health’s Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, is working to reduce the number of underage drinkers and incidents of driving while intoxicated. Says Thomas, “The young adults make a real difference in the communities and on the public lands around them.”
For more information about Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, visit youthcorps.org.
Alana Grimstad is an experienced, award-winning journalist, writer and photographer based in Santa Fe who loves to meet interesting people and is honored to share their stories.