Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Changing Lives, One Day at a Time

by Alana Grimstad

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.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps working on a trail
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member is tamps down soil to prevent erosion. Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

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.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps working on a trail
A happy team takes a photo break. Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.
A Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member
Many tasks require strength, agility or both. Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

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.”

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps
Corps members may work on projects such as trail construction, invasive species removal and reforestation.
A Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member with a dog.
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps programs include a Canine Leadership Crew initiative. Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps projects emphasize teamwork. Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

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
Contributor

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.

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