Hikers on Barr Trail Friday morning had an unexpected but welcome obstacle. Near the junction of two switchbacks about a mile from the trailhead, four trail crew members hoisted a boulder onto a cradle and shuffled up the side of the trail. They dropped the boulder about halfway between the two switchbacks above five rows of boulders they had built during the previous five days.
"Absolutely the best crew," Brent Walke said, high-fiving his three fellow crew members as passers-by thanked them for helping prevent erosion on the trail and hillside.
Walke is the team mentor for this crew of eight with the Mile High Youth Corps, a nonprofit that recruits 16- to 24-year-olds in the Denver Metro area and southern Front Range for service-based jobs in their community. The organization, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, integrates work experience, service and education to provide young adults with meaningful job training.
"When you have young adults working 40 hours a week and combine that work experience with service, you see such a fundamental change in their lives and in the community," said Brigid McRaith, CEO of Mile High.
The crew building the retaining wall on the Barr Trail, named the Crestone Crew, is one of six in the southern Front Range chapter working on various land conservation efforts in seven counties. In the Denver Metro area, crews also install energy and water efficient devices in low-income housing, in addition to land conservation work. All corps members receive a salary and are eligible for education grants.
In 2015, Mile High Youth Corps crews provided nearly 100,000 service hours in fifteen counties, oftentimes in conjunction with local nonprofits.
Ben Lily, a member of the Crestone Crew and recent graduate of Air Academy High School values the teamwork skills that come from three weeks camping and manual labor with seven people.
"You learn how to manage yourself while working with others," said Lily, who will be attending the University of Northern Colorado in the fall. As part of the education component, the Crestone crew has visited the Manitou Fire Museum, Manitou Springs Heritage Museum and other attractions in the Colorado Springs area.
"You learn about your own community, things that you didn't know existed here," he said.
Paige Adam, Crestone Crew's 23-year-old leader, was drawn to Mile High by her experience as a temporary crew leader on urban renewal and disaster relief projects in Baltimore for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps., an affiliate of Mile High.
"I realized that I love to give back and make a positive impact," she said.
Adam's previous jobs hadn't given her a sense of purpose, so she moved back to Colorado Springs where she grew up and joined Mile High. As a crew leader, her influence extends beyond environmental conservation to the crew members she leads, many of whom have just completed high school.
"In this role, I can guide people and help them become the best person they know and I know that they are," she said. "It's amazing to see the skills that they gained and their experience has shaped their vision of their future."
Adam said she hopes to impart in her crew members high standards for everything they do.
"No one wants to go back two years later to fix a crappy trail they built," she said. The benchmark for their field work, Adam explained, translates to other parts of their lives, from their attitude to expectations of future workplace environments.
Adam's story is the kind that McRaith strives to provide for Mile High members.
"Young adults can be a bit lost and aimless at this age. At Mile High Youth Corps, we hope they leave with that direction and a positive peer group that engages them in service for years to come," she said.