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Giving Thought: Training teens for the transition to adulthood is empowering

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Omar De La Cruz wants to prepare a duck dinner for his parents, to show them what he’s learned in class.

Yes, it’s not your standard high school class, and he didn’t attend this class at Glenwood Springs High, where he’s enrolled. He also didn’t learn these particular skills at White House Pizza, where he works part time.

The duck dinner idea came from an off-campus, career-development class in culinary arts and hospitality management. The truth is, De La Cruz isn’t aiming to be a professional chef, at least not yet. But he’s taking the class as an alternative to regular school, and a way to learn career skills — leadership, time management, interviewing, teamwork — that aren’t part of the traditional high school curriculum.

“I want my parents to know I’m actually learning a lot here,” he smiled.

Every weekday at 1 p.m., De La Cruz reports to the Youthentity office in Carbondale, where he and his fellow students hear from two instructors — chef Matt Maier and businesswoman Kirsten McDaniel (also executive director of Youthentity) — about various aspects of the hospitality industry. Through an agreement between the nonprofit and the Roaring Fork School District, De La Cruz earns credits toward graduation while taking a deep dive into the art and the business of restaurants and hotels. So, for example, the 17-year-old isn’t merely learning to cook that duck dinner; he’s testing and selecting different ingredients, he’s costing out all the meat, vegetables and spices involved, and eyeballing the project from a business standpoint.

“Chef Matt tells us about different seasoning and cooking methods, and Kirsten will talk about the economic side,” he explained. “It’s turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected.”

In addition to the hospitality curriculum, the nonprofit offers similar career academies in structure design and the building industry, and animal and human health services. In addition to the hands-on experiences of woodworking or preparing a meal, students also learn about workplace norms, skills and behaviors through the online Youthentity University. The various aspects of the Youthentity curriculum combine to give students an edge when applying for a job or to college.

“For a lot of these kids, hospitality won’t be their thing but they will have learned so much about project management, time management, working as a team, and so on,” McDaniel said.

Financial literacy is another important topic, so Youthentity also explains concepts such as debt, interest, saving and investing that are relevant to students’ careers and personal lives. Building on that knowledge, the organization is now helping Career Academy students to create “five-year life plans” that essentially map their post-high school pathways.

Tamara Islas, a Glenwood High student and participant in the Building Industry academy, knows that she may not follow every detail of her five-year plan, but the exercise enabled her to grasp and imagine the various steps in her future.

“We looked at schools, what classes I would have to take, the tuition and all of those things so that I could graduate when I’m supposed to,” she said. “I feel better prepared now.”

Empowering kids is the main goal at Youthentity, and the Career Academy programs are specifically designed to educate high schoolers about industries that play a role in the Roaring Fork Valley and other Western Slope communities. But McDaniel says many of the skills taught in Youthentity classes will translate to virtually any workplace. And her team looks for teaching opportunities everywhere they can.

“I actually created a job at Youthentity for a student, and we did hire someone for the job,” she explained. “But we had every student interview for the job, whether they wanted it or not. And I told them, ‘If you do want it, just let me know.’”

So, an actual hiring process became a mock interview lesson for students. It’s just one more tool to help high school graduates prepare for college, career and the critical transition into adulthood. Life isn’t getting any less complex, so these teens can use all the help we’re able to give them.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


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