Giving Thought: Youth as the future for our community

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought

Almost every edition of our local newspapers over the past couple of years has contained some comment on our changing community.

Some lament the changes, others see opportunities, and still others fear the worst is yet to come. While each argument and observation has potential merit, few have highlighted the opportunities to shift the trajectory or strengthen bonds across our region.

Even fewer have explored what might be possible through engaging youth in community building.

Thankfully, while writers have neglected this possibility, philanthropists and outdoor-focused organizations have worked together to strengthen community and regional connections.

In 2021, the idea of connecting environmental and nature-focused community partners to create a youth empowerment and experiential education program emerged at Aspen Community Foundation, and Youth in Nature was born.

The program is a year-long empowerment program for local high-school students combining nature, community building, exploration, and self-discovery. It was co-developed and led by a team of community partners and made possible through the generosity of the Jonathan D. Lewis Foundation. Youth In Nature aims to spark a curiosity for the natural environment, support social and emotional growth, and encourage students to explore their interests.

Youth in Nature launched its pilot year last June in partnership with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Aspen Center for Environmental Sciences, Farm Collaborative, Aspen Valley Land Trust, Aspen Skiing Co., and Buddy Program.

Students were selected from five area high schools, representing schools from Aspen to New Castle. The program began with a four-day hut trip to bond and orient the group.

Brian Hightower, education coordinator and ranch manager for the land trust, participated by orienting the students to the idea of place and their role in their environment.

“Once you start to look at place, you see how things are connected; this of course includes nature but also gives you the opportunity to make choices about how you will interact everywhere you are,” he said.

Youth in Nature seeks to allow students to connect more with the region and broader community through experiential learning.

The hut trip provided a foundation for students to build relationships upon as they move through monthly learning experiences with the community partners to explore other outdoor stewardship opportunities.

Ben Sherman, education director for Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, said he has observed students who came into the program with hesitancy bonding during the hut trip, and that their relationships have deepened as they have moved through the other experiences.

For many in our region, skiing is a beloved pastime, but some of the students were able to share their rock-climbing and canyoneering expertise with the group — again underscoring the variety of opportunities for outdoor connection across our region and within the group.

“We brought together students from a variety of backgrounds who recreate in different ways. This has been a great opportunity for everyone in the group to offer peer mentorship during the activities at different times,” Sherman said.

Aspen Skiing Co. hosted the students earlier this winter for recreation and education about career opportunities.

“It’s great to see kids in this valley explore all it has to offer — from the mountains to climate initiatives to the coaster to local career paths. It was great to host this curious, engaged group at Elk Camp for a little sampling of all those things,” said Hannah Berman, senior manager of sustainability and philanthropy for Skico.

Corina Person Minniti, education director of Farm Collaborative, said the collaborative aims to engage with students across the region, but that this isn’t always possible for a variety of reasons. Youth in Nature brought students to the farm who might not otherwise visit and not only that, but each student brought a different lens to their exploration.

“I was excited because while they were here, they inspired me to think about sustainability from many angles, and they each made different connections as a result of hearing what others thought and brought with them to the experience,” she said.

This experience has not only strengthened the bonds between students, but it has also allowed partners to connect in new ways and see each other as collaborators, ultimately strengthening our community on another level.

“Through this program, partners are able to offer specific opportunities to participants to continue building meaningful relationships with them and deepen their connections to the places we are all trying to protect and steward,” said Andrea Aust, education director at ACES.

Shifting perspectives across schools and the region creates ripple effects, one student at a time, allowing connections to grow. These youth will take these experiences with them as they grow and inevitably shift how they view this place and their role in the ecosystem, connecting them to the community in a way they will carry forward into the future, our future.

Applications are being accepted for the 2023-24 Youth in Nature program. 10th-12th grade students attending Aspen to Parachute schools may apply. Details and application at Applications due April 14.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communicationsfor the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.