Empowering young adults through conservation efforts in Colorado

Mile High Youth Corps in action

Berrian Mountain Park in Evergreen, Colorado — about 40 minutes away from Denver — might not be the first place one might think of when it comes to “community.” But in a wooded and isolated place abundant with wildlife, a crew of young adults with Mile High Youth Corps are a close-knit group hard at work, clearing out trees in a fire mitigation effort.

Here, invasive trees that burn quickly are removed in overgrown areas of the forest, in order to help prevent the spread of a wildfire.

The work requires constant communication and feedback to make sure everyone is safe. And underneath the surface, job skills and on-site tools training give young adults a roadmap for a future career in an industry in need.

Nessa Castro-Lopez, a leader of this crew, has seen the impact Mile High Youth Corps can make first-hand. The organization connects young adults ages 18-24 with opportunities to earn while they learn and develop skills in a number of meaningful career pathways, such as land conservation, energy and water conservation, construction, and healthcare.

“This program really picks people up and gives them the patience and support to further grow, but also kind of test the waters within the professional environment that they're getting into,” Nessa said. “If they're in a challenging situation, this organization is more than welcome to provide supportive services to anyone that walks in that door.”

Rocky Mountain Health Plans has pledged $5 million to support nonprofit organizations that offer mental health support and services to empower youth. Of that grant, $1.8 million went to three Corps accredited by the Colorado Youth Corps Association — including Mile High Youth Corps. Other grants included:

  • $1,500,000 to Boys & Girls Clubs in Colorado to expand programming and serve more youth across the state
  • $500,000 to Sources of Strength to expand access to youth suicide prevention programs in schools
  • $400,000 to The Center on Colfax to support career counseling and empowerment for LGBTQ+ young adults, as well as mental health services and the development of Saga
  • $400,000 to The Place to increase stability and support for youth experiencing homelessness in El Paso County

These grants take a holistic approach to what “community health” means – beyond what goes on in the doctor’s office. Employment and educational opportunities are both key social drivers of health, meaning increased support in those areas can help improve overall well-being.

At Mile High Youth Corps, participants in the program are paid and may earn a GED and technical certifications, but also personal growth and confidence with new learned skills. Corpsmembers can receive an education in environmental stewardship, healthy living, career readiness and more.

"Our program is really one of developing whole people,” said Kia Abdool, CEO of Mile High Youth Corps. “People who are ready for a challenge and people who are ready to go in and advocate for themselves. In addition, people who are ready to step back into their communities and be leaders — and know that they themselves are an important part of the community that they live in.”

For Nessa, the program with Mile High Youth Corps has allowed them to receive scholarship money to continue their education, along with job skills and invaluable opportunities to lead a team and provide mentorship for others.

"I think that learning to grow with my team has been the best part of leadership,” Nessa said. “No two teams are the same. Finding respect in gaining the ability to give feedback within each individual has really improved my learning style.”

That sense of leadership is not only challenging Mile High Youth Corps to rethink its programming to better advocate for populations disproportionately impacted by social and racial inequities.

“I feel like Nessa is just really good at knowing when to step into a situation — how to really get to the point where whoever she’s working with gains a greater understanding of the task or themselves or of the skills required,” said Mikey Pazen, a corpsmember on Nessa’s team. “I think she’s very skilled at building all of us up together.”

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