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Leadership program takes teenagers to new heights

Special to the Post Independent

Sometimes it takes hanging off a rope or falling into whitewater to realize what you’re made of. Forty middle and high school students from western Colorado found that out when they participated last month in a six-day experiential learning adventure that teaches leadership skills at Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus in Leadville.

The students came from middle and high schools in the Roaring Fork Valley, Buena Vista, Leadville, Vail, Salida, and Steamboat Springs and Summit County. The students were chosen by their teachers, principals and counselors to learn leadership skills that Fortune 500 companies pay thousands to teach their employees.

“The whole program is about leadership and using those tools you learned at home, in schools and in your community,” said First Ascent founder Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl, who noted the popular program is in its eighth year. The summer leadership program has been so successful that it’s now expanded into a year-long leadership program.

“The year-long leadership academy program builds on to their team building skills they learned during the week and expands their leadership knowledge to include conflict resolution, consensus building, communications skills and the importance of civic engagement,” Velasquez-Schmahl said.

Students who participate in the First Ascent Youth Leadership summer program learn extensively about team building. The various program experiences showed the students how to lead, be confident in themselves and become successful through goal-setting and persistence.

The week consisted of challenging outdoor activities as well as leadership and academic learning. Students bunked at the Leadville campus dorms and got ready for a week’s worth of adventure, rock-climbing, rafting down the Arkansas River, climbing Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, as well as leadership group work/activities. The final day was reserved for closing reflections from each student.

“I thought it was going to be really boring,” John Donovan, 15, from Basalt High School, said of the program. “But I had a blast meeting new people and hearing new ideas.”

Although John is familiar with rock climbing and river rafting, climbing Mount Elbert was a first for him, and so was what he learned as he and his team climbed ever higher.

“It was very interesting because we couldn’t climb up the mountain as individuals,” he said, saying that growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley made him a kind of rugged individualist. “We had to work together with everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. It was tough for me because I ended up carrying three backpacks for people who didn’t think they could carry them.

“I kind of liked it though because I was helping others and testing my own strength. You know, like, can I do this?”

The listening skills taught at the leadership program helped John the most.

“I listened instead of just throwing out other people’s ideas.” He said he will apply his new skills at home, in athletics, and at work. “At work, not all of us speak the same language, and at the leadership program we learned that when we took time to communicate no matter what our language, it worked.”

Elizabeth Parra, 14, who will attend Rifle High School this fall, learned to make goals and meet goals while being considerate of others along the way. While she was learning to rappel down a rock, she found she had to trust the people who were at the other end of the rope. “It convinced me that I had to trust because I had to do it. It was the first time I rock climbed and it was my goal so I went for it.”

Elizabeth went away with leadership tools she said she will use in the future. “To be considerate of others and listen to what they think – I can do that at school. I could be a leader and have followers behind me and still listen to their ideas.”

Several, like John, enjoyed their experience so much, they want to come back next year as counselors. “I want to see what it’s like from the other side,” John said. Velasquez-Schmahl is not surprised when she hears students want to return. “It’s great that not only did they have a blast, but they learned something. And if they come back, they can be a mentor and inspire the new ones. These students can take their leadership skills one step higher. That’s the whole goal of the program: Leadership and using the tools of leadership in your home, school, and community.”

Alpine Bank is the corporate sponsor for the First Ascent Leadership Program. Organizations that also sponsored this year’s program included: The Hines Corporation; Safari Club International; Aspen Community Foundation; Wal-Mart; Colorado Mountain College Foundation; BTE Concrete Formwork LLC; Build a Generation-Lake County; the Lions Club of Glenwood Springs; the Rotary Clubs of Glenwood Springs, Noon Club – Glenwood Springs, Sunrise Club – Carbondale, Rifle and Steamboat; LULAC/El Pomar, Youth in Community Service; Peer Counselors of Battle Mountain High School/El Pomar Youth in Community Service. Sponsoring individuals included Dave and Sheri Scruby, and Sherry Caloia.

If you would like to sponsor one or more students for the next First Ascent Youth Leadership Program or would like more information, contact Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl at 970-947-8357.


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