Program marks decade of giving teens a lift
For 10 years, middle and high school students from throughout western Colorado have converged on Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus in Leadville for an intensive six-day leadership program that takes them up a mountain and down a rushing river, and along the way, helps them learn skills to be problem solvers.The First Ascent program celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, when about 40 students from Steamboat Springs to Monte Vista came to Leadville to learn about leadership, and about themselves.”At the end, our group came to the conclusion that leadership isn’t something that certain people have,” said Mollie Wunder, 14, of Steamboat Springs. “Anybody is a leader. You just have to bring the leader out.”That’s the mission behind First Ascent. Over the six days, the students work together in teams, building trust and working toward shared goals. The idea is to teach them that leadership doesn’t mean telling other people what to do, but working together to accomplish it.”It kind of made me think that leadership is more like families than it is one person taking charge,” Mollie said.During the course, the students use those tools climbing Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, whitewater rafting and rock climbing. For some, these are activities they might never have tried before. Overcoming challenges for one participant turns into overcoming challenges for the team.CMC Youth Outreach Coordinator Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl put the program in place after school superintendents throughout the district asked for ways to reach middle and high schoolers. It emphasizes teamwork, conflict resolution and consensus building.”The students work as a team that has to communicate and they learn about communication. In team building there is always conflict. They have to learn to resolve that conflict as a team. Then they have to come together to decide the best way to go forward,” Velasquez-Schmahl said. “My favorite part was rafting,” said Daisy Tena, 14, of Carbondale. “I had never gone rafting and it was a great way to experience it.”Those physical challenges were also a great way to learn lessons like not giving up, and trusting people, even ones she had only met recently.”I learned how to open up, which for me is something really hard,” she said. “I learned to open up to people and not judge people by what they look like.”The lessons students take away are ones they can put to work in school hallways and later in their careers and community involvement. They’re the same leadership skills Fortune 500 companies pay thousands of dollars to teach their employees.”I’ve been using it in football camp,” said Alex McPherson, 14, of Glenwood Springs. Instead of huddling and shouting out plays for teammates to carry out, McPherson said he’s started asking them what plays they think would work.It’s worked out better, he said.”We’ve been learning them a lot faster and we have no arguing going on or people hating each other,” Alex said.Over the years, the program has been so successful, four participants come back the following year to act as peer counselors, taking the lessons a step further. One former participant is chosen each year to help out the facilitator, Dave Nesline, who has been with First Ascent for the past nine years. Once they turn 18, past participants can come back as staff counselors, acting as mentors for a new group of students and bringing the lessons full circle.Those lessons stick with them, Velasquez-Schmahl said.”When we say adolescents are impressionable, they really are,” she said. “You teach them something and they do get it. That’s where we fall short. We always think adolescents are ‘out there.’ They’re not paying attention. But they really do get it. They’re a lot more adult-like than we give them credit for.”For the first time, the First Ascent program moves from Leadville to the Spring Valley residential campus near Glenwood Springs next year, to share the program throughout the district.”I think it’s good for all campuses to have that experience to work with youth,” Velasquez-Schmahl said.Participation for the students is free, thanks to the support of community sponsors, who pay about $525 for each student to be able to take part. Those sponsorships are increasingly important as competition for fund-raising dollars grows throughout the region.”To me that’s a small amount of money to put toward a future leader in your community,” Velasquez-Schmahl said. “Don’t we want the best communities? We all do.”This year’s sponsors include corporate sponsor Alpine Bank, Gallegos Corp., Glenwood’s Afternoon and Sunrise Rotary clubs, the Rifle Rotary, Dave and Sherri Scruby, Sherry Caloia, Safari Club International, the Collier Foundation, John and Carrie Morgridge and Giraffiks.This year’s sponsors include corporate sponsor Alpine Bank, Gallegos Corp., Glenwood’s Afternoon and Sunrise Rotary clubs, the Rifle Rotary, Dave and Sherri Scruby, Sherry Caloia, Safari Club International, the Collier Foundation, John and Carrie Morgridge and Giraffiks.
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