Youth look to get peers outside |

Youth look to get peers outside

Youth leaders engage younger members of the community during a visioning session at the New Castle Branch Library in 2016.
Provided |

Nearly two years ago, western Garfield County students formed a coalition and embarked on an initiative to create ways for their friends, families — and future Bears, Rams and Cardinals — to better take advantage of the myriad outdoor recreation available in their region.

“I heard about this program when I was sitting in on a city council workshop and was immediately drawn to it,” Makenna Sturgeon wrote in a letter sent to Great Outdoors Colorado. “Never had I thought that as a high school student I could help implement ways to get the youth more involved in the outdoors.”

That letter was among 13 from the coalition’s youth leaders as part of Garfield County Inspire Initiative’s grant application submitted to Great Outdoors Colorado in July.

In it, western Garfield County communities seek money for places such as a school garden in Battlement Mesa or a natural play area with access to Rifle Creek, programs to ensure that they get any equipment, resources, or training they need, and pathways to put in place to ensure these programs survive long-term.

The youth leaders identified opportunities for local services and state programs to get involved, such as funding for New Castle to provide transportation to get youth to state parks.

While the coalition collaborated with individuals and organizations throughout the county, the youth leaders determined that it is only with a strong partnership with the two western Garfield County school districts (District 16 and Re-2) that pathways can be established to keep these programs alive well beyond 2020, the final year of proposed funding.

They also see opportunities with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies by providing hands-on outdoor education in the classroom and beyond. The CSU Extension/4H will provide curriculum opportunities to incorporate science and outdoor education, according to the application vision summary, with the first big project focusing on education around a garden in each elementary school.

Other programs will be designed to provide outdoor stewardship and education not just for students but for teachers, as well.

Garfield County: a Tier 2 community

The statewide inspire initiative aims to “get kids outside and off the couch from the backyard to the backcountry,” according to its website, and Garfield County is just one of over 30 communities looking to fund ways to connect local youth with the outdoors and nature.

While Garfield County has strong outdoor opportunities (easy access to the Colorado River, world-class rock climbing at Rifle Mountain Park and as many as three state parks), its western community struggles to take advantage due in part to a lack of access and resources, which is why community leaders as well as the youth leaders felt that it was a perfect fit to receive state funding.

“Here in Rifle, we have an abundance of natural resources for outdoor activity, but not all of it is accessible and utilized to its full potential,” wrote Sydney Wells, 17-year-old youth leader from Rifle. “Our goal has been to aide the youth especially in making amenities of Rifle safer while preserving the natural beauties around us.”

In October 2015, GOCO named six pilot communities for its new $25 million Inspire Initiative selected from more than 30 applicants. Each received up to $100,000 in planning grants to further refine their projects and in December 2016, those six pilot communities received funding, totaling $13.5 million in grants.

While Garfield County was not selected among the pilot communities, it was one of 14 applicants to be named a Tier 2 community and received $75,000 in planning grants. It could not submit its final proposal for funding until 2017.

Over a year of research

Since receiving $75,000 for planning, the Garfield County Inspire Coalition has worked with local governments, state agencies, school districts, nonprofits, businesses and area youth to try to identify places, programs and pathways to get locals, especially youth, outside.

During the planning phase, 17-year-old Rifle youth leader Imelda Barrios quickly learned that there are plenty of families and youth that want to get out and be involved with nature, but they often did not have the resources or time.

“They might not have money to afford the activities, the family might not have the right or necessary equipment to do certain activities, and transportation might be a big issue as well,” she wrote.

Youth Advisory Councils conducted surveys in Parachute and Battlement Mesa, Rifle, Silt and New Castle to better understand the issues facing youth in the area. Collecting 600 surveys, six major barriers to the outdoors were identified as a lack of access to: water, gear, transportation (vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle), programs for all ages, leadership opportunities, and school involvement in outdoor learning.

“Through months of research and collaboration we were able to identify a number of projects to address the outdoor needs of the youth in our communities,” wrote GOCO youth leader Gabe Marbas, who described how youth leaders used visionary sessions at local libraries to get insight from local youth.

Garfield County submitted its application to GOCO in July and asked for up to $2.9 million for three years (2018-2020). A decision about which programs will be funded is expected by mid-November.

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