At Home: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member shines in Steamboat |

At Home: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps member shines in Steamboat

— Stepping aboard Greyhound bus No. 41 from Steamboat Springs to Fresno, Calif., just a week shy of his 19th birthday, Andrew Fonseca has a lot to think about. Six months earlier, he was a gang member running drugs in Dallas. Now, with a high school diploma and Student of the Year accolades from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in hand, he's heading back to where the wrong fork in the road all started and, hopefully, a new future.

Fonseca could well be a case study in the nurturing power of small towns and Mother Nature. For it was his stint in Steamboat last summer — including a trip down the Yampa River, trail crew work with the Youth Corps and the attention of his counselors at Yampa Valley School — that opened his eyes to a world beyond gang warfare.

Raised in Fresno, his upbringing was typical of an inner-city youth: gangs, violence and poor grades. His brother, Javier, was in jail. All five of his uncles had been in gangs, none finishing high school. One cajoled him to get their gang's Bulldog tattoo, but Fonseca refused.

So his parents moved him to Dallas, where his situation spiraled. Involved in another gang, he tried to quit but got jumped and blind sided by a crowbar. He woke up in the same hospital where his mother worked, which is the only thing that saved his life. Released three weeks later, his parents got him out of Dodge, sending him to live with an ex-brother-in-law in Milner.

And that's how I find him on my raft on a trip down the Yampa River for Youth Corps. Forget that he has never been camping before, let alone on a river trip. Or that the river is flowing a whopping 17,000 cubic feet per second, enough to make even his gang leaders cringe. With just three months left of high school, he was transplanted away from friends and family to a podunk mountain town whose ethnicity is as white as its snow-covered peaks. Throw in an up-close meeting with Mother Nature and his synapses are firing faster than any semi-automatic on the streets.

Although he had heard about the program at school, he didn't know until the day before that his first assignment would involve a four-day river trip to restore a surveyor's cabin. And he didn't know jack about camping. On an outing with his school beforehand, his counselors set up his tent, prompting him to ask, "Wow, that's pretty cool. What's that for?" He didn't realize it was for sleeping.

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Next came his indoctrination to camp food. "This is the best hamburger I've ever had," he gushed around his first camp fire, no clue that everything tastes better while camping.

Now come lessons from the river. One of nine Youth Corps students on the trip, all tasked with restoring an old surveyor's cabin just downstream of the put-in, he's quieter than most, absorbing his surroundings like a sponge. But after we pull over to the cabin site and unload our gear — a melting pot of shovels, pick-axes, buckets and fencing material — he dives into his work tenaciously, shoveling dirt off the cabin's floor, carrying buckets of it outside and spearheading the repair of its broken-down fence.

He does it all surrounded by towering spires replacing high-rises and the roar of the river substituting for the noise of the streets. The only gangs are those formed to haul dry bags ashore.

Cabin work complete, the rest of the trip is a float out to the boat ramp at Echo Park, site of David Brower's victory over the Echo Park dam in 1956. "Man, that would have been bad," he says upon hearing about the near miss. "You mean all of this would have been buried underwater?"

His shell opens each successive night under the stars as he listens to tales of the area's outlaws, geology and Fremont culture. "I've never really looked at the stars before," he confides. "Sometimes, I'd look for the moon but not the stars. And there's no way we ever saw the Milky Way."

The trip ends all too quickly for everyone, especially Fonseca and company who now are heading to tougher-duty trail work in the desert. But the seeds are sown. By summer's end, Fonseca wins Youth Corps' Student of Year award and dinner with former Gov. Bill Ritter — all to someone caught up in gangs just six months earlier.

"Being outdoors like that completely rocked his world," says school counselor Chuck Rosemond, who helped him become the first person in his family to earn his high school diploma. "It totally opened his eyes to a lot of things we all take for granted."

Before leaving, he uses his hard-earned Youth Corps money to take his teachers out to lunch, something no student has ever done before. Then the reality of who he is hits home. He donates the outdoor gear he bought with his $300 stipend back to the youth program. "I'm going back to the city, so I don't need it anymore," he says. "I like it and all, but I don't need it back where I'm going."

I meet him for lunch at Johnny B. Good's Diner before he boards the bus. His plan is to go live with his 96-year-old grandmother in Fresno and enroll in the local community college.

Out of his river gear, he's now back into his usual ware, the tongues folded down on his black canvas high-tops, a cross dangling from his neck beneath a black T-shirt and a bump across his nose belying his rough past.

We chat about the summer and his future as he picks at his burger and fries, saving most in a doggie box for the bus ride ahead.

"Man, what a crazy summer," he finally says. "That was a life-changing experience. It's something you can't really speak about unless you do it for yourself.

"None of my friends or family believe I'm going to do what I'm going to do," he adds. "But if I can make something great come out of this, then I can change things. I'm trying to change my ways."

Dabbing a fry into a pile of ketchup, he continues with one final thought. "I hated digging catholes, but I learned to respect the outdoors a whole lot more," he says. "I never knew it was like that out there."

Hopefully the river, and time spent with the Youth Corps and our community, has helped put his rough past behind him. Grabbing the rest of his burger, he gets up, and I shuttle him to the bus station. Then he climbs aboard, looking ahead to life around the next bend.

Youth Corps going strong

Head into the hills this summer and you'll likely find a crew of kids with shovels and Pulaskis alongside you. No, it's not a re-creation of Roosevelt's New Deal, but a Steamboat-based program that has championed work on trees, trails and hilltops since 1993.

Established to "link community, education and environment through service," Rocky Mountain Youth Corps is a nonprofit conservation program that employs as many as 100 16- to 25-year-olds each summer. One of 143 such corps in the country putting in 21 million hours of service annually, it's brought 568 participants into its fold, thanks to $1.3 million in AmeriCorp Education Awards.

"It's an awesome program," says Executive Director Gretchen Van De Carr, a recent recipient of the Livingston Fellowship for her nonprofit leadership. "It's great to carry on the Civilian Conservation Corps' legacy of empowering youths to live healthy, productive and positive lives. Plus, it exposes many of these youths to the outdoors for the first time."

The program is poised to enhance its offerings even more. In fall, it purchased a 3.86-acre parcel of land near the base of Emerald Mountain off Twentymile Road, including a 2,000-square-foot office and 700-square-foot bunkhouse.

"It's perfect for us," says Van De Carr, adding that future plans include developing a Routt County Youth Services Center that will house additional youth-serving organizations.

Summer 2011 projects

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Pinedale, Wyo.: Crews mule train into Bridger-Teton National Forest outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., for four weeks to rebuild sections of the Continental Divide Trail and live in a base camp surrounded by an electric bear fence powered by a car battery.

Mount Yale, Leadville: Crews head to 14,196-foot Mount Yale for seven weeks to improve and reroute the trail to the summit, hiking the same fourteener for weeks on end.

Pine beetle mitigation, Colorado state forests/parks: Chain saw-clad crews spend 18 weeks removing beetle-killed trees from Colorado state parks to reopen areas to the public.

Pike-San Isabel National Forest, Buena Vista: Crews head to Mineral Basin high above Cottonwood Lake to revisit a section of the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail the Youth Corps built four years ago.

Projects near Steamboat: This summer, expect to see Youth Corps crews working on trails on Emerald Mountain as well as at Steamboat Lake, Colorado State Forest State Park and in Medicine-Bow and Routt National Forests. The group also is submitting applications to work on the Rehder Ranch by Catamount and is teaming up with the Yampa Valley Autism Association to build a greenhouse on its property for the association and Community Cultivation through its Service Learning Institute.

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