Before Cynthia Alonzo came to Estes Park to attend the Eagle Rock School, she lived in Compton, Calif., where there was no way she was going to graduate from Compton High School, she said.
Eagle Rock is an alternative school designed for those who can excel in a nontraditional learning environment. It attracts students from all around the country.
“When I first arrived, I was a Compton girl,” said Alonzo, 20. “I wanted to fight everybody.”
Today, after four years of classes and personal growth at Eagle Rock, Alonzo wears a National Park Service uniform and drives around Rocky Mountain National Park in “Rusty,” the recycling truck.
Her job, along with that of fellow recycling crew member Jon’ya Crawford, 18, of Bridgeport, Conn., is to empty all the park’s recycling bins into the back of Rusty – an essential part of park maintenance.
The two are part of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Pathways to Parks Program, an express route to a National Park Service job for Eagle Rock students who have discovered a love for the outdoors after leaving the inner-city or other places where a government job was hardly a dream.
Pathways to Parks is unique to Rocky Mountain National Park, said park research learning specialist Ben Baldwin, who oversees the program’s interns and seasonal employees.
The program helps the students create a bridge between high school and college, providing them with a plethora of jobs to experience while interning at the park.
Students spend part of an academic year at Eagle Rock as park interns, getting school credit and a crash course in the arcane and paperwork-heavy federal job-application process.
The next year, some of those students end up getting paid to wear the “flat hat” and full uniform of a park ranger while they immerse themselves in the culture of the National Park Service and decide whether they want to make a career out of it.
As she directed traffic into the Bear Lake parking lot Wednesday morning, intern Natalie Osorio, 19, said she’s particularly proud of her uniform.
“I love the flat hat,” she said. “I’m the only one out of all the interns this year who gets to wear it. I feel like Smokey Bear.”
Osorio said she wants to be an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service, which would allow her to connect even more with nature. Osorio came to Eagle Rock from urban Orange County, N.Y., 40 miles from Manhattan, where there was little nature.
Osorio’s goal is to work as a ranger at Glacier National Park in Montana, a park more than four times the size of Rocky Mountain.
Renee Gallando, 19, who spent Wednesday spraying herbicide on invasive thistles in Moraine Park, said she wants to study biology and eventually work in natural resources for national parks in Canada.
The move from Orange County, Calif., to Eagle Rock was a bit jarring, she said, because she had never had any outdoor experiences other than tanning on the beach.
“I was kind of ignorant,” she said. “I didn’t know much.”
But now, as an Eagle Rock graduate and a paid Rocky Mountain National Park seasonal employee, she’s on her way to college in Oregon at the end of the summer to study biology.