On June 7, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center (ER) will sign a General Agreement in an effort to ensure that the youth of today become stewards of public lands well into the future. Anyone who has read The Last Child in the Woods or has followed the national dialogue regarding what has been called “nature deficit disorder,” a label which describes the disconnect between young people and the natural environment, knows that there is concern about young people relating to nature. With the increase in urbanization of the United States and the increasing diversity of the US population, School and park employees recognized an opportunity to engage and ultimately employ youth from diverse backgrounds in order to insure the relevancy of parks for future generations.
Since 2008, RMNP and ER have worked together to solidify their partnership. During that time, over 200 ER students have participated in outdoor activities, academic classes, and service learning experiences in the park. Of those students, eighteen participated in the ER / park internship and of those eighteen, twelve have moved through a sequenced program ultimately being employed by the park for multiple seasons. The pinnacle of the relationship is employment. To pursue employment, interested students go through an application process with the school and upon being selected are matched with a RMNP division and supervisor. Students start off in the VIP (Volunteers in the Park) program and for five-weeks volunteer in the park two days per week learning about their responsibilities by working with other VIPs and park employees. During the internship, students spend the other two days in the ER classroom focusing on personal and natural resource professional development through a structured curriculum.
Following the five-week VIP portion, students who are eligible can be hired through the STEP (Student Temporary Employment Program) and become park employees during the trimester break. The benefits to RMNP and Eagle Rock are numerous. Students gain an understanding of how the National Park Service operates. They gain knowledge and appreciation of the NPS history, and examine issues and challenges faced by the NPS. Perhaps most importantly, students experience first hand that the NPS offers them a connection to their parks; both potential careers and seasonal employment in a variety of fields. The National Park Service benefits from this program by increasing its diversity and by hiring young, new employees. ER students also bring a fresh perspective to the park given that many of them represent the diversity of the US and values of the next generation.
This unique program has now started to get national attention and both organizations have started developing curriculum and training materials that can be disseminated to other schools and national parks around the country.