Hiking trips encourage at-risk youths toward new heights
Five teenagers in identical gray T-shirts and black gym shorts stretch their quads at the base of the Palisade Rim Trail. It’s nearly 9 a.m., and the air already sizzles with July heat.
Forty minutes earlier, the team was shuffling through a series of heavy doors, the locks clicking open one by one, at Grand Mesa Youth Services Center, Grand Junction’s highest security youth detention and commitment center — in colloquial terms, it is a jail and prison for arrested or sentenced juveniles.
Now, outside of the cinder-block walls and high fences of the center — the staff and youths call it “the facility” — the youngsters breathe fresh air and joke around as they tighten the straps of their backpacks and the laces of their shoes and begin hiking at full speed up the dusty trail.
This is the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center Adventure Club, a group of detained youths whose excellent behavior and leadership at the facility gives them the leeway to go on special hiking and adventure trips in the outside world.
“It’s fun because the kids get to be themselves outside the facility — enjoying a little time to themselves, relaxing and letting their guards down,” said Anthony Marah, a staff member at the center who accompanied the youths on the Palisade Rim Trail last week.
In the facility, rules are strict. Shirts must be tucked in, hands must be held open behind the back while walking, only one youth can be up and about at a time. There is a rigid sense of structure and hierarchy.
But out on the trail, it’s a different scene. The open atmosphere of the hikes allow the staff to do their jobs better, Marah said.
“The biggest part of our jobs is rapport and relationships,” he said. “Out here, we’re one, we’re a team. We’re making it through the hike, we’re encouraging one another.”
The youths appreciate the opportunity to get outside, and they show this respect to the staff who go with them by following the rules, such as keeping to the trail, not littering and, most importantly, staying close.
“They trust us, and they know we’re trusting them,” Marah said.
The Adventure Club started this past winter as a collaboration between center staff member Autumn Sjölund and center director Cris Matoush, who are constantly looking for the best ways to help the young people who end up at the center to “get back on the right track” and prepare to reenter society upon release.
The appeal of forming the club was manifold for Matoush and Sjölund. The hikes encourage the youths in the facility to behave well and lead their ranks, because only those who have shown two weeks of consistently outstanding behavior are allowed to join.
And getting the youths out of the facility and into the hills and streets — the group often stops for ice cream in town after an adventure — helps to prepare them to handle themselves well when they face challenges upon their release, both literal and psychological.
“It’s teaching the kids, ‘have persistence and get through this,’” Sjölund said. “This is where you’re at. You’re fighting an uphill battle.”
But they can make it if they just put one foot in front of the other, she said.
Recreating also provides plenty of opportunities for learning. Before hiking Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Adventure Club members listened to a presentation by local firefighters and watched a documentary about the South Canyon Fire of 1994, which killed 14 wildland firefighters.
They also read up on the story behind the Palisade Rim petroglyphs after seeing the drawings in person while hiking the Palisade Rim Trail.
Plus, hiking is inexpensive, for both the center and the hikers.
“It’s one of the things we can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” said Sjölund, adding that its affordability also makes it a realistic activity for the youths once they’re released.
Though the Adventure Club is inexpensive for the center — staff members volunteer to drive the youths to and from trailheads in their own cars and sometimes get generous gear rental deals from local recreational organizations — the success and vibrancy of the club has made the center keen to invest in it.
The staff was able to squeeze water bladder backpacks, hiking shoes and a SPOT emergency GPS into their budget this year, allowing the club to go on more aggressive hikes.
On July 8, the club climbed Mount Sneffels, and every member made it to the top of the 14er. And earlier in the year, the club took a crosscountry ski trip on Grand Mesa, an event the staff and youths remember with glee because of the challenge of staying upright on a pair of matchsticks.
“I don’t think any of them had ever been on a pair of skis,” Matoush said of the youths. “Nor had most of the staff.”
Sjölund invites all sorts of facility staffers on the hikes — administrators, security officers and teachers can go — because of the eye-to-eye, cooperative relationships the outdoors environment encourages. She recalls one teacher who was new to the center and struggling with his students.
“He came out on a hike with us, and he was blown away by how it changed his classroom,” she said.
The success of the Adventure Club has similar facilities in Colorado thinking. Anders Jacobson, who directs the Division of Youth Services for the state, said there is plenty of talk about the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center’s program around the entire Colorado Department of Human Services.
Over time, other youth services facilities in Colorado have integrated many different kinds of off-campus activities into their programs. Youths have painted murals, worked in action centers and gone out to feed the homeless. But Jacobson is impressed with the vision of the staff at Grand Mesa Youth Services.
“Ultimately, you try to make positive change in the young person, and this is a great avenue to do it,” Jacobson said.
And when the members of the Adventure Club are given a chance to speak for themselves, what do they say?
“I guess I just like pushing myself,” said Javier, who has been on every adventure since the club started. (Only the first names of the youths are used in this article in order to protect their privacy.)
During the Palisade Rim hike, Javier picked off bunches of sage and held them up to his nose and pointed out animal bones and fragile cryptogamic soil, warning his companions not to step on it.
Javier, 19, will be released from the center before the end of the month. He’ll be moving to a lower-security residence with even more opportunities for getting outdoors — trail building, fishing and more hiking — and he is excited.
“I’ve been incarcerated for 32 months,” Javier said. He has missed his 2-year-old daughter, who he’ll be able to see more often once he leaves the facility. He wants to be a firefighter because he likes being challenged and showing courage, although he’s not sure if his record will allow him to pursue that occupation.
Climbing Mount Garfield was Javier’s favorite hike. “It’s one of the hardest,” he said, dauntlessly.
Javier and Jose, another dedicated club member who will soon be released, have started a health plan, eating more thoughtfully, going for runs and working out at the facility.
Javier said he has lost about 25 pounds, shedding much of the weight he gained upon arriving at the facility.
Javier, Jose and the rest of the youths all but ran the entire length of the 10-mile Palisade Rim Trail loops.
“We’ve got to keep up with Autumn,” Javier said with a smile.
For Sjölund, who had difficulties in her own family as a kid and feels a deep compassion for the youths she works with at the facility, the connection she has able to make with the youths while they are out on the trails is a powerful, positive force.
Although it is a risk to take the youths out of the facility, she said, taking the risk has so far offered significant rewards, most importantly, a confidence that allows the staff to become meaningful mentors for the youths.
“They open up to us a lot more on the hikes,” she said. “They all have gone through a lot of trauma, and they all have difficult pasts.”
Yet out in the wilds, they’ll often speak openly and from the heart. They’ll stick together and support one another, staff members said.
“I’ve been extremely proud of them,” Sjölund said.