Program shares nature of outdoor work and play with area kids

Zack Cox, 14, guides a wheelbarrow along the trail as he and Sebastian Garcia, 11, return with more gravel for the trail’s new rock bridge that the Learn and Serve crew is building near Jumbo Lake on the Grand Mesa.

Fourteen-year-old Hunter Taylor, left, and Brisco Williams, 15, engage in a water fight in Sunset Lake after spending the morning building trails on the Grand Mesa. Recreation in nature is a primary focus of Learn and Serve America.

Under the guidance of two crew leaders, a crew of children in the Learn and Serve program build a rock bridge across a streambed along a Grand Mesa trail near Jumbo Lake that they have widened and graveled to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Learn and Serve crew leader Alyssa Austin leads six of a ten-kid crew Tuesday along a trail that leads to the summit of Opal Hill in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. The crew of children was surveying the area with the intent of gathering information on the topography in order to design a snowshoe trail for the Opal Hill area later that day.

Fourteen-year-old Hunter Taylor, right, dumps a shovelful of dirt as he tries to loosen a rock while Madison McCullah, 12, left, and Madison Babcock, 14, hold two that they have already found to use in the rock bridge that their Learn and Serve crew is building along a trail near Jumbo Lake on the Grand Mesa.

Next to the trail that the Learn and Serve crew had graveled just that morning, crew leader Georgia Bennett teaches Keyan West, 12, of Fruita about casting a fishing line beside Sunset Lake on the Grand Mesa.

After hiking to the summit of Opal Hill in McInnis Canyons, the Learn and Serve crew takes a break in the shade to learn about sun painting from Fran Parker, coordinator of the Friends of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. The kids then tried their hands at sun painting by covering white bandanas with multi-colored sun-reactive dye, then laying natural items that they had gathered from around the Devil’s Canyon trailhead on the cloth in hopes that the sun would create patterns from nature.

Holding a shovel whose handle has been broken in two, education mentor Comfrey Jacobs, right, instructs several of the Learn and Serve crew on how a rock bar is better designed for raising rocks during a random education moment. Crew leaders mix education on plants, wildlife and other issues with work and recreation during the four week session.

Sebastian Garcia, 11, of Grand Junction admires a grasshopper that he has just caught near the Devil’s Canyon trailhead in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. One of the primary endeavors of the Learn and Serve program is to inspire and nurture an interest in plants, wildlife and nature.

It’s not your usual kids’ summer camp.

It’s children building and designing trails, restoring and improving wildlife habitats, improving area parks and learning skills from team building to outdoor living.

It’s also youngsters fishing on Grand Mesa, hiking over Colorado National Monument, doing projects at The Art Center and visiting area museums and dinosaur digs. And thrown in is an overnight camping trip to the Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area.

It’s earning a $500 college scholarship from Americorps by completing 100 hours of volunteer service, and it costs nothing for the participants.

This is Learn and Serve America Summer of Service 2010, a program designed to encourage service-learning and inspire an appreciation of nature in children ages 11–14.

Funded by a $205,000 grant to the Southwest Conservation Corps, the program is designed to expand Youth Corps across the intermountain West. The three-year grant funds Learn and Serve experiences this year in four states for 410 kids. The program is funded for the next two summers.

Thirty Western Slope kids enrolled in the program for this summer’s two sessions through Mesa County Partner’s Western Colorado Conservation Corps.

The corps’ Learn and Serve America’s program involves a commitment from each child of eight hours a day, four days a week for four weeks. The program emphasizes three main goals — volunteerism, education and recreation — and brings the experience alive with a hands-on approach.


On a recent Thursday, 20 middle school children donned junior-sized yellow hard hats in a parking area on Grand Mesa, grabbed their tools and trudged down a gravel path past Jumbo Lake.

Braced with bug spray against the onslaught of forest mosquitoes, one crew of 10 and two adult supervisors headed out to spread gravel on a path they were making wheelchair accessible. The other crew of 10 and two adult crew leaders took a different path to a rock bridge they were constructing across a small stream bed surrounded by wildflowers and aspen trees. Three went in search of large rocks to brace the bridge. Others fetched gravel, tamped it down and raked it even.


Every so often, the two adult leaders paused the youngsters’ work for a few minutes of lessons.

A rock bar is designed to work better than a shovel when digging rocks, said education mentor Comfrey Jacobs as he held a shovel with a handle that had been broken in two by an ambitious worker.

The lessons continued: The rock bridge will let the water through when it rains because of the material with which it was being built. Can you see where the gravel surface is uneven, and how do we fix that?


In less than two hours, the kids finished the rock bridge and headed for Sunset Lake to rejoin the members of the other crew for lunch.

They spent the rest of the afternoon fishing and splashing in the frigid Grand Mesa water.


The children are very aware of the Americorps higher education awards they are earning as part of the program. Some dream big. Others are more practical.

Wrapped in a towel, 12-year-old Luken Blair sat on a warm rock in wet swim trunks after a chilly dip in Sunset Lake.

“I want to go to Notre Dame and hopefully play professional football,” Luken said through chattering teeth. A few moments later, he waded back into the water to rescue a floating baseball cap for a fellow crew member.

Morgyn Staats, 14, got up at 5:20 a.m. each day to ride with her mother from their Delta home to Grand Junction, where she met her Learn and Serve crew at 8 a.m.

“I usually don’t go outside. I’m an indoor person, but this is fun,” Morgyn said.

When she gets to college, Morgyn plans to major in architecture. “There’s a $500 scholarship, and at the college I go to I can get books and stuff,” she said. “I really want to go to the University of Arizona.”

Caleb Babcock, 11, said the program is a lot of hard work but he likes it.

The Independence Academy sixth-grader could have done without the insects, though. “The bugs — that’s the only bad part of being up here,” he said of Grand Mesa.

Even at his young age, Caleb has plans for his Americorps award. He wants to go to Mesa State College and become a video game designer.

Five days after their Grand Mesa trip, Caleb and his fellow crew members hiked to the summit of Opal Hill in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. The 10 youngsters surveyed the area and familiarized themselves with the terrain.

Once they returned to the corps’ office, they would design a snowshoe trail using their new knowledge.

But that would have to wait a few hours, until after they played a game of tag, created sun paintings on bandanas and chased grasshoppers through the brush.


Western Colorado Conservation Corps:

Southwest Conservation Corps:



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