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Photo courtesy of Cairn Youth Program

Cairn Youth Program Educates Teens About Environmental Stewardship

Volunteers For Outdoor Colorado has developed a program that gets young people involved in trail building, farm mitigation, and more.

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No matter the generation, the collective attitude toward teenagers often borders on condescension. “I think teenagers get a really bad rap,” says Ella Douglas, a recent graduate of South High School who, after spending two years working with other teens on environmental stewardship projects, can confidently tell you: “It just isn’t true.”

She speaks from experience. Douglas is part of the Cairn Youth Program, run by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. Through Cairn, Douglas took part in trail building and planting, attended classes on individuals’ impact on the environment, and learned about environmental stewardship. Recently, Douglas received one of the organization’s $5,000 Grossman Scholarships, which are awarded to students who have demonstrated a commitment to the outdoors and intend to pursue a degree in natural resources or recreation. (Applications are still open for a second scholarship for non-traditional students.)

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“Something I learned,” Douglas says, “is one thing in the volunteer world quickly leads to the next. Everything is tied together.” To learn more, we spoke with Douglas about her experience with the Cairn Youth Program, and how young people can better be involved in their communities.

5280: How did you get involved with Cairn?
Ella Douglas: I got involved my junior year of high school, which is actually a little late. There are a number of kids who have been involved since their freshman year. It’s only one Saturday a month during the school year, so it maybe comes out to eight or nine Saturdays per year. And it includes everything you could think of in regards to helping out the environment—farm mitigation, plant restoration, we did a skills class where we learned survival if we were stranded outside. Cairn showed me there’s a lot more to environmental stewardship than I thought.

What else do you learn?
It shows kids the careers they could have in the environment area. In my head, there was just environmental science. For some reason I was just thinking of people sitting in labs researching how to stop climate change. There’s so many more things to do, especially in a state like Colorado, and Cairn gives you an opportunity to see those things.

Are people your age aware of some of these issues of environmental stewardship?
Oh, yeah. We have 30–35 kids who are devoting one Saturday a month to doing something good for the environment. We care. But also, when I go out and backpack, my friends and I always make an effort to leave no trace. A lot of times when I’m with adults and family friends, or adults who have left the campground before us, they don’t follow that same etiquette. I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t been taught or they don’t care, but the teenagers I know are passionate about taking care of the environment. A lot of us realize this is all we have. We have to take good care of it for future generations, otherwise it’s not going to be here.

How would you encourage people your age, or even a little younger, to get involved with environmental stewardship?
Just pick something you care about and do something about it. I had that discussion with my parents a lot. You can talk. But if you don’t act on it, does what you’re saying really matter? So whether you’re inspired by the environment or the gun violence movement or whatever it is, just take something you care about and commit to it. That’s not only fulfilling for yourself, it’s a great thing to do for the public.

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Applications for the Cairn Youth Program close July 31. Operating since 2010, the program is capped at around 35 students each year. 

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