A year ago, Andrew Fonseca was a 19-year-old gang member with a bleak future in Dallas. But when he woke up in the hospital after getting jumped this past summer, he was sent to Colorado to live with an uncle and to attend an alternative school. What happened next was unheard of in Fonseca’s circles: He joined the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC), a Steamboat Springs–based program that’s rehabilitated trees, trails, and hilltops since 1993 via extended wilderness trips. Right before his first outing with the corps, his school hosted a camping trip. “After we set up his tent on night one,” says teacher Chuck Rosemond, “he said, ‘Cool…What’s that for?’”

Fonseca is one of hundreds of young adults who’ve joined the conservation-minded nonprofit, which was founded to “link community, education and environment through service.” RMYC employs more than 100 16- to 25-year-olds each summer in the sticks. Thanks largely to $2 million in AmeriCorps Education Awards, RMYC is unique among 143 such groups across the country: It works at higher elevations on very technical projects that require lengthy stints of living and working in the backcountry. “It’s great to empower youth,” says executive director Gretchen Van De Carr. “Plus, it exposes many of these youth to the outdoors for the first time.”

Fonseca’s first assignment: a four-day, high-water river trip down Yampa Canyon to restore an old surveyor’s cabin. From there, it was on to trail crew, fence-repair work, a high school diploma (his family’s first), and honors as RMYC Student of the Year, including dinner with then-Governor Bill Ritter. “It was a crazy summer,” Fonseca says. “I hated digging catholes—but I learned to respect the outdoors a whole lot more.”

Get Involved

Contact RMYC for more information on the following 2011 summer projects. 970-879-2135, rockymountainyouthcorps.org

Mt. Yale, Leadville (seven weeks) > Improve and reroute the summit trail of 14,196-foot Mt. Yale. // Pine Beetle Mitigation, Colorado State Forests/Parks (18 weeks) > Chainsaw in hand, remove beetle-killed trees to make the land safe for the public. // Pike-San Isabel National Forest, Buena Vista (12 weeks) > At Mineral Basin above Cottonwood Lake, revisit and maintain part of the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail that RMYC built four years ago. // Bridger-Teton National Forest, Pinedale, WY (four weeks) > Traverse via mule train into Bridger-Teton National Forest outside Jackson Hole to rebuild parts of the Continental Divide Trail.