The Sopris Sun

Valley students seize hands-on learning

By Emily Bruell

Sopris Sun Student Intern

In the Roaring Fork Valley, opportunities for hands-on learning experiences abound. Children in elementary and middle school can get a taste of entrepreneurship by designing and operating their own lemonade stand on the YouthEntity’s Lemonade Day. Older youth can also participate in a sustainability and education-based apprenticeship at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, YouthEntity’s culinary arts program, or a journalism internship at The Sopris Sun.

Other initiatives include an agricultural biology program at Roaring Fork High School, a Peer-to-Peer mentoring buddy program, and youth DJ positions at KDNK.

These opportunities allow youth to develop not only hard skills like working with radio technology or executing soil tests but more personal skills such as improving patience, eating conscientiously, and communicating effectively.

Greenhouse and Agricultural Biology at RFHS

At Roaring Fork High School, Hadley Hentschel teaches an agricultural biology class (“ag bio”) where students actively engage with agriculture by working in the school’s greenhouse. The idea for the class was generated when Hentschel, searching for a way to engage some of his students with no background in science, thought of starting a garden, and local agricultural company Fat City Farmers approached the school a few weeks later hoping to build a greenhouse. The timing seemed “too fortuitous” to ignore, Hentschel recalled. He and FCF collaboratively planned and built a greenhouse that would function both as a supplier of fresh food to the RFHS cafeteria and an opportunity for students to have hands-on agriculture experience.  

Although much of the work of farming takes place over the summer, Hentschel said there’s plenty for students to do during the school year. Students tend, prune, and harvest the plants until the first freeze of the fall, when the focus switches to soil science. Students take samples of soil and exercise skills of experimentation and innovation, testing for various traits like acidity and clay content and designing methods for improving the soil.

Eating well is also an increasingly prominent topic in the class. About every other week, Hentschel estimates, the class prepares a dish made from freshly harvested food. Conversations in class also frequently center around healthy eating, such as ways to navigate the financial challenges of nutritious eating.

Ultimately, Hentschel says he hopes to provide “a sense of reality” about the process of agriculture and the practicalities of healthy eating for the many RFHS students who are “ready to jump right in[to living independently]” after graduation.

The program certainly seems to have provided this “sense of [agricultural] reality” for many students, according to Ilene Pevec, who published her book “Growing a Life” about the impact of gardening on youth in the valley and across the US.  Pevec, who will be doing a reading at the Carbondale library on February 18, spoke with a series of students in Hentschel’s class. Most, she said, credited their experience working with the greenhouse and garden with increasing their awareness of environmental and agricultural issues.

RFHS graduate Carly Rosenthal, who has spent her year after graduation working on various farms around South America, would agree. “I really enjoyed ag bio,” Rosenthal recalled, adding that in addition to amplifying her “relationship with the natural world,” the class taught her skills which have proved “indispensable” in her travels. The hands-on gardening, food preparation, and discussions, she said, “really…taught me how to live self-sustainably.”

Youth Radio at KDNK

Established in honor of the founder’s brother, the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment Program (AZYEP) lets local youth host radio shows at Carbondale radio station KDNK. According to Beth Wysong, co-director of the program, participants are trained in the necessary technological and public speaking skills, then are free to take their show in their own direction –  and these directions vary widely.

Some participants fill most of their airtime with music, adding live microphone breaks between songs. Others host guest interviews or “candid conversations” with community members. Topics for these talk-based shows range widely, from hosting a group of Glenwood Springs Middle School students to talk about water rights to an interview between a youth host and KDNK’s eldest DJ.

Youth DJs are also able to delve more deeply into issues facing the community in AZYEP’s monthly youth news program, where DJs interview guest speakers on topics ranging from pet adoption to the effects of marijuana on the teenage brain.

Seeing how the youth radio shows enhance young people’s connection to the community, Wysong said, is one of the best parts of her job. About half of the participants speak both English and Spanish, and the resulting bilingual radio shows and music “provide…a bridge between the two predominant cultures in our community.”

Megan Webber, daughter of the AZYEP founder Annemarie Zanca and past participant in the program, agreed. “The most rewarding part” of being a DJ, she said, was “feeling like I’m giving back to someone –  my mother, my community, [or] other AZYEP DJs.”

She also added that AZYEP boosted her confidence and gave her a venue for self-expression. “[On air,] I felt free to make jokes and tell stories, or even burst into song,” she said.

According to Wysong, “finding your voice” like Webber did is a core aspect of AZYEP. The program serves a wide variety of children, including many “classified with disabilities,” but these divisions feel less important at KDNK. “At the radio station,” Wysong explained, “everyone is just kids.” There’s no threat of  “rejection or being made fun of for expressing themselves,” and no matter what, participants are “free to be themselves.”

Peer-to-Peer Mentor Program

Meeting up to play board games, do crafts, or go to the local rec. center may seem trivial, but it’s the basis for the formation of a unique and meaningful relationship between “big” and “little buddies” at the Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Program. One of several initiatives offered by The Buddy Program, Peer-to-Peer Mentoring pairs a high school student with another student from the local elementary or middle school for weekly meetings to eat, play, or just “hang out and talk about life,” according to the program’s website.

RFHS senior and long-time participant in the program Enrique Gonzalez said it’s been a great experience. Though his buddy was quiet at first, he eventually warmed up, and they now have a close friendship.

Lorenzo Andrade, another participant in the Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Program, said he’d had a similar experience. The program requires a lot of patience, he affirmed, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Andrade, a high school senior, said one of the most rewarding parts of being a Big Buddy has been getting to “observe the growth and positive differences in my buddy’s social/communication skills.”

It’s also been a great way to grow personally, Gonzalez and Andrade agreed, both citing an increase in patience. Additionally, Andrade noted, Peer-to-Peer Mentoring helped him learn to “effectively communicate with children.”

According to the Buddy Program website, Peer-to-Peer mentoring can be hugely influential for high school Big Buddies; 80 percent of Big Buddies credit the program with helping to prepare them for college, and 100 percent of Big Buddies in college are continuing to volunteer in some way. The Buddy Program can make a huge difference in a child’s life as well. As one adult Big Buddy states on the The Buddy Program’s website, the most important part of the program is teaching her little buddy that “she always has someone in her court.”

This article comes to you thanks to the generosity of The Sopris Sun’s Honorary Publishers listed in the masthead on page 2. We appreciate their support!