Denver kids find room to grow in WILD outdoors

By JASON BLEVINS
The Denver Post

DENVER (AP) – Six years ago, Jackie Luevano and Ale Basquez were wandering. Abandoning schoolwork. Acting up. Heading down a dangerous path.

Today, the friends are preparing for college and working as raft guides and crew leaders for Denver’s cityWILD, where low-income kids find opportunities for growth and development in the nonprofit’s outdoor, experiential programs.

“I don’t know where I’d be without cityWILD, but I’d be in trouble,” said 17-year-old Luevano, who found cityWILD six years ago and now is applying for a Daniels Fund Scholarship and hopes to attend the University of Denver.

Luevano and Basquez are leaders at cityWILD, mentoring sixth- and seventh-graders from northeast Denver’s Wyatt-Edison, Whittier, Bruce Randolph and Harrington schools.

“My first year here, I was messing up and I had people dealing with me, helping me. Now it’s the opposite. I’m dealing with the kids who are messing up,” said Basquez, a senior at Goal Academy who plans to study social work in college.

Now in its 14th year, cityWILD has shepherded almost 800 kids through its leadership after-school program, with more than 125 participants this year. Almost all are considered “high risk,” meaning they come from urban areas with high unemployment, incarceration and drug and alcohol abuse rates, and low education levels – basically areas without a lot of protective support for kids.

CityWILD is working to offset the guidance deficit in northeast Denver. Daily after-school programs focus on different skills. Hard work and solid attendance earn coveted spots on overnight snowboarding, rock climbing, biking, camping and river-rafting expeditions.

Each day of the after-school program focuses on skill development. Service learning encourages kids to participate in projects aimed at bettering their community.

Outdoor education and activity are anchors in cityWILD’s curriculum. Older kids who have been through the program mentor younger kids and even work as certified raft guides for cityWILD’s popular commercial river trips on the Arkansas and South Platte rivers.

“You learn so many skills when you are a raft guide,” said cityWILD’s executive director Seth Winnerman. “Communication, responsibility, risk assessment, team-building and teamwork. Even the forward vision, having to look ahead and plan for what’s down the river. Everything is translatable to real life.”

The rafting trips help cityWild earn about 16 percent of its annual budget, which relies largely on fundraising. CityWILD is a previous recipient of Denver Post Charities Season to Share funding.

Winnerman swells with pride recounting the success of kids who once barely aimed to graduate from high school. Still, he directs credit for achievement toward his college-bound juniors and seniors.

“I think the most important thing for me is that cityWILD helped me kind of find myself,” Basquez said. “I was really different when I first came here. Really shy. Now, these younger kids look up to us.”

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