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Aspen's Youth Are Leading the Change

By Amiee White Beazley and Christine Benedetti | February 6, 2020 | People Feature

Armed with information, fueled by confidence and propelled by the belief that every voice matters, these young people are already working hard to make sure the future is bright.

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Valley students participated in the Global Climate Strike in September.

Connecting through Cancer: Aaron Adams

Aaron Adams was 14 when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. But it wasn’t his first experience with it; his grandmother, aunt and close family friend all had some variation of it too. “I thought, ‘If you have cancer, you are going to die,’” he says. (His mother and grandmother are survivors; his aunt and family friend passed away.)

Instead of accepting that, Adams, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School, immersed himself in the disease, interviewing more than a dozen cancer patients and caregivers over two years to create his documentary Connections: A Deeper Meaning of Cancer. “I chose to create a short documentary on my relationship with cancer, the human connection, and how it can be a positive change in one’s life,” he says.

When it screened in November, 150 people showed up to watch it at The Orchard in Carbondale. Adams gave an inspiring speech about his journey at Rally the Valley, a fundraiser for young cancer patients, and has raised more than $3,500 for the organization so far.

He had no experience with filmmaking when he started producing the documentary, and learned along the way. Now, he plans to submit it to the 5Point and Telluride film festivals, as well as screen it for local hospital boards.

“I want people to leave with the idea that cancer isn’t life-defining,” he says. “It doesn’t shut down who you are and doesn’t stop you from being you. As long as you find support, connect with other people, keep humor in your life and always find a way to smile.”

Mountaineering Maven: Elsie Weiss

Elsie Weiss is used to pushing herself on snow; she’s been Nordic skiing for “as long as I can remember,” says the Aspen High School freshman and member of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s Nordic National Comp team. But she had her sights set on higher goals—much higher. To get there, she sought out the guidance of Aspenite Christy Mahon—the first woman to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks—and summited and skied her first 14er, Quandary Peak, when she was in sixth grade.

Since then the duo has been above 14,000 feet two more times. “The experience taught me a lot about how to take care of yourself in the backcountry and snow safety,” says Weiss.

Already a conservationist, as a member of the school’s Earth Group, advocate for wolf reintroduction and climate change activist, hitting Colorado’s most popular trails also opened her eyes to their degradation.

“We noticed that the trails aren’t in great shape,” she says, about volunteering with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “They help restore the trails, and that’s good for the environment and it makes it safer.”

The Art-Based Treatments: Iovanna Mora

Teenage depression is on the rise, and Iovanna Mora knows this firsthand. The eighth grader at Basalt Middle School was diagnosed with depression and anxiety after a family incident. “I wasn’t being myself and I shut myself out,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t express myself in the way I thought I could.”

What worked, however, were art therapy classes at The Art Base. On Sunday mornings, Mora found herself being able to put emotions on paper that she couldn’t articulate in words.

Soon, she was feeling better and wanting to share her story with peers who might also be struggling. Mora gave a short speech at The Art Base’s fundraiser last summer, and she’s working with teachers to get an art therapy class instituted in the schools. “Some students are scared because they think they are the only ones, but it would help them express themselves,” she says.

Ensenando Espanol: Lupita Ortiz

Both of Lupita Ortiz’s parents are from Mexico, so she grew up speaking Spanish. She sometimes heard stories of her mother’s struggle as a single parent with three kids, and the isolation she felt as a Spanish speaker. “If I know someone is feeling left out, I want to change that,” says Ortiz, a junior at Aspen High School. “I want to make people happier.”

As the leader of her Spanish Conversation Club, she’s reaching out to immigrant students, often Spanish speakers, to give them a place to be heard and welcomed. “Many aren’t comfortable speaking English,” she says. “We want to get them to be more comfortable by making friends in the school

when they move from another country.”

Ortiz, who also volunteers with Shining Stars Foundation, the school’s Homeless Club and her church, St. Mary’s, emphasizes that her work is about forming bonds between people. “Because everything is about friendships and relationships,” she says.

Facing the Future: Oliver Fox-Rubin

Since 11-year-old Oliver Fox-Rubin, a fifth grader at Basalt Middle School, organized a march and rally for climate change in Basalt last fall, he has become a leader in the local climate movement, speaking at the Climate Forum in Carbondale, attending Basalt Green Team meetings and addressing Pitkin County Commissioners advocating for a solar project that will bring the Roaring Fork Valley closer to the 2030 goal of becoming 100% renewable.

“Adults may think that 100% renewable by 2030 is too ambitious,” he says, “that us kids are getting ahead of ourselves, but this is what needs to happen in order for us not to hit climate catastrophe, and whether they like it or not, adults need to face that.”

Fox-Rubin is committed to making the changes needed and he’s not going to wait to become an adult to do it.

“Sometimes it is hard to make an impact, and you feel like what you do doesn’t matter,” he says. “Let me tell you this: It does. Because adults run the world right now, sometimes children forget that they have any power at all. Even though our power is limited by adults bossing us around, we can make a difference. You shouldn’t feel like you need to go way far out of your comfort zone. You can do something that is hard but doesn’t paralyze you from fear. Right before the march and rally, I got scared. But the people who were helping me told me that it’s OK to be scared. That’s what I want to tell you. Do whatever you can because what you do matters. It matters a lot.”

Cracking the Climb: Selah Schneiter

At just 10 years old, last year Glenwood Springs’ Selah Schneiter became the youngest person in the world to climb Yosemite’s famed El Capitan, which she did via the 31-pitch route called The Nose. “I’ve been climbing forever,” says Selah, who was accompanied on the climb by her father, Mike, and a family friend. “I was 18 months old when I got into a full-body harness and started to climb,”

she says.

According to her mom, Joy, Selah began to show a real drive for climbing by age 6. At 7, she asked to climb, and completed, her first desert tower, and by 9 she was working with her father to tackle El Cap. The pair spent the next year working on the skills she would need, and she ultimately climbed The Nose route in five days.

The oldest of four children, Selah, who prefers climbing in the outdoors at places like Rifle Mountain Park, Grand Junction and Moab, has more routes and goals in mind for the coming years. “We are all going on a road trip next summer and I’m hoping me, Mom and Dad can climb Half Dome,” she says.

Double Vision: Isabella and Willow Poschman

In September, inspired by the work of teenage climate change advocate Greta Thunberg, Aspen High School freshmen Willow and Isabella Poschman, who are founding members of Aspen Junior Environmentalists, organized the local activation of the Global Climate Strike. The student-led march mobilized peers from the Aspen School District campus to downtown Aspen alongside hundreds of parents and community supporters.

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a big impact,” says Isabella. “You can do a small thing and people will notice. It’s easy to get started. If you get others involved, you don’t have to do it on your own.”

This isn’t the Poschman twins’ first foray into activism. Years before they began the Aspen school strike for climate, they started Kids Saving Elephants, an organization that raises awareness of elephant poaching. “If there’s something you care about, don’t wait until you’re old enough to vote,” says Willow. “You can do things now that will affect your life later.”

Girl Power: Stefani Wojcik

The teenage years for young women can be a critical time in many ways. A teenager herself, Stefani Wojcik not only recognizes this, but gives her free time to help other girls her age half a world away. “I am very fond of empowering women, especially young girls,” she says. “I started building up a high school community of people, and we are young women who are trying to empower other young women.”

Wojcik has enlisted more than 15 young women at Aspen High School, where she’s a junior, to help raise $15,000 to build a well for a village in Zambia through Strong Women Strong World. A well, she explains, means that young girls don’t have to spend their days getting water and instead can focus on education and employment.

She recently traveled to New York, bringing a group of teenage girls with her, to meet with women from around the country who are collaborating on the same issue, and they’re working toward starting a national coalition of people their age to help young women in Africa. She’s also supported a Strong Women Strong World team in a 100-kilometer bike race in the Roaring Fork Valley that raises money to send bikes to African villages to make water retrieval easier too. “Aspen is this tiny bubble that you can’t save the world from; you need others to help,” she says.

On the Border: Nicole Peirson

“I wanted to see it firsthand,” says Nicole Peirson. That was the motivation behind the Carbondale teen’s trip to the U.S.-Mexico border town of El Paso, Texas, last summer. Joining a group of five young women, all students from the Roaring Fork Valley, Peirson, a Colorado Rocky Mountain School senior, spent five days with the World Leadership School meeting with United Farm Workers union members and detained immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

“[Immigration] is such a conversational topic, it’s hard to make sense of what’s real and what’s not,” she says. “I wanted to be there so I can create my own opinions.”

Peirson, who may pursue immigration law in college, plans to return to the border to volunteer for the organization Border Servant Corps.

“I think the laws we have right now are so old they don’t pertain to what’s happening right now,” she says. “Our government needs to try and refine them so we can address our problems right now. In order to help these people, I want to share what I learned and open other people’s eyes.”

Infinite Possibility: Isaac Musselman

It’s fair to say Isaac Musselman is a star student at Basalt High School. The multifaceted, standout junior recently started Basalt High School Aerospace Club, paid for by a $1,500 grant he received from a 5Point Film Festival Dream Scholarship. “In small schools like ours, there’s not a lot of funding to do these types of hands-on projects,” says Musselman. “But the students really relate to the material, and it’s important to learn about aviation and outer space because we will be going to Mars someday, and we can start preparing now.”

During its first semester as a club, the aerospace enthusiasts, led by Musselman, tested their first projects—launching small rockets—each soaring more than a mile high, some breaking the sound barrier.

To further develop the program, Musselman encouraged his teacher, Karen Ross, to implement aerospace curriculum into her classes at BHS this fall. Musselman hopes his RE-1 school district will adopt a specific aviation class in the future, along with added funding to keep the aerospace program alive.

“I’ll be gone from BHS,” says Musselman, whose ultimate goal is to become an astronaut, “but I want this program to keep growing.”



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Photography by: Maddie Vincent courtesy of the Aspen Times