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A Ranger, a Rescuer & Me

A Ranger, a Rescuer & Me
Posted on 04/24/2019
Jeffco Open Space Visitor Services Manager Mary Ann Bonnell takes Jeffco SWAP students and others on a bird watching excursion at the Lookout Mountain Preserve and Nature Center.Lookout Mountain is a perfect nearby escape valve for anyone in need of a break from big city living. It’s also home to the Lookout Mountain Preserve and Nature Center, where visitors learn things like how to co-exist with mountain lions. On this day, it was a window into the future for Jeffco students who were taking part in the district’s School to Work Alliance Program, or SWAP. Jeffco Open Space Visitor Services Manager Mary Ann Bonnell was keeping the students’ attention with war stories from her colorful career in the outdoors.

“I heard someone shouting from the trail. There’s a man, and he’s been attacked by a mountain lion. Even when I say that today, the hair goes up on the back of my neck,” she told the students.

SWAP is a team effort with the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to help students with mild to moderate needs in either learning about job possibilities, or, getting hired outright. This stop is the latest in an eight-week experience called Summer Safari.

“We explore the major industries within Jefferson County,” explained SWAP Program Coordinator Christina Ruffatti. “We’ve done hospitality, healthcare, skill trades. Today we are doing natural resource management, park services, open space.”

For Bonnell, her time with these SWAP students brings her back to when she was in school, and, like many of them, struggled in the classroom.

“I had difficulty learning to read. I was left-handed. I wasn't sure which hand I should use when I was writing," Bonnell explained. “I had a very hard time learning cursive, and I also had some dyslexia. I had a horrible time spelling and with math.”

What changed her life was the chance to experience the outdoors. It’s where she found focus and peace.

“I found things I wanted to study, things that stimulated me to want to read. Things I could use all my senses instead of just one of my senses,” Bonnell explained. “The classroom was very one dimensional when I was a student. ‘I talk, you listen.’ You get outdoors, and I smell, I hear, I touch, I take all of this in. I realized that’s why the classroom wasn’t working for me. I was bored.”

It’s much the same for students in the program today.

“Having nature around them definitely seems to create more of a grounding experience for our youth. Especially with our students who struggle with sitting still or focusing in the classroom,” said Ruffatti. “Just having that break in stimulation really seems to help them get re-grounded.”

Jeffco Open Space Park Ranger Chris Carrington helped the SWAP students understand the basics of outdoor emergency response. He let the students get up close to his gear, but quickly found it can be hard competing for attention when you’re sharing a classroom with a search and rescue puppy in training.

Jeffco is one of more than two dozen school districts that have SWAP programs, but Jeffco is considered to be the leader; this Summer Safari exploration is one of the reasons why.

“Our program is leading the charge in a lot of different, innovative ideas,” explained Ruffatti. “We often get phone calls from different SWAP sites, looking for ideas, or asking how we’ve done things. How they can make things possibly work for their sites.”

For all the presenters, the goal for the students is the same.

“I want them to feel confident. I want them to feel stimulated. I want them to understand that this idea of being outdoors and finding a career that is outdoors is an option for them,” said Bonnell.

“Anything that can help educate our students, to inform their career path is where I’d like to see this going,” added Ruffatti.

See the JPS-TV version of this story here or below.

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