Uplifting Youth in Cortez | LOR Foundation
Economy

Uplifting Youth in Cortez

A new craft-beverage initiative in Cortez aims to help create career pathways for young people.

Cortez
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Corey Beams (right), one of the first apprentices to take part in the Uplift program, serves a craft soda to Aaron Hammond (left) at the Cortez Cultural Center in July. Photo by Nicci Crowley.

On a hot July night in Cortez, Colorado, Corey Beams is one of the most popular people in Montezuma Park. More than 700 residents have gathered for Third Thursday, and as a Tennessee string band plays on the stage to his right, Beams mixes refreshing non-alcoholic beverages: cactus soda, cherry lime rickey, virgin piña colada, and a few other concoctions. This is the 19-year-old’s first real job, and he makes it look easy, grinning and joking with customers. Beneath that smile, though, Beams knows it’s been anything but.

Since unenrolling from high school a couple of years ago, 19-year-old Beams has had hardly any social interaction or work. He’s studying for the GED, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept him at home with an immunocompromised mother, only compounded his isolation. Even after Beams and his mom received vaccinations, he had a hard time finding work, despite sending out a number of applications.

“I was just bored and depressed,” he says. “When my birthday came around last year, I didn’t leave my house.”

Earlier this summer, though, a longtime educator and one of Beams’ former teachers at Southwest Open School introduced him to the Uplift Apprenticeship Program—a youth-run, artisanal soda stand at the Cortez Cultural Center. Melissa Watters, education program director at the Cortez Cultural Center, has long wanted to create an apprenticeship program to help the 24 percent of 16 to 24 year olds in Montezuma County who qualify as “disconnected youth,” meaning they are neither working nor in school. 

That rate is wildly disproportionate when compared to more urban areas, according to data from Measure of America: About 19 percent of youth in rural counties are considered disconnected, while only 12.3 percent of urban youth and 10.3 percent of suburban youth fall into the same category. And in counties with large Indigenous populations, the rate is much higher—commonly around 30 percent.

Photos by Nicci Crowley.

The Uplift Apprenticeship Program aims to provide a pathway to work for young people. “I had been thinking there should be a way to pay young people and offer true experiential learning,” Watters says. “I have a passion for helping people figure out where they’re going. That’s actually what drove me to develop this program.”

She’d seen the success of initiatives like the Prodigy Coffee Shop in Denver, which employs marginalized young adults looking to build work experience, as well as Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a screenprinting outfit run by formerly incarcerated gang members. She thought a social enterprise operation could work in Cortez, where many young people struggle to bridge the gap between school and work.

The pandemic slowed Watters’ plans, and she wasn’t able to get her idea off the ground until late spring—around the same time the LOR Foundation began working in Cortez. LOR works with people in rural places to kick-start community-driven projects that help with quality of life. In April, LOR hired longtime resident Nicci Crowley as its Cortez community officer, and she began listening to the needs of community members like Watters. Watters knew Crowley from previous community work and reached out after seeing a LOR Facebook post about the foundation’s presence in Cortez. 

“When Melissa reached out about the Uplift Apprenticeship Program, it was a clear example of the type of local solutions LOR can help support here—an idea born from the community that addresses an urgent need,” Crowley says. 

Watters and her team focused on artisanal sodas because they could be produced with relative ease and healthy ingredients. Equipment, though, was a hurdle—one which LOR could help her clear with a $7,500 grant. The funds allowed the Uplift program to purchase blenders, juicers, ice machines, a water-carbonation system, and a refrigerator.

Using the new equipment, three apprentices will work 10 to 12 hours each week and up to 18 months running the stand, with more senior apprentices eventually taking on peer-mentorship roles. While the team has primarily been working events like Third Thursday, this fall they will launch a permanent space at the Cortez Cultural Center.

Additionally, each apprentice will complete career-readiness courses and establish post-apprenticeship goals—something Watters hopes will be a launchpad for college or other professional growth as the Uplift program evolves. She’s also looking for ways to expand and bring on more apprentices.

Already, the program has helped Beams find a path forward. Although he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do afterward—he’s interested in computers and technology—he says he’s finally on the right track. “I have been a social hermit for years,” he says. “With customers you’ve got to have social skills, so this should definitely jumpstart some stuff.”

Uplift Cortez Youth

The Uplift cart will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays at the Cortez Cultural Center beginning September 30. Stop by for a sip! To learn about other ways to support this project, contact Melissa Waters.

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Cortez Community Officer

Nicci Crowley

Nicci prides herself on being a connector of people and ideas—a trait that’s central to her work as the LOR Foundation’s community officer in Cortez, Colorado. She listens to community members to understand the challenges they collectively face and then… Meet Nicci

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