Emily Bernstein, a Ridgway Secondary School senior, has been interning with Mighty Mini Horse Therapy Program this school year. She and other students participating in the school’s new career exploration course will give a presentation about their internships Thursday, Dec. 13, during the school board meeting from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Ridgway Elementary School.

(Courtesy photo)


Emma Wallin had never seen someone die before this autumn. During her first four months as a volunteer intern at Montrose Memorial Hospital, the 11th-grader observed two deaths.

“Luckily it doesn’t happen more often, but when it does, it’s a huge learning experience for me,” Wallin explained.

She originally took CPR training as a babysitter. She took it again while working as a lifeguard at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool and then again when she began volunteering at the hospital over the summer. She’d practiced the heart-reviving skill over and over, but wasn’t able to observe it in a real-life situation until an accident victim was brought into the emergency room during her volunteer shift. Unable to be revived, the patient’s death became a valuable lesson for Wallin, who is planning to become a neonatologist (a doctor or nurse for newborn infants).

“I learned about what to do after a death: who to inform, how to inform them, what to do with the person, how to prep him or her for their family, and ways to explain it to the family,” she recalled. “That first time, I was thinking, ‘I wonder how I will react to this.’ I’ve interviewed and spoken with many doctors and nurses. They say the first time you see someone die is different for everyone. Some people react strongly and some are fine. I was surprised that I was not uncomfortable. I felt emotional, but not overwhelmed, uncomfortable or disgusted. I was intrigued, but had sympathy for the family, too.”

Wallin’s work at the hospital has not only turned out to be a life-changing experience but has developed into part of her high school education. She and four other Ridgway Secondary School students enrolled in a new career exploration course during the fall semester, and are receiving academic credit, grades and teacher guidance on their chosen internships.

“I just think this course has been a really great thing. I’ve appreciated being able to do it. An internship helps you get an idea of whether the job is a good fit for you,” she said. “Say someone else had been in my position, gone to volunteer at the hospital, seen a ton of bleeding, and not handled it or even passed out. It’s way better to know now in high school than later in life.”

Her workdays include everything from cleaning and making beds to answering phones, delivering paperwork, doing inventory of medical supplies and transporting patients throughout the hospital. Some days she may hold a part of a patient’s body to help doctors or nurses during procedures, and other days she gets to give stickers to children who end up in the emergency room.

“I’ve learned so much just being in the work environment. It’s so much more than just actual medical knowledge,” she said. “I love it. It’s so fun. It’s probably my favorite part of the week.”

In addition to weekly hours at her work site, she and Ridgway’s other student interns spend time in class each week, journaling, researching about their chosen profession and reporting on what they are learning. To continue the internship for a second semester, each student must come up with ways to deepen their experiences and add new skills and knowledge beyond what they learned in the first semester. They will be presenting their plans for the next semester to the school board during Thursday night’s meeting (Dec. 13) from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Ridgway Elementary School.

“This whole scenario is a great example of what we hoped to do as a school board. We set the plate and put up options and support the kids and administration in going out and making something happen,” board member Tim Taplin said.

The school district has been trying to develop more career workforce training for many years, Taplin explained. This year’s school administration came up with a plan for the career exploration course that was originally going to start in Spring 2019, but enough students were interested to start it this fall.

Part of the school and students’ goals for the internships is to provide them with real-life experiences to put on their resumes and college applications. Taplin emphasizes that these work experiences are not alternatives to college readiness, but can provide a jumpstart for students planning for either path: higher education or jobs and apprenticeships post-high school. 

His son, Colby, is a senior at Ridgway who is taking the course. 

“I did not sit with him to help him come up with the idea,” the father said. “He knew he wanted to work with some teachers. He had to come up with a plan and convince the principal, course advisor and teachers that he could make it work. This is an opportunity for kids that have a passion for something to find a way to get engaged and find a way to integrate it into their education.”

This fall, Colby has been an assistant teacher and a substitute occasionally for 7th and 8th grade band, high school astronomy, AP (advanced placement) U.S. history and 6th grade, as well as being a chaperone on a middle school camping trip to Silverton. History teacher Craig Spearman said Colby has “a natural knack for teaching. He became more comfortable as the semester progressed. I gradually increased his responsibilities, and his initiative and willingness to jump in increased as the semester went on. His confidence definitely improved.”

Classroom and student management were key skills that he worked on. He even learned how to reprimand students for their bad behavior, which “was very uncomfortable at first, but after a few times, I got used to it,” he said. 

As part of his course research, he interviewed Spearman and Brian Nelson, the astronomy teacher, and they told him “about what matters when going to get an education license and going to college. That was super helpful. It helped me pick the colleges I plan to go to. It doesn’t really matter where I get my license as long as I get it. Then I can continue online for my master’s degree while teaching. That improves the pay grade. Those kinds of tips, as well as tips on how to save money and different apps to keep track of money, showed me how I can make being a teacher more viable economically,” he said.

Overall, his internship experience has “been really wonderful,” and made him “even more interested in teaching. 

“Now I know what it’s like. It’s not a blind idea,” he added. “It’s been one of the better things I’ve done in my school career, and I’d hate for other students to be deprived of this amazing opportunity.”

Finn Doherty, also in 12th grade, agreed. She worked with Telluride-based Pinhead Institute, mainly supervising a Lego Robotics team from the Ouray middle and elementary schools.

“I do think that it’s super important for schools to support kids when they have a future career opportunity they want to explore. I’m grateful we can design these types of experiences,” Doherty said. 

She became interested in how nonprofits are run and how they can affect communities after a summer Pinhead internship at the California State University Long Beach Shark Lab. While her current goal is to go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career, possibly computer science or technology, she also wants to volunteer for a nonprofit.

In addition to helping the Ouray team code and build robots, she helped organize a Pinhead event and teach an after-school class in Telluride studying brains. She plans to organize a science night at Ridgway Elementary School, where Colby will teach.

A “huge part” of what she learned was how to organize activities. She also learned how it’s “really important to have colleagues to discuss ideas with, and how that diversity can create better ideas or improve on your own,” she said. “I was pretty surprised at how focused a person has to be to run a nonprofit. It takes a lot of focus and energy.”

Her classmate, junior Lydia Van Arsdell, chose a very different internship, working in the kitchen of Provisions at the Barbershop, a European-style café. Always interested in cooking, the internship has been “a very cool and valuable experience, where I had the opportunity to learn skills from a professional chef that I can carry with me for the rest of my life,” Van Arsdell said.

Her duties ranged from doing dishes to cooking and lots of kitchen prep work. She gained a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a restaurant, deal with employees and customers, and handle the pressure of the business. 

Provisions owner Amie Minnick said, “It’s a beautiful thing when you can expose a curious young mind to the ins and outs of the culinary world or any kind of trade profession. And in doing so, it was a great reminder to myself of how much I’ve learned about this industry and how far I’ve come (with lots of bumps and bruises), but still with love in my heart for what I do.

“I think Lydia has seen the best and the worst of me at times, but I truly believe that her exposure to this industry will have made a lifelong impression on her ... for good or bad. … I will miss her when she goes … immensely.”

Manette Steele, the president of Mighty Mini Horse Therapy Program, is equally impressed and appreciative of her intern, Emily Bernstein. Not only did the 12th grader help groom and wash the horses in preparation for visits to senior citizens, children, the disabled and others, but she brought more visibility to the program in the schools and community. She also planned a workday for four volunteers from the school.

“Emily is an outstanding student who takes the initiative and really follows through. She gives me hope for the future,” Steele said.

Bernstein, who is interested in a career in sports communication, chose her internship location because she has a miniature horse of her own and wanted to see whether she would like hers to be a therapy horse in the future. In addition to horse care, she learned about how nonprofits work and the impact of the nonprofit’s activities on those who get to visit with the horses.

“The program is changing the world, one pat at a time — its catch phrase is true,” Bernstein explained. “Even when I have a bad day at school, being with the mini horses is great for me.”

Part of preparing for the horse visits is dressing them up in costumes, which help spark conversations and get the elders and others to “come out of their shells” to interact with the horses. Organizing costumes and dressing horses is one of her jobs. 

“I definitely didn’t think I would be organizing tutus for miniature horses when I started planning my internship. I didn’t expect to want to be as involved as I have been,” she said, laughing. “Besides all I have learned, the joy of all of the people I meet through this experience pays more than money.”