Editor’s Note: In today’s post, our own Public Allies Fellow for the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center – Mary Reid Munford – introduces you to Eagle Rock’s latest graduates: Diego Matamoros, Grace Huang, Tiana Matos, and Tehya Brown.
Growing up in Miami, Diego Matamoros switched schools often. When he finally settled on a local public high school, he didn’t do well. “I was never one of those straight A students,” Diego said. “I was always getting Cs and constantly getting in fights with my mom about it.”
Diego was making music, skateboarding, hanging out with friends, and progressively doing more drugs. “The more I used drugs recreationally,” Diego explained, “the more anxiety I would have in school, and the more I would rationalize not being a good student and blame it on the school.”
His counselor recommended Diego enroll in an Outward Bound course, and although it provided a good break and school credit, he slipped back into his old habits when he got home. After his mom caught him skipping school during his senior year, she pulled him out.
It was at that time that he considered attending Eagle Rock, an option first suggested by his Outward Bound instructors. He was already 18 years old and two weeks away from earning his GED, but after a “great conversation” with our own director of students, Philbert Smith, Diego began seriously considering a move across the country to enroll and complete his high school education.
The transition to life at Eagle Rock was far from seamless, Diego admitted. He suffered several setbacks, including leaving early one trimester due to medical issues and then skipping the next. In the end, he credits the supportive community and the help of key figures like his houseparent, Jesse Tovar, who also serves as Eagle Rock’s health and wellness counselor. “Jesse has always been the most supportive figure,” Diego said. “He’s helped guide me, helped me maneuver through the system — but he’s also helped me remain myself while going through this transformation.”
It was during an internship over breaks from Eagle Rock that Diego learned about aromatherapy and living a holistic lifestyle. And he says he might return to this work in the future. He also credits music as one way he’s learned greater life skills. “Living according to Eagle Rock’s ‘Eight Plus Five Equals Ten’ philosophy… it emphasizes the super important things,” Diego explained. “One of them for me is nurturing being an artist. I do that by playing music. It’s a whole kind of way to practice the techniques of life – carefulness, listening…”
Diego plans to combine these interests next year as he applies to colleges in New England and the Midwest to learn more about music therapy.
Grace Huang was 11 years old when an American family adopted her. After spending her childhood in La Paz, Bolivia, she flew across the globe to start a new life in Boston, Mass. She attended school there until two years ago, opting to make another move — this time across the country to boarding school in Colorado.
Grace transferred to Eagle Rock for a more individualized and less distracting learning environment than her home school could offer. “I came to Eagle Rock to have a place to be able to learn at my pace and really understand what I’m learning,” she explained, “And also to really focus on personal and academic growth instead of everything else.”
As with most students, the transition to communal living was the most challenging aspect of Grace’s move. “The hardest part was having to be in a community with people I’m not used to or want to be around,” she said.
After six trimesters spent attending courses and living on campus at Eagle Rock, Grace cites her academic learning as one of the most powerful ways she has grown here. “Teachers have forced me to understand and prove what I’m talking about, not just spit back my learnings,” she said. “You really have to understand what you’re talking about.”
Serving as a leader for Kitchen Patrol coaxed Grace out of her comfort zone and allowed her unique leadership style to shine. A normally reserved person, she encouraged and organized fellow students as they prepared meals and cleaned the kitchen. “This experience reinforced my knowledge that I don’t like to be the top boss,” she said. “I like to work next to people, to do their jobs with them or stay behind to help them. I don’t like giving orders.”
Upon graduation, Grace will stay and work in Estes Park for a while. She would like to move to Fort Collins, Colo., or back to Boston for further education, and eventually she hopes to return to Bolivia to give back to her home country.
Hailing from the Bronx, Tiana Matos grew up in an apartment with her mother, who worked at a school. “I stopped going to school because my mom worked and was never home,” she admitted. “I started messing up in high school really early and felt like I needed to change.”
Tiana found out about Eagle Rock through a friend. As a parent coordinator, Tiana’s mother was also familiar with the school. Once she got to Eagle Rock, she was immediately surprised by the intensity of the Wilderness course. “Coming here, I didn’t know we were going into the wilderness,” she said. “That was my biggest accomplishment… Every time I complete something big like that, I think of how many kids don’t get that opportunity and how lucky I am.”
Her mentor was Sandra, a veteran student — also from the Bronx — who helped her get through the early days. “I just really connected with her,” Tiana explained. “She helped me learn what this place is about. Her mentor was my house brother. They had it together, and they really stuck out in the community. Even now, she checks in. She tells me: ‘I’m proud of you for making it through!’”
Like Grace, Tiana saw the diversity and tight community here at Eagle Rock as a challenge that encouraged personal growth. “I am proud of being able to communicate with others,” she said. “Back at home, I only stuck with the people I could relate to – people I knew were like me and did things like me.”
She also sees Service Learning as a valuable part of her experience. “I feel like every time I do service, I learn more about myself and other people I wouldn’t see myself talking to — ever. To some people, I’m a shy person.” She participated in a class that volunteered for the Bolder Boulder race. After helping out at that event, racers involved in the Bolder Boulder offered to help them out for their own 10k finale. “We volunteered for them, then they volunteered for us,” she said.
When she leaves Eagle Rock this December, Tiana plans to enjoy some quality time with her mom in New York. She is applying to college and is interested in studying forensic science or criminal justice. In the meantime, she is also interested in doing disaster relief with AmeriCorps.
Unlike the other three graduates hailing from across the United States, Tehya Brown grew up in Boulder, which is just down the road from us here in Estes Park, Colo. She said she was always a pretty good student, but once she got into high school, she “slipped into social patterns and scenes that were not very supportive,” including activities that lead to “using drugs and alcohol pretty heavily.”
To address her issues, Tehya attended Fire Mountain, a residential treatment center for teens in Boulder. When she left there, she knew she couldn’t return to her old school. “I realized that going back to my old school would be counterproductive,” she said.
Aaron Huey, her mentor and the co-founder of Fire Mountain, referred her to Eagle Rock. Adult role models continued to play a large role as Tehya joined Aspen House under the guidance of houseparents Janet Johnson and Beth Ellis. “I hate the term ‘houseparents’ because they are way more than that,” she said. “They always believed in me; they’ve never given up on me. I’m sure there were times when we all thought ‘this is not gonna work,’ but they’ve always seen my potential and helped me to see it when I couldn’t. They’ve pushed me in ways I’ve never thought possible in terms of relationships and communication. It is always out of love, no matter what is said or done.”
Tehya credits several of her Eagle Rock courses for furthering her writing skills. Between her research course, “Myth and Poetry” class, Presentation of Learning (POL) packets, reflections, and proposals, she has, in her own words, “grown a lot as a writer– more developed all around, not just creative.”
Right after graduating from Eagle Rock, Tehya wants to travel abroad and do service work. She is also applying to college, hoping to start somewhere on the East Coast in the fall of 2014. Eager to study general psychology and equine sciences, she also wants to get her addiction counseling certificate. “This is gearing me toward my goal of opening a center or program for teen girls – a combo of what Eagle Rock and what Fire Mountain has offered me,” she said.
“This place has given me more than I ever imagined,” she continues. “When we get up on the hearth the first time here, we say we want our diploma… in reality this has given me so much more.”