LEADING BY EXAMPLE
How our work/life program near Yosemite is helping young adults prepare for their futures
By Lee Zimmerman
As we celebrate the recent arrival of our 500th intern into our behind-the scenes youth employment program, I find myself reflecting on our 20+ year journey pioneering social purpose enterprise and designing a business from scratch to be a force for good.
As co-owner of Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge & Spa, two family-oriented resorts at Yosemite National Park, I live for the moments that bring people together. That’s precisely why, on a recent rainy Tuesday, I was happy to see guests in full vacation mode.
At Rush Creek, the newer of our lodges, families were snuggled together on tufted leather couches, sipping on warm apple cider while they collaborated on an art project with recycled materials. In the game room, a dad and his daughter were locked in a fierce shuffleboard competition with two new friends from another country. In the tavern, old friends were catching up over pints of craft beer—laughing, reminiscing, promising to meet up again here next year.
The scene reflected why we built Rush Creek and Evergreen – to create destinations within a destination that offer as much family-friendly fun at the lodges as can be had exploring Yosemite.
While guests at Rush Creek and Evergreen Lodge are enjoying a rich and memorable experience with us, behind the scenes, our onsite Youth Employment Program is offering a different type of rich and memorable experience to the 50+ high-potential young adults we serve each year.
Back in 2000, we set out to create a business with a built-in, fully self-funded youth employment program and to prove that we could make it sustainable for the long-term. We are thrilled to say that the model has worked on all fronts, and we hope our efforts inspire others to replicate our model and truly leverage the power of businesses to do good in the world.
We work with young, under-resourced adults ages 18-24 who lack the support and guidance available to those of greater means. We focus on enabling successful transitions into adulthood and independence. The research is clear that if young adults don’t get traction at this critical stage of their lives, they often never do, resulting in a lifetime of individual challenges and a high cost to society.
The young adults in our program work as full-time paid seasonal interns. They leave the city and their normal lives behind and come to live and work in the mountains. Not only do they learn a specific trade, they live in a supportive community and enjoy outdoor experiences that challenge, motivate and inspire them as they plan for a successful life ahead.
Our Youth Program maximizes impact through a multi-layered design that includes full-time work & job skills training, life-changing outdoor recreation experiences, group & individualized social service support, living in a supportive community, and matched savings grants. It is this combination of elements that we have refined over the past 20 years that enable us to help change the trajectory of the lives of those we serve.
Back in 2001 when Brian and I purchased the sleepy, seasonal, undersized Evergreen Lodge, we wanted to expand and transform the place into an iconic tourist destination with a self-sustaining, innovative youth program – an enterprise in service to both our lodging guests and our youth interns.
We partnered with the wonderful, early social enterprise non-profit, Juma Ventures, to help us craft a thoughtful program that could really help disadvantaged SF Bay Area teens and former foster youth get the stability and support needed to transition successfully into adult life. The former Juma Ventures CEO sits on our board of directors to this day.
We served just 4 youth interns our first year, making mistakes and fine tuning the program while we were small, and building the program into the fabric of our organization. Over the years, we’ve gradually grown our team to 5 onsite social service staff that serve over 50 interns each year at our two lodges.
We were fortunate to partner with a host of forward-thinking investors who saw the value of putting their money to work to simultaneously achieve both financial and social returns. And we designed the investment for the long term so we would not be forced to sell the lodges and risk losing our Youth Program.
Our innovative enterprise and Youth Program successes generated buzz, and in 2006, B Lab approached and asked us to be among the first companies to become Certified B Corporations, which are for-profit companies certified for their social and environmental performance. In 2007 we were certified along with 81 other companies as founding B Corporations. We’ve proudly been a Certified B Corp ever since, including receiving their ‘Best for the World’ honor in 2015. We’ve excitedly watched the movement grow to thousands of companies, from Ben & Jerry’s to Patagonia to Seventh Generation to Allbirds, all using business as a force for good.
Our Youth Program provides job skills training immersion with first-hand experience in the areas of retail, food & beverage, recreation, housekeeping, maintenance and front desk. Our youth interns by design make up a fraction of our total staff, with our non-intern team providing operational expertise and stability while serving as role models. And we’ve created a structured employee activities & wellness program to build community and foster connections between all staff members.
Our full-time social service team provides life skills training and one-on-one support to help our interns prepare for life ahead and address anything that is holding them back. Our social service team also exposes our youth interns to life-changing outdoor experiences, from hikes to backpacking to river rafting. For many interns, camping in the California wilderness is the first time they’ve spent the night in a tent. It is transformative, and through the process, trust and connections are developed that enable our effectiveness in working with and supporting interns.
Our long-time Youth Program Director, Matt Dunn, notes the program is as much about life as it is about work, commenting, “some interns just make it a few weeks, while some stay for five years, and everyone who attends says their life was positively impacted. Some go on to work in national parks or return home to new jobs or to continue their education, and a few who don’t complete the program may return later for a second chance if they can prove they understand the barriers that interfered with their progress.” Matt notes that the intern’s housing experience onsite is like being in a college dorm, where one prepares for adulthood, learning independence and how to be a positive member of a community.
Matt and his team meet with our young adult interns weekly to learn and practice life skills including communication, resume building, job search, healthy lifestyle, and more. We run them through mock job interviews. We also work to introduce interns to different industries and career paths, providing them with as much background as possible about the work world so they can make informed decisions about where they’d like to go when their time with us is done.
We also connect those in need to mental health services. “It’s not just housing and work, and it’s not just soft skills,” Matt says. “We take a holistic approach to helping these young people prepare for a successful life.”
We achieve this in two ways. First, Matt and his team meet with our interns weekly to help educate them about financial issues from banking to budgeting. We have them open savings accounts, and we teach them how to plan for the future. We require them to save part of each paycheck during their time with us, modeling important long-term behavior and giving them financial security when they transition from the lodges.
We create an additional savings incentive through our investor-funded Stepping Stone grant program. Our Stepping Stone grants are matched savings programs that provide up to $1,000 for graduating interns, giving an additional $1 for every $2 interns save. In the past few years, our interns have received 100 grants for nearly $100,000. We have recently introduced a similar Post-Graduate Grant Program to provide additional support to intern graduates who demonstrate continued progress in pursuing their post-lodge goals. We and our investors replenish the grant pool each year by directing a portion of our distributions into it, so the program is self-sustaining.
In 2023 alone, our 50 interns earned over $400,000 and saved over $90,000, before the additional $30,000 they received in matching Stepping Stone grants. Since program inception, our interns have earned over $3.5 million in wages and saved over $700,000 dollars. That’s an impressive savings rate of 20% of their gross wages. Through this experience, interns have learned that if they are financially disciplined, even on a modest income they can build meaningful assets and provide themselves a cushion to stay stable during life’s transitions.
While our interns are generally grateful in the moment for the time they spend as part of our Youth Program, their appreciation builds over time as they gain perspective on their experience and how it helped build momentum in their lives and expand their vision of life’s possibilities.
Roy Edwards, for instance, joined the team as an intern in our Facilities Department in 2004, just a few months after his mother died. He was one of the first four interns to ever graduate. Roy came to Evergreen Lodge via Job Corps with no experience and an eagerness to learn; we hired him, then trained him to perform an important role at the lodge.
“I didn’t have any expectations; I was ready to start something new because I knew I had to get my life together,” Roy said, looking back. “I was ready for anything to take care of myself and whatever else moving forward.”
Today, Roy manages an apartment complex in Oakland, California and works part time for Kaiser Permanente. He said the Youth Program provided him with the foundational skills to get there.
“The structure I learned [at Evergreen] really built everything; when I came back I went straight to work,” he said. “Being up there taught me so much. That program was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I never expected anything like this,” she told the Union-Democrat in 2022. “I was never exposed to camping [or] canoeing.”
Neta still works at Evergreen and Rush Creek—now as a full-time employee. Currently, she is the banquet captain in charge of weddings and events. She also helped develop the first lodge-run recycling program for the business, since such services aren’t available in our remote area. Johnson said she feels “fortunate and grateful” to have developed “lifelong friendships” in the community.
This video offers heartfelt perspective from one of our graduates:
We are excited to once again expand our Youth Program next summer as we begin managing our third property, the brand new, gorgeous Firefall Ranch (https://www.firefallranch.com/) located on Highway 120 between Groveland and Rush Creek Lodge.
We also look forward to inspiring and working with others across industries to build social impact into their businesses and leverage the potential of our social enterprise model.
Our work is more rewarding as a result of our foundational youth social program, and our guests can feel good knowing that, by staying with us, they are helping young people to gain experience and skills that they would not otherwise have access to and build momentum toward successful lives.
You can learn more about our Youth Program Social Mission and Environmental initiatives here: https://www.evergreenlodge.com/social-mission/