Vail area teenagers build work ethic, confidence through SOS Outreach’s career development program

Five Eagle County high school students participate in paid summer apprenticeships through SOS Outreach's career development program

Alan Irigoyen, now a junior at Vail Mountain School, learned all about customer service during his apprenticeship at the Lionshead Ticket Office.
Courtesy Photo

This summer, five local high school students were given the opportunity to participate in paid apprenticeships as part of SOS Outreach’s Career Development Program. In its third year, the program helps connect students with opportunities to explore careers in the outdoors and hospitality industries.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit received a $45,000 grant from the state to grow the career development program in Colorado. Between Denver and Eagle County, there were 10 total students — half of which were in Eagle County — that had opportunities with companies like Vail Resorts, evo, Sonnenalp Hotel, Epic Mountain Gear, Oberalp and Optic Nerve.

“By nurturing their passion for the outdoors and providing them with paid apprenticeships, we are setting them on a trajectory towards fulfilling careers and lifelong personal growth,” said Eagle County Program Manager Courtney Walters in a press release.

The seven-week program has two parts. The first two weeks are spent in a classroom, learning and developing professional skills. These first weeks prepare the students for the second part: a five-week apprenticeship. Students interview for the positions with participating employers — Vail Resorts and Sonnenalp this summer in Eagle County — and are then matched with an apprenticeship. From there, they spend the next five weeks working at least 30 hours in a paid position.

Learning teamwork, building confidence

Courtesy Photo
Ahead of her sophomore year at Vail Christian, Rosa Vela spent the summer gaining valuable personal and professional skills at Sonnenalp Hotel’s Treff Café.
Courtesy Photo

Local 15-year-old Rosa Vela is starting her sophomore year at Vail Christian High School and spent a portion of her summer working at Sonnenalp’s Treff Café in Vail. Vela has been engaged with SOS Outreach and its programs since she was in third or fourth grade. For her, the nonprofit has brought her community and confidence.

Support Local Journalism

“Everybody’s open-minded and they make sure it’s a safe place for you to be, and so you can just have fun up on the mountain,” Vela said.

So, when Vela first heard about the organization’s career development program, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to see what is coming up later on in life for me because I am getting older and I’m getting to the point where I have to get a job and focus on two things: school and the job. So I would have to know how to balance those two things,” she said, adding that this summer gave her a sneak peek into just that.

The first two weeks of skills training taught her a lot — including how to build a resume and how to do your taxes. Then, she interviewed with Sonnenalp and was given the position alongside another local student.

This was the Sonnenalp Hotel’s first year participating in the SOS program. Erin Ruskey, the assistant director of human resources at the Sonnenalp Hotel, said the business saw it as an opportunity to not only be involved in the community but also to “recruit young locals while giving them some of the tools they might need for college or their next job.”

Want the news to come to you? Get the top stories in your inbox every morning. Sign up here:

Ruskey said that while the two students started a bit shy and nervous, they had a great attitude and quickly “brought new energy and perspective to the Treff Café.”

“I walked into Treff a week later they were talking with guests, running the cash register, and of course making some great cups of coffee. It was so great to see them come out of their shells so quickly since the hospitality industry can be intimidating,” Ruskey said.

For Vela, the biggest lesson she learned was about teamwork. At first, this lesson came as the café welcomed her and helped teach her.

“They were there to help me and guide me,” Vela said.

Over time, the experience also taught Vela what it takes to balance leadership — something she discovered she’s naturally inclined to — with teamwork.

“They really helped me balance between taking leadership but not being the boss of people,” Vela said. “It taught me how to be more of a team player than a team boss, by learning how to be a good team member and how to be understanding.”

As Vela explores other careers in the future — currently, she’s considering becoming a lawyer  — she sees the value of the social, leadership, and problem-solving skills she gained this summer. In the immediate future, she’s also definitely considering returning to Sonnenalp’s café next summer.

Through SOS Outreach and her summer apprenticeship, Vela said, above all, she has learned that “when new opportunities come to you, take them even though it’s out of your comfort zone because it could definitely help you build character and be a better person.”

A valuable experience

The other local employer is Vail Resorts, which has participated in the SOS program in the state since 2021, and locally since it started in Eagle County in 2022. Will Rutenber, the senior manager of product sales and services at Vail Mountain, said the department has had three total participants since then. Joining the program with its nonprofit partner and community was an “easy decision,” Rutenber recalled.

“We’re able to create additional connections between the resort and the career development program participants, and give them a window into what it’s like to be part of the team that runs the mountain,” he said. “A few of our program participants have expressed interest in coming back to work with us during the school breaks over the winter, which helps us meet our staffing goals while providing them with additional opportunities to learn about our business and continue to develop their skills in the workplace.”

This summer, 16-year-old Alan Irigoyen worked at the Lionshead Ticket Office as part of the program. Irigoyen is a junior at Vail Mountain School, where he attends on a full scholarship. Similarly to Vela, he has been participating in SOS programs since he was in fourth grade. When he heard about the career development program, he said he “immediately wanted to participate.”

“SOS was going to teach you how to get and do everything you need to get a job, and at the same time, it will pay you to be there,” Irigoyen said. “I would have thought you had to pay for classes on work ethics.”

During the first two weeks, he learned how to write a resume for future jobs and make a good impression in an interview.

Rutenber commented that there is an extreme value in this two-week intensive with SOS Outreach, as the students show up with an impressive amount of preparedness and professionalism.

“All of the employees we have as part of this program are very engaged and eager to learn more about what we do and how they can help out,” Rutenber said.

Working at the ticket office this summer was Irigoyen’s first job, and throughout the summer, his favorite part was the people.

“Everyone there is really lovely and incredibly friendly,” Irigoyen said.

Through his experience, he recalled learning what it takes to have excellent customer service — including how to empathize with customers and give them the best service possible.

“During the summer, I discovered that any job can be entertaining and enjoyable when you have people you can trust, talk to and have fun with while working,” Irigoyen said. “I found that you can help others in your job by talking to them and having fun in small ways like one of my coworkers did to me; whenever there would be no customers, she would pull out a crossword puzzle book and share it with me so that I wouldn’t get bored.”

Rutenber said that through the program, they see “a ton of growth” in participants over the course of the summer.

“We’ve seen increasing levels of confidence as they’re exposed to new situations and gain experience working with guests to meet their needs,” he added. “They’ve all become integrated members of our team, and have built relationships and connections with their co-workers that I’m sure will continue past this summer.”

To learn more about SOS Outreach and its program, visit

Support Local Journalism