ARAPAHOE, Colo. — Lauren Parke is like any model high school student: She has signed up for 18 credit hours, holds down a part- time job and is news editor for her school paper.
Occasionally, however, she slips out of her home in the early morning hours to roam with a bunch of other teenagers.
It’s not that she’s hiding something from her parents. She is probably out searching for a lost child or an Alzheimer’s patient who has wandered away from safety.
Parke is a member of the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol, the only volunteer search-and-rescue team in the country staffed by high school students between the ages of 13 and 18.
“I’ve always been interested in emergency medicine. So when a friend told me about the organization, I signed up,” said Parke, 18, who has been a member for more than a year.
“Honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve done with my life,” she said.
Students are trained to track lost people, provide emergency care in the wilderness, and perform avalanche and water rescues. Every member is on call 24 hours a day.
The group also assists public-safety agencies, such as the Littleton Fire Department, with victim’s assistance, fires, crime scenes and accidents one to two times a week.
“We don’t go in burning buildings,” Parke said. “But we help unroll the fire hose, secure the perimeter, make sure victims are comfortable and have a hug available when they need it.”
About 15 adults, mainly graduates of the patrol, help the team with administrative duties and some search operations, but the students are in charge in the field.
“Sometimes the adult volunteers will assist our teenagers depending on the call we get and the maturity levels of our teen leaders,” said Justin Kanaber, 27, the director of operations, who has been with the patrol for 12 years.
About 45 new recruits will go through a rigorous training program this summer.
“It’s very physically strenuous work, which will weed a lot of new recruits out,” Parke said. “I’d say, of those who make it, about 80 to 90 percent have a future in emergency services of some sort.”
No pay, but good experience
The idea to staff a search-and-rescue team entirely of teens first came from civic leader Sam Bush in 1957. The pilot program started at Littleton High School.
The volunteers are not paid, but Parke said the organization provides an excellent opportunity for insight into possible emergency-related careers before graduation.
Mackenzie Merrick, 18, saw firsthand what can happen to a hiker who wanders off from a group, ill-prepared for the elements.
“Two years ago, a guy went missing around the Mount of the Holy Cross,” Merrick said. “When our team found him, he had been drinking marsh water, which was causing him to have hallucinations.
“It was definitely interesting to see the dynamics of what could happen,” she said. “The hiker was having visions of Satan.”
Parke admits she is a busy girl.
“When a pager goes off in the middle of the night, I am initially like, ‘Are you kidding me,”‘ she said. “But once I see it’s a kid missing or an Alzheimer’s patient out at night wearing only a robe, I get excited to help, throw on some clothes and get running, because the sooner you find a person, the better.”