Ernie Rodriguez leads by example.
Serving as a role model for kids as a camp counselor and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski instructor is just the beginning. He takes his passion for people to new heights by volunteering for Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that affords veterans and motivated first responders the opportunity to get boots on the ground in areas affected by disasters and humanitarian crises.
Like many in the valley, Rodriguez’s story didn’t start in the Tetons. A Los Angeles native, he fled the city’s tiring traffic and hot pavement for the mountains in 1995.
“I was just tired of everything that goes along with the city,” he said.
After hopping around the Mountain West for a time, Rodriguez made his way to Jackson Hole 16 years ago, fell in love with the Tetons’ jagged peaks, settled down and never looked back.
During the summers, Rodriguez works as a camp counselor for Grand Adventure Camp and bicycling (his favorite activity; this summer he put 1,150 miles on his bike, using it for his daily commute). For the past 14 winters, he has taught skiing. But his chase for uplifting others doesn’t stop at Teton Village. After hearing about Team Rubicon, while watching sports last year, he knew immediately that he wanted in.
Since Rodriguez’s jobs revolve around Jackson’s seasonal tourism, he figured he would make the best of his free time and “do as much good as he can,” he said.
He found himself researching Team Rubicon’s mission, taking online FEMA courses and completing his training in Estes Park, Colorado, all with the intention of boarding a plane to volunteer in an area of the country that had been struck by disaster.
Rubicon workers volunteer for eight full days. The majority of its volunteers served in the armed forces, so the program operates on military time — and work begins early.
“You’re hauling a lot of debris and knocking down houses that have been torn up by wind or treefall,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard work for six days, so [Team Rubicon] prefers you go home and, as they like to call it, ‘change your socks’ or get your body in check, because it does take a physical and mental toll.”
Each long day’s work is followed by a hearty dinner, some cold beers, a nightly debrief and a bonding activity. Learning about his team members’ far-off lives and “the kind of people they are” has helped Rodriguez form enduring friendships.
“Ending your day on a solid note, telling stories with like-minded people [who have] good hearts and are all trying to make a difference in someone’s life moves you and always hits home,” Rodriguez said.
When the coronavirus reached the United States in early March, Team Rubicon, like all other aspects of society, was forced to suspend all in-person programming. It started getting back into the swing of things in August, Rodriguez recalled, but not without strict safety protocols.
But not even a deadly pandemic prevented Rodriguez from digging back into his volunteer work.
“I can sit around Jackson and do my normal stuff, shop at the grocery store, but COVID can catch you anywhere,” Rodriguez said. “So I decided that, instead of sitting around, I should get back out and make a difference.”
Having returned to the valley after multiple hurricane relief trips to the Gulf Coast — specifically to Texas, Louisiana and Alabama — where he witnessed destruction beyond belief, Rodriguez feels lucky to have a support network in Jackson Hole.
“I am fortunate,” he said. “We should try to use that work with ‘thankful,’ especially with Thanksgiving coming up. I was fortunate enough to have the time and flexibility to go out there and make a difference.”
With the ski season on the horizon, Rodriguez is thankful that he came back from his most recent volunteer trip to a snow-blanketed landscape. While back in Jackson teaching ski school, he has managed to keep in touch with his Rubicon friends: They are quasi-pen pals, sending each other small tokens of gratitude and relics from their homes whenever they can. Recently, Rodriguez sent a buddy in New Mexico a few old license plates and received “the best damn pretzels” he’s ever had from a fellow volunteer in North Dakota.
“It’s become like a family — a tribe,” Rodriguez said.
In addition to maintaining contact with his operation friends, Rodriguez has also made unbreakable bonds with the people he has helped on his Rubicon trips.
“There’s a few places where I’ve gotten a couple, ‘Whenever you come back here, you’ve got a place to lay your head,’” he said.
After months packed to the brim with volunteer work, Rodriguez has no intention of slowing down.
“I’ve already planned on dedicating my spring to training opportunities and my fall to disaster relief, because it seems like that’s when most disasters — like flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — are hitting our nation,” he said. “I’m going to give as much free time as I can to the organization because I believe so strongly in it.”
Team Rubicon’s motto, “Built to Serve,” hits the nail on the head when describing Rodriguez. Although he relishes Jackson’s ski season, he’s itching to spread joy on his next volunteer journey with Team Rubicon.