Community profile: Lori Mueller reflects on 30-plus years working to better the lives of area youth
YouthZone executive director ready to move on later this year from place she’s ’grown up’
A recent encounter with one of the many area teenagers YouthZone has taken under its wing was affirmation for Lori Mueller that, 44 years strong, the youth services organization she has led for the past nine years has an impact.
“I was in the Rifle office just before Christmas, and there was a young man in the corner on his laptop doing his homework,” Mueller recalled. “He said, ‘this is the best place I can go, because I know I can get help if I need it. And, you have internet.’”
It was one of those “ah-ha” moments that come every so often working with youth, she said.
“Here’s someone who knew he’d be welcome here, where all he had to do was walk down the hallway if he needed some help … we were doing tutoring without doing formal tutoring. It was just a safe place for him to hang out and do his homework.”
It’s those moments that reassure Mueller that her work with at-risk and troubled youth over the past three decades with YouthZone has made a difference.
And that, after 15 straight years in a leadership role with the organization — nine as executive director and six as program director — it’s time to move on.
Mueller announced this past fall that she will be leaving YouthZone in the coming year, after a new executive director is found and trained to take over; ideally, by summer, she said.
“One of my main goals as executive director was to transition us into this building,” Mueller said of the converted former library building at Ninth and Blake in downtown Glenwood Springs that now serves as the YouthZone headquarters and primary program space.
After an extensive capital campaign and renovation project, the new facility opened in March 2019. It greatly expanded YouthZone’s ability to conduct its various youth and family counseling, restorative justice and substance abuse sessions, without the scheduling challenges of the past.
And, it was a place the youth and parents who find themselves needing to rely on YouthZone’s services could call home.
“It just feels so good for people to walk in these doors — like there really is hope,” Mueller said. “It’s a place where they can feel like they’re being honored and respected, and that there is hope for them.”
That in turn gives Mueller the confidence that the time is right to pass the baton to someone new.
“I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do with YouthZone, and it’s always good to have new blood, new thinking and new energy,” she said. “We have an incredible team of committed, passionate people here who are doing such an amazing job. It’s more than just a youth program … it’s really changing the lives of families.”
‘Growing up’ at YouthZone
Mueller’s time and efforts with YouthZone far exceed her most recent job titles.
She and her husband, Joe, moved to Garfield County in 1986, and at the age of 23 she immediately began working in the Pals mentoring program for what then was known as Garfield Youth Services.
Mueller worked with the organization’s first drug prevention program, called Project Charlie, out of the Rifle office, has been a case manager and taught parenting classes for several years.
The obligations of raising a family — the Muellers have three now-grown children, Rachel, Keith and Kimberly — meant she wasn’t always working full time. But when she did, “I’ve always come back to YouthZone,” she said.
When the previous longtime executive director, Debbie Wilde, moved on to new endeavors after 22 years in the position in 2012, Mueller moved up from her program director role to take the helm.
At the time, YouthZone was beginning to seriously look for a permanent home to replace the school district-owned facility they had been operating out of near Glenwood Springs Elementary School.
A major capital campaign made the project to move into the former library building a reality.
“That was a big undertaking that needed to get completed and took a lot of our time and energy,” Mueller said.
The result? “I just love seeing kids succeed, and parents being able to take a deep breath and know that things are going to be OK.”
These past several years have also helped Mueller grow, both personally and professionally.
“I grew up at YouthZone,” she said. “I owe a lot to YouthZone because YouthZone has given back to me professionally — my understanding of how to build culture and collaborate with other organizations, and how to work with a board — and because of what YouthZone has given to the community.”
She describes her eventual separation from the daily ins and outs of the organization as “a little bit like Velcro — I know it’s time for me to move on and do something different, but it’s bittersweet, for sure.”
Finding someone to fill Mueller’s shoes will be a challenge, said longtime YouthZone board member Martha Robinson.
“I appreciate what she wants to do, but it will be a tremendous loss,” Robinson said. “Lori has built a strong base of employees who have the skill, passion and compassion for the job — all qualities Lori has.”
Added YouthZone Clinical Director Tina Olson, “Having a strong leader to be able to steer everybody in the same direction is really important.
“Lori is a one-of-kind leader, and she will be sorely missed,” Olson said. “But we’re all really happy for her at same time. She has put a lot of things in place that will secure the continued success for YouthZone, and our job is to continue with the many things she started.”
Adapting during pandemic
Like every other nonprofit organization and business, YouthZone found itself scrambling to continue to provide its critical services when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020.
“Right off the bat, our staff kicked into gear and didn’t miss a beat in adapting to reach our kids,” Mueller said.
Counseling sessions and parenting classes switched to an online format. And, YouthZone began offering a series of webinars and free parent consultations recognizing that the need for youth crisis prevention and intervention would be even greater.
“What has changed is that kids have higher needs right now, and their situations have grown much more complex,” she explained.
Not only are there new stresses for youth with the impacts on schools, extracurricular activities and social events, even the juvenile justice system now has a huge backlog of cases to deal with.
“One result is that there is a lot more work being done directly for the families that we are working with,” Mueller said.
But, that conversation with the teenager in Rifle was encouraging, she said.
“One of the things I asked him was how things were going for him with COVID,” Mueller said. “He just said, it is what it is and that it’s all going to be fine, and we just need to put our masks on and get on with things. For me, it was really great to hear him say that.”
It also became apparent that kids are coping, but are nonetheless greatly impacted by the world around them, during YouthZone’s recent YZ Ascent fundraiser, which this year featured a youth film festival.
Participating youth produced short films about everything from COVID to the past year’s social unrest around racial equity and inclusion, and how that’s impacted their lives.
“Those films just spoke to the isolation and the sadness that they feel for not being able to see their friends, and not having that school community, and how valuable that is now that it’s not as available,” Mueller said.
There is also a lot of concern about how that will manifest itself in the months and years to come.
“For sure, we are all very concerned that there are students who are falling through the cracks,” Mueller said. “Schools, law enforcement, parents … we’re all worried about that.”
Alcohol use by teenagers is up. Mental health concerns are real. And, students are falling behind academically and in their social and emotional development, she acknowledged.
In addition to the free parent consultations, YouthZone has also empowered its two youth board members, Magdalena Palomaras and Anna Vasquez, to help identify some of the problems and potential solutions to reach youth.
“One of their jobs is to go back to their schools and talk to the counselors and to students, and to make a video letting their peers know they can come to us for help,” Mueller said.
• Settled into its new Glenwood Springs home at the old Glenwood library location;
• Working on a collaborative agreement with BATT (Battlement to Bells Anti-Trafficking Taskforce) for use of the basement space in the Glenwood building to provide resources for victims of sexual trafficking;
• Seen an increased success rate for young people moving out of the criminal justice system, as reflected in their evaluation process;
• Just recently, YouthZone has set up a Safe Space for LGBTQ teens through its Restorative Justice program.
YouthZone is also looking to hire another youth advocate position to help handle the expected increase in referrals, she said.
Financially, the organization also came through the past year on solid ground, Mueller said.
When a couple of grants were lost, donors stepped up to go above and beyond, she said. The Ascent fundraiser was a success, and YouthZone exceeded its Colorado Gives year-end goal by $55,000.
A goal with the new facility has also been to be able to lease out the basement portion of the building to another organization. Although things were stalled this past year with the pandemic, YouthZone is working out details for the Battlement to the Bells Anti-Trafficking Task Force (BATT) to take over that space.
“This will eventually help YouthZone to be very sustainable financially, and it’s a great partnership,” Mueller said.
Mueller said her decision to leave YouthZone is definitely not retirement.
“I want to continue being involved, and making a difference,” she said.
What that will be remains to be seen, she said.
“But I’ll always be involved with YouthZone in some way,” Mueller said.
The YouthZone board is currently conducting a national search to find a new executive director, and expects to be doing interviews soon.
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