YouthZone column: YZ is not a punishment — It’s an opportunity

When talking to youth in our valley, I am always interested to hear what they know about YouthZone. Nine times out of 10, they respond that it’s where you go when you get in trouble. It’s more accurate to say YouthZone is where youth go to get out of trouble.

YouthZone is hope. YouthZone is encouragement. YouthZone is restoration. YouthZone is possibilities. YouthZone is not a punishment.

Everyone who works at YouthZone realizes that people who come to them for services are looking for help out of a problem. All who come through the doors of YouthZone are immediately greeted by our friendly and smiling Mary Bess in Glenwood Springs or our warm-hearted Linda in Rifle. This initial contact is the first step to relieve anxiety or any feeling of shame a child or parent may carry in with them.

Our youth and parents next meet with one of our non-judgmental and highly-trained youth advocates. While the advocate takes time to know each young person, they also spend time with the whole family to explain that everyone makes mistakes and those mistakes do not define who we are now or who we are for the rest of our lives.

Parents are reminded, in this time of anxiety, that it is better that kids make mistakes while they are still at home. This allows for parents to have conversations with their child that they may never have had if they would not have been caught in a bad situation.

Youth Advocates listen with an open mind and open heart to hear and understand the underlying content of each young person’s story. The YouthZone team also relies on our evidence-based survey completed by each child who comes in for its services, because those survey results identify a young person’s strengths and struggles.

Based on conversations with the youth and their parents, as well as the outcomes on the survey, the advocate creates a contract for the young client. The contract is designed to allow the child to repair any harm that was done to the community, to the parents and, most importantly, to himself or herself.

Strength-based contracts are designed to include positive activities through a variety of YouthZone programs that allow teens to learn and grow.

• Friday/Saturday Service is a once-a-month supervised community service project that may include helping at CARE, Habitat for Humanity, trail building with RFOV, or art classes.

• Monthly life skills groups address a variety of topics including self-advocacy, overcoming obstacles and decision making.

• Restorative Justice allows youth to intentionally repair any harm that has been done and uses the support of their parents and a compassionate and understanding Restorative Justice team.

• Individual counseling is available from highly-trained and trauma-informed counselors who meet each child with empathy and honesty.

• Youth coaching provides an individualized option to see a friendly face in a safe and positive space where youth can express their wants or needs.

• Substance use support teaches the harms of using substances and allows for real discussions about why that person is choosing to use them.

YouthZone staff respects every young client who walks through our doors. Throughout the entire engagement, our entire team holds a youth with integrity. We show up — at court, at check-ins, at groups, during a crisis — we are there.

Families also deserve respect and opportunity through YouthZone. They can take advantage of parent consults that offer support for their concerns and questions. Parenting classes provide pathways that help after kids get in trouble or lay groundwork to keep a youngster moving in a good direction. Because children succeed when parents are involved, YouthZone relies on their participation.

If you are struggling as a young person or a parent, you do not have to be involved with the courts to participate with YouthZone. We encourage anyone needing support or guidance to reach out to us. We are here to help. Punishment is a harsh and punitive word that is not any part of YouthZone’s mission.

Jennifer Hawks serves as a Youth Advocate II at YouthZone. She studied human relations at the University of Oklahoma and has more than 12 years of experience in the field. She has been working at YouthZone since 2008.

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