Helping youth find their way, 35 years and counting
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – If it weren’t for running a stop sign as a new 16-year-old driver, Share Lee might never have stopped to look at a small flier posted on a stairway that ended up changing her life for the better.
“I was having to take a defensive driving course, and on the way I kept passing this flier on the stairs talking about Garfield Youth Services,” Lee, now 41 and living in the Denver area with a successful career, recalls today.
“I had been in some trouble, nothing big, but went through some previous counseling to learn how to stay out of trouble,” Lee said.
“But I had some work still to do,” she said.
Her problems, which might have eventually led to big trouble, were much deeper. But she didn’t know how to deal with it, at least not until she found some help through that youth organization, now known as YouthZone, she had read about.
One day, all by herself, she walked through the door and said, “I need some help.”
“They set me up with [counselor] Cindy Skinner, and we just started talking,” Lee said.
What eventually came out was that Lee, then a student at Rifle High School, had been sexually abused by a family member when she was younger.
There were also feelings of abandonment from her parents’ divorce when she was only 4, and questions about her own sexuality as she matured.
“I had pretty much blocked it all out,” she said. “But as we started to build up trust, I was able to start talking about it.”
What at first had been more outward ways of trying to get her parents’ attention, like drinking, getting in trouble and exhibiting anorexic behavior, had become more inward. She started cutting herself, which she could more easily cover up and keep to herself.
Through her counseling sessions, though, she was able to start working it out.
“She [Skinner] was able to explain to me that all the stuff I was doing was not going to change my past, and that I had to change myself and fix my own future,” Lee said. “I was able to work through all that and get better at school, and I quit cutting.”
She went on to be named Youth of the Year, graduated from high school and went on to trade school.
Today, she has her life in order and has a successful career designing roof trusses for Chase Lumber. She also works as chief operating officer for Primary Cares Inc., a nonprofit business offering health prevention services.
Lee is just one of the many success stories at YouthZone, which this year has been celebrating its 35th anniversary of providing prevention, intervention, mentoring and other types of services for teens, preteens and their families in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout Garfield County.
“It all started with a community of people saying that they wanted some sort of safety net for our children,” said Debbie Wilde, who has been the executive director of the YouthZone organization since 1989.
It began when a group of concerned parents from Rifle, including Bob and Charlene Collett and Marilyn (McKee) Hall, started talking over coffee about how they could better support their own kids, she said.
“Not counseling or mental health necessarily, but just something to help kids get onto a positive track,” Wilde said.
“It was more about a strength-based, coaching model, rather than a medical model. … How can we walk alongside you and make sure your life is good, and that you become responsible citizens.”
Originally founded as Let’s Work It Out Inc. in 1976, the nonprofit organization formed by that group of parents evolved to become Garfield Youth Services a few years later. The name was changed to YouthZone in 2000, as the organization had expanded to include offices in Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties as well.
But the mission has always been the same, to provide resources for youth and their families to get through the difficult adolescent years and live positive, productive lives.
“I was able to emotionally rebuild myself, and it’s something I’ve been able to apply all my life,” Lee says, looking back on her experience with YouthZone. “I feel very lucky that I got up the courage to walk in their door and get the help I needed.”
Early in its existence, the organization also obtained a juvenile diversion grant from the state of Colorado to help provide alternatives for local youth who were in the juvenile court system.
To this day, YouthZone is the lead referral organization for the 9th Judicial District, offering classes dealing with alcohol and drug abuse and coordinating with the probation department to provide other counseling services.
“It’s a way to get a hold of some of these kids earlier, and keep them from getting stuck in the system,” Wilde said. “By having an alternative, we have kept a lot of kids out of that track, and worked to build a different picture for their future.”
While there is a strong criminal justice piece to what YouthZone does, the primary focus is on the vast majority of youth who just need some preventative measures to help them stay focused.
Among YouthZone’s services is the Teen Titans program, which prepares young people to serve on nonprofit boards in the community and teaches them leadership skills.
Then there’s the popular Pals Program, which pairs teen and adult mentors with younger children who just need a good role model.
Mark Feinsinger of Carbondale had an early experience with YouthZone when he was a teenager himself. As part of a community service assignment after he had a small run-in with the police, he had to paint the walkway for the handicapped entrance at the YouthZone building, he recalled.
“I knew they were a great organization back then,” he said. “I don’t even remember what it was I got in trouble for, but it was a good learning experience for me.”
For the past six years, Feinsinger has been a mentor in the Pals Program, and is now matched with a 10-year-old boy named Roberto Cruz.
“We meet once every two weeks and have a lot of fun going to movies, playing Wii , taking the dog for a walk, frisbee golf, basketball …,” Feinsinger said. “We also try to do things for the community.”
The Pals Program includes about 50 matches, said Patty Schaffner, who coordinates the program. About half the mentors are adults, and the other half are teens.
“We probably have about 15 or 20 children waiting to be matched, so we’re always in need of more mentors,” she said.
“It’s a program that increases kids’ self-esteem and confidence level, and their relationship skills with peers and family,” Schaffner said.
Feinsinger said the learning definitely goes both ways.
“We learn from each other,” he said. “I appreciate this program being available in the community, and I wish more people would get involved.”
With a paid staff today of 18, about 200 volunteers and an annual budget of more than $1 million, YouthZone is an institution.
“My dream is maybe to someday have the ‘YouthZone institute,'” Wilde said.
She occasionally gets calls from around the country from people asking where they can find YouthZone in their community. While there are similar youth organizations and programs elsewhere, YouthZone is unique to this region, she said.
“What we do was all invented right here, which is a real statement for our community,” she said. “We pretty much started it from scratch.”
YouthZone has talked about marketing its model to other communities and for use in other existing organizations.
“We would like to move forward in helping other communities have the same kind of impact we’ve had here,” Wilde said. “We’re not really looking to start a franchise, but I think we could license our process to use in other places.”
YouthZone relies on funding from private donors, as well as local government support and a variety of fundraisers. Among them is the annual Kiss-n-Squeal competition, where contestants raise donations to try to win the right to kiss a pig at the Garfield County Fair every August.
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