Stepping Stones provides mentoring, community service and a ‘third space’ for Carbondale youth |

Stepping Stones provides mentoring, community service and a ‘third space’ for Carbondale youth

Carla Jean Whitley
In this April 2018 file photo, Jolea Haroutunian asks a receptionist questions during a group scavenger hunt around Carbondale with her peers and mentors in the Stepping Stones program.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent file

By the numbers

Total youth participation: 6,286

Total youth drop-ins: 5,482

Experiential learning participants: 804

Average daily drop-in visits: 32

Unique individual participants: 279

Off-site programming/experiential learning activities: 63

Meals served: 4,623

Source: Stepping Stones’ 2017 annual report

There are plenty of ways for a kid to spend spring break. But if it hadn’t been for Stepping Stones, Jolea Haroutunian would have likely been at home, staring at her phone.

Instead, the 11-year-old’s break was filled with scavenger hunts, art activities and other adventures.

“I love how we can come here and interact with other people, and do fun things like this,” she said.

Stepping Stones is a youth mentoring program, founded in 2014 by Aspen resident and nurse Kristen Nelson, that operates drop-in centers in Carbondale. In the past year, the organization expanded its efforts from teens only to include youth ages 10 to 21. All of its services are free to participants.

“Kids are frequently told, ‘This is what you will do and when,’ ” said Executive Director Kyle Crawley. “We’re all about giving them a voice.”

The organization worked with 279 children last year, and about 80 of its current participants are enrolled in the mentoring program. Some of those students have a particular need, and others become mentees simply because they spend so much time with Stepping Stones. The rest of the kids are drop-ins, who might come by the middle-school or teen centers to play music and board games, create art or hang out with friends.

The teen drop-in center also includes showers, laundry facilities and a boutique from which children can purchase stylish clothes, earned by completing chores. Both centers are filled with couches and lounge areas, as well as spaces where smaller groups might gather.

“It’s very much a family culture,” Crawley said.

The drop-in centers, which serve dinner nightly, provide a sort of “third space” for the students, Crawley said, a neutral place that’s neither home nor school. Sometimes students will hear direction from their parents, but it doesn’t sink in until they hear the message again from a neutral adult.

Student interests dictate the programming. For example, Crawley said a structural engineer has met with a student interested in that career path. Stepping Stones staff listens to the student’s interests and seek community connections to bring those activities to life. Members of the staff are also bilingual.

The family focus extends to parents, too. If they need help filing for health benefits, for example, the staff is available.

Student need, and input from the family advisory board, has shaped the organization at every level. That’s how the team set drop-in center hours and why the group partners with a local salon for free haircuts every Monday.

“Our product is relationships,” said Assistant Director Jonathan Greener.

Stepping Stones partners with local entities in other ways, as well.

It has relationships with YouthZone, the Roaring Fork Schools-based Family Resource Centers and area school counselors. They work together to ensure students are well cared for.

Each student in the mentoring program is assigned to an adult for accountability purposes. The adult ensures the kid receives one-on-one attention, but the students are welcome to meet with any staff member with whom they’re comfortable. The team members are trained in age-appropriate development, and most of them have a social work or other nonprofit background.

The mentoring relationships are an opportunity for mutual growth, Greener said. Both mentor and mentee set goals, and they talk through them together.

“I’m not here to fix you. You’re a human being, not a project,” he said.

Stepping Stones founder Nelson explains on the organization’s website [] that, after becoming a registered nurse and volunteering with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, she decided to dedicate herself to “the idea that every child, given the right tools, can and will succeed.”

“Having strong adult leadership is crucial to healthy youth development and future success,” she says. “Founding Stepping Stones is the culmination of my commitment to empower youth as they become happy, healthy, self-sufficient adults.”

The demand for services is greater than what Stepping Stones can provide. The middle-school center is a storefront rental, and has a long waiting list despite its relatively recent addition. As the organization looks ahead, it hopes to purchase permanent space. Its current capital campaign has raised about $1 million so far, Crawley said.

The group also hopes to expand throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, with centers that are able to respond to the needs in other communities. Regardless of when that happens, the heart of the effort will remain:

“The lens, the medium, the mode, it’s all about mentoring,” Greener said.

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