Youngsters gobble up second chances with YouthZone program |

Youngsters gobble up second chances with YouthZone program

John GardnerGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Evan Rather’s appearance is typical of a high school senior.His stringy, unkempt blond hair hides the honesty behind his blue eyes. A worn T-shirt and camouflage shorts that hit mid-shin are reflective of his free-spirited personality.He’s a rebel. That may be what he wants you to think. A point that may have been true before an unmentioned act landed him in a pickle with the law.”It was just a mistake,” he said, revealing a thankful grin. “I drank sitting down and then I stood up. I screwed up.”That’s how most of the kids involved with YouthZone end up there. A majority of them are spared other sentences and given a chance at YouthZone that can tailor a diversion program more appropriate for the individual kid’s needs. It’s proved a useful tool for 9th Judicial District Deputy District Attorney Tony Hershey, who estimates between 50 and 75 percent of first-time juvenile offenders that come through the court are ordered to complete a YouthZone diversion program instead of the court formally filing charges in the case.”It’s an intervention,” Hershey said. “Most of these are not the most serious crimes. If you can catch them and get to them early enough then you have a chance at correcting the issues. YouthZone can tailor a program to what they need.”YouthZone is an independent organization that helps families deal with youth issues such as drug and alcohol abuse. Or, as in Evan’s case, they assist the courts in devising an alternative program to help the child rather than punish.Diversion is a Colorado Statute that counties across the state approach differently in its implementation. As for Hershey, he’s thankful that Garfield County has YouthZone to help out.”I don’t know what I would do without it,” Hershey said. “I would be spending more time trying to come up with alternative sentences to formal filings.”

YouthZone case manager Sarah Woods has met with Evan every other week at the YouthZone building in Glenwood Springs for the past six months. Evan could think of better ways to spend his time. His honesty is reflected in his disposition.”At first I was like, ‘This sucks,'” he said. “I already knew that I screwed up, and I didn’t want to come here and be told over and over again that I did.” Woods smiles when she recognizes his humor. He expected it to be a program that only focuses on the crime, but that’s far from what he found.”It’s not like you just come here, sit down and they tell you that you screwed up,” Evan admitted. “After a month or so I realized Sarah was pretty cool. I look forward to meeting with her.”YouthZone caseworkers like Woods are allowed flexibility in structuring a program that focuses on the individual, not just the crime they may have committed. Sarah’s ability to structure a program to Evan specifically included such things like an alcohol abuse class, useful public service as well as simple things like spending quality time with his mother.

He cooked dinner for her last weekend.”That’s the good part of the diversion program. I get to design a contract to the individual and not the crime,” Woods said.Woods took Evan to the park to play fetch with her dog during their first meeting to create a friendship with him.”It’s apparent that we have to connect on something that interests them,” Sarah said.In Woods’ experience, some youths take the program more seriously than others. Those who do take it seriously usually do pretty well during and after the program. Those who don’t, don’t.

In most cases kids get one chance, according to Hershey.”It’s a one-time deal. If you don’t complete it and screw up, you don’t get it again,” Hershey said.Despite his humor, Evan is one of the serious ones.”He’s really taken the most out of it,” Woods said. YouthZone is not only for youths that have been in trouble with the law. They take on anyone who comes to them with an issue, be it a parent that needs help in dealing with their teen, or a teen that just needs help in dealing with whatever issues they may have.”Parents are calling more and more asking for assistance before their kids get into trouble,” said YouthZone Executive Director Debbie Wilde. “Sometimes it’s just to check in to see if there’s something more there.”Weather or not Evan came to YouthZone, his honesty is part of him. It’s a part that made his YouthZone time successful, because he approached the program in his honest manner, according to Woods. And in all honesty, he admitted, that if it weren’t for the incident at the heart of his sentence, he would probably still be up to his old antics.”If it weren’t part of my sentence, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.Woods agreed saying that approximately 85 percent of the youths she works with are in the diversion program by court order and not of their own accord.

“We do offer services for people that aren’t in the program,” Woods said. “But it is more difficult without the court saying that they have to do this.”Harsh reality even for a 17-year-old to admit. But his honesty ensures the genuine claim that he’s learned a lot through the program.”Definitely,” he said, minus the grin. “I’m happy. It’s changed my view on everything for sure.”Contact John Gardner: 384-9114jgardner@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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