As of April 11, YouthZone has officially opened its new Glenwood Springs location, which will create opportunities for the downvalley nonprofit to continue to help youth from Aspen to Parachute.
YouthZone is a place for kids to see that there is hope in life. Working primarily with adolescents in the juvenile justice system, Valley locals may not be aware of the variety of services YouthZone offers or its unique history.
“We started in 1976 in Rifle as ‘Let’s Work It Out,’ a grassroots effort by parents in Rifle whose kids came to them and said, ‘You know what, I’m really worried about my friend,’” Executive Director Lori Mueller says. “We almost immediately were in Glenwood Springs, then moved up to Aspen 35 years ago.”
YouthZone is unique among the other 800 nonprofits in the Roaring Fork Valley. While most start upvalley in Aspen and work their way down, YouthZone started downvalley and worked its way up to where it is now.
“I never thought of it as unusual because it’s our history. It could be — and this is just my thinking — there are resources upvalley to start a nonprofit and then work their way down,” Mueller says. “I think we’re unique in that it really was a grassroots effort. The families and parents involved 43 years ago are still involved. We have a long history and a lot of people who believe in the work we do, and I can truly say we are a community-based organization.”
YouthZone rented a little house from the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) for a dollar a year for 30 years to start out.
“The little house that we had was great in that it was a fairly non-threatening place to go, but it was very small and very old. We wanted and needed a space where, when kids walk in, it doesn’t feel like a government agency, or cold or institutional. We want kids and their families to feel like they’re walking into our arms when they come through the doors. We want them to know there’s hope and think ‘I’m not a horrible person and this is an okay place to be. And I’ll be okay.’”
When the RFSD and city of Glenwood Springs decided to do a land-swap, so that the city will eventually own the building YouthZone was in previously, that became their opportunity to move into a new space. Now located in the former Glenwood Springs Library building on 9th Street, YouthZone has the space and the opportunity to continue helping Valley youth as well as their families.
YouthZone’s philosophy is that a kid is not their behavior.
“When kids have depression, or anxiety, or they’re just stressed, there’s something going on that they need help with and we can offer that help,” Mueller says. “When families come to us, they’re not shouting from the rooftops because their stories are hard. People don’t always want to have to talk and admit they need help. Our society stigmatizes that and doesn’t allow for, or forgive, mistakes. These are normal people who come to us. These are families just like yours and mine that are trying to raise kids, and we all have our struggles. There are struggles, real struggles out there, but what anyone is dealing with is not beyond help. It’s about ‘Yeah I made a mistake. Now I need to repair that.’ They could say, ‘We don’t know what to do.’ and we can say ‘We can help.’”
To do that, YouthZone has a unique screening process.
“There’s not another nonprofit that has a screening like we do,” Mueller says. “We do a good job and can do what we do because of our evaluation. It’s 60 questions and every youth that comes to us takes that survey, which looks at five different areas of their life: problem solving and optimism, substance use, self-deprecation, school/community engagement and delinquency and aggression. We also look at trauma, their trauma history. Based on those scores, they either have assets in one of those areas or all five, or it’s a risk area. So we base any of our interactions or interventions with that youth based on that survey.”
Then, every three years, YouthZone collects that data, which goes to an independent evaluator who evaluates its programs, to help answer the question of “What does this young person and their family need?”
The future now is restorative justice.
“Restorative justice has a lot of different levels,” Mueller says. “There are restorative practices, which schools are taking on in terms of discipline in the classroom and how they’re handling how to help kids who have been victimized or harm has been done to them. Restorative philosophies, which we’ve seen with companies and their employees and how to be less punitive and more repairing of harm [to avoid creating more]. What it says essentially is that these kids are not bad kids, or troubled kids. These aren’t bad families.”
If you’re wondering why a program like YouthZone may be necessary in our Valley, there’s a reason.
“Our Valley has a high suicide rate and our Valley has the highest rate of substance abuse among young people in the country,” Mueller says. “More kids are using here than anywhere else, and that’s what YouthZone is here for. That’s not something the Valley wants to shout about, but it’s still there. The reality is, we live in paradise, but it comes with rough edges. Part of it is we’re a resort valley that has the haves and the haves nots, and we have permissive culture around substance use, so we don’t see it being as harmful as it is.”
YouthZone applies restorative philosophies and practices with high-end restorative circles. Experts in the field who have been trained in these situations can sit down with a youth and their parents and their community to discuss ways to repair harm.
“We’ve increased our referrals to restorative justice by 100 percent,” Mueller says. “We went last year from having a part-time person to two full-time people. It’s growing and that’s awesome. Our court referrals used to be 68 percent of those we help. That number now is 50 percent from the courts and 50 percent from the community. So we’re really doing what our vision is, which is to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system.”
YouthZone has been around a long time. From diversion to case management, counseling to restorative justice, YouthZone is there to help, and it can continue to do so now more than ever in its new Glenwood Springs location.
“A location starts to define what you can and can’t do, I’m realizing, after 30 years,” Mueller says. “This building represents a transition in the way we work with kids and the opportunities that we have. It’s not the building, it’s how we re-create what we’re doing with kids in a way that’s relevant for youth. How can we use this facility to make it easier for kids to get that access to those more non-traditional, more integrated services. This building cannot only house that, but we can also see ourselves differently.”
Whether you or someone you know could benefit from YouthZone’s services or if you would like to donate, please visit youthzone.com.