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Community focus turns to youths

Tim Mutrie

The well-being of young people in the Roaring Fork Valley has been foremost on the minds many in the community lately.

Spurred by the alleged involvement of at least 12 young Aspen men in a local crime spree, more than a dozen meetings, presentations and forums – all focused on youth – have been held locally.

Last week, three gatherings in Aspen probed at the youth issue. Federal Drug Enforcement Agency representative Omar Aleman spoke on “Back to the Future: Crime, Drugs and Youth,” as part of the Aspen Youth Center-Aspen Education Foundation’s Fall Education Series.

Dr. Peter Benson, the pioneer of “40 assets” model of child development, gave the keynote address at the Given Institute’s Youth Summit, and the Aspen Elementary School Parent Advisory Group met to discuss “Parent Responsibility.”

Earlier in the fall, the Aspen Institute hosted two discussions – a community round-table discussion about youths as well as a forum about the city’s curfew. And, the city of Aspen held a youth neighborhood meeting at the high school to initiate talks about launching a local youth council modeled after a successful program in Boulder.

This Friday, the adult adviser of the “Boulder Youth Opportunities Program” will be in Aspen to field questions about the program and offer advice about starting a similar one here.

At last week’s Youth Summit, Benson, of the Search Institute, concluded a lecture by paraphrasing Colin Powell: “America, we can choose to build kids, or we can choose to build prisons.”

The summit, billed as a “community program to mobilize the assets initiative,” drew representatives from various valley organizations – the Aspen Institute, Aspen Youth Center, Aspen Education Foundation, city of Aspen, Aspen School District, Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, and Pitkin County Health and Human Services, as well as local physicians and religious officials. They convened with the goal of divining a unified youth agenda around Benson’s asset model. A matter of assets Benson’s assets program has been launched in 500 cities nationally, and in area communities from Aspen to Parachute. It draws a direct correlation between the number of “assets” youths possess with their success as maturing adults. Similarly, youths lacking in assets are much more likely to engage in “high-risk” activities.

The child development model is based on 40 internal and external assets, grouped into categories of support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity. Nationally, youths possess an average of 18.5 assets, while valley youths average 19 assets.

“This may be the first time all the leaders from the different organizations and agencies in the valley are sitting in the same room together,” noted the Given Institute’s Dr. Bruce Paton, prefacing Benson’s remarks last Wednesday.

But ironically, Benson’s message was aimed at trying to involve more of the community in the raising of children, and fewer youth agencies and organizations.

“I am here to try and re-energize you to your own power to help with the developmental journey of kids,” Benson began. “This is a culture that is far off-base from raising its kids … it’s a society that’s inattentive. It’s a programmatic culture and the language that dominates so often is the naming and counting of problems. We largely use the language of deficit in talking about kids.”

Benson rattled off organizations that focus on perceived youth problems – alcohol and substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and so on – programs which in his view “fuel civic disengagement” and shun “humanness” in the raising of kids. Though the programs are an essential facet of helping at-risk or troubled youths, they also let adults avoid those issues because professionals presumably have it covered.

As one mother remarked during last Thursday’s Parent Advisory Group discussion: “I always get a feeling that teenagers want their own space; if we smell smoke we’re not supposed to notice.”

Facilitated by Principal Barb Pitchford, Aspen Elementary School counselor Doreen Goldyn and parent Laura Kornasiewicz, the advisory group’s 25 or so participants revisited the subject of “Parent Responsibility.”

The group, which meets monthly, had taken up the topic last month and continued the discussion last week.

Goldyn prefaced the discussion by referencing Benson’s assets program, evidence that now the model may be catching on in the community.

In addition, the Aspen School District is in the process of launching an asset-building program known as “Character Counts,” which focuses on six pillars of character – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

“We’re going to start using that common terminology and we’re going to integrate those pillars into our system, into everything that we do,” said Superintendent Tom Farrell.

Benson argued Wednesday that in order to reverse problems among youths, community members, teachers, coaches, neighbors, religious congregation members and others must rededicate themselves as humans to the youngsters in their lives.

Benson advocated “creating developmentally attentive communities, beyond professionals,” and thereby “raising kids with a shared vision.”

“This work is about the awakening of your people and the infusion of these principles into the community,” he said, to create “true intergenerational communities.”


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