Giving Thought: Supporting youth in accessing their potential

Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.
Allison Alexander/Courtesy photo

One in three LGBTQIA+ individuals self-report having a disability, compared to one in four non-LGBTQIA+ individuals, according to research from the Human Rights Campaign. Just over two years ago, Cooks Inclusive Company recognized this important opportunity and this intersectionality is at the core of the work in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Founded by executive director Kaleb Cook, who identifies as both queer and disabled, Cook Inclusive Company (CIC) provides therapeutic recreation and vocational services to our local neurodivergent, queer, and disabled communities. The organization grew from what he identified as a gap in our region post-COVID. He heard from local businesses and the community that employees were becoming harder to come by and that positions were being left unfilled. From years of working in the disabled community, he knew that there were youth available who could fill those roles with proper training and support. Additionally, from his own experience, he knew that when disabled, neurodivergent, or queer youth have support, their lives take on new meaning, and their trajectories shift.

With support from the state of Colorado, CIC serves as a Direct Vocation Vendor providing a range of services to youth ages 15 to 24. Services include resume support, job placement, job coaching, and accommodation support. Job coaches work with youth to identify areas of interest, identify barriers for thriving in the workplace, and support their transition into the workforce. Additionally, they offer support to organizations to create more inclusive workplaces and help identify areas of opportunity to cultivate an environment for disabled, neurodivergent, or LGBTQIA+ youth to thrive through offering Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) training.

Cook shared that our region has a large population of youth who have been traditionally underserved and that the intersection of multiple identities creates “a disproportionate deficit in accessing employment.” The organization creates opportunities for both youth and local businesses. Interns placed through CIC are paid through the Direct Vocation program and come at no cost to the employer. Ultimately, these placements can lead to long-term employment and improved career outcomes – benefiting both the business and individual.

One student was referred to the organization during the second semester of their senior year; previously, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to hold a job and did not have a plan for life post-graduation. In meeting with the student, Cook learned they were passionate about aviation. After contacting the Pitkin County Airport, they placed the student in an internship. With support from a job coach, this student was able to integrate successfully into the airport team for the remainder of the school year and through the summer. Now the student is enrolled in a four year college degree program in aviation and has plans to work at the airport during summers with the ultimate goal of returning to Aspen to start their career at the airport.

When a young person is referred to the organization, job coaches often find that they do not have a direction for their future or the skills necessary to create a plan or follow through. Job coaches work with the students starting from their home to help them identify what is needed for a successful day at work, helping to problem solve and plan, and building necessary skills that many take for granted. They also come to the job site to support both the student and the organization. Over time, confidence is built and a sense of purpose often emerges.

In addition to CIC’s work in job placement and transition services, they offer therapeutic recreation. These are recreational activities designed to support under-represented communities, build a sense of community and belonging, and to stay connected with fellow community members in the Roaring Fork Valley. Through collaborations with AspenOUT, PFLAG of Roaring Fork, and other organizations they offer recreational events like “Queers and Coffee” and “Climbing and Conversation.” Additionally, CIC organized the first LGBTQIA+ Pride event in Glenwood Springs this summer, which welcomed over 2,500 people.

With an awareness that language is often a barrier for access and inclusion, all services and activities are offered with American Sign Language and Spanish language translation support.

After taking their first client in January of 2021, CIC now serves roughly 30 clients at a time. They now have four, full-time employees and are currently hiring two additional employees – all from the community the organization serves. Looking to the future, CIC hopes to expand their relationships from two local high schools to include all districts from Aspen to Parachute to help more students with their post-high school plans.

CIC fills a critically needed gap in our community that ultimately supports both individuals and businesses. By creating an organization that honors and celebrates the intersectionality of identities that many youth have, they are supporting a more equitable future for residents of our community who have historically been excluded and marginalized.