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YouthZone: Be more business-minded

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Even as YouthZone executive director Debbie Wilde took time last week to discuss the organization’s resiliency in the face of drastic funding cuts, the agency received word of yet another cutback.

A $60,000 federal contract won’t be forthcoming.

“That means we are not available as a basic runaway youth center,” Wilde said. “It eliminates a huge piece of our services.”

Founded in 1976, YouthZone offers a variety of services to youths and their families, from Aspen to Parachute. But, like many nonprofit agencies, the organization is weathering an economic crunch.

Its ability to cope is good news for worried parents who turn to YouthZone for help with a troubled teen and for juveniles who get the chance to right a wrong through an alternative avenue to the criminal court system.

Still, it hasn’t been easy. The organization is making do with less, affecting the number of individuals it is able to serve and to what degree.

On the other hand, YouthZone may emerge as a stronger organization with a more diverse funding base.

Three years ago, state contracts made up 53 percent of YouthZone’s $1.1 million budget. The organization employed the equivalent of 19 full-time employees and staffed six offices. The fees it charged for its services amounted to about 6 percent of its revenues.

YouthZone began its current fiscal year in July with an $892,000 budget that anticipates 15 percent of its revenues from the state and 28 percent from client fees, though Wilde fears the latter projection may be too high. The payroll covers 14.5 full-time staffers who run five offices.

The agency had already recognized the need to reduce its reliance on state money when $251,000 in formerly dependable state contracts disappeared in July 2002.

“Almost 20 percent of our budget was cut in two weeks’ time,” Wilde said.

The result: YouthZone’s highly regarded “diversion” program for juveniles charged with crimes was eliminated in Garfield County. Through the program, the agency’s counselors work with the criminal justice system to find alternative punishment, education and treatment for young offenders who might otherwise face conviction and, possibly, incarceration.

The program would have disappeared in Pitkin County, as well, but voters there approved a new property tax a year ago to help fund health and human-services programs.

YouthZone’s caseload, which had reflected its work with about 1,500 youths annually, dropped by about 450 cases, according to Wilde.

“It came not from a reduction in need. It came from a reduction in services that we were able to provide,” she said.

YouthZone hopes to restore the diversion program in Garfield County, if $31,000 from the state comes through and the county agrees to put up $40,000 in its 2004 budget.

Local governments and communities now need to play a larger role to retain YouthZone’s services.

Earlier this month, for example, the organization closed its Meeker office because the community couldn’t come up with the funds to help keep it running.

“The message here is, it’s become important for the local governments to participate,” Wilde said. “It wasn’t happening in Rio Blanco County.”

YouthZone needs more local support, she said, but the agency has also responded internally to the financial challenges it faces – freezing salaries, trimming staff through attrition, and creating an endowment to ensure the agency’s long-term viability.

Its goal was to raise $100,000 in 2003 to start the endowment; $70,000 has been collected thus far from foundations and private contributions. “Founding member” status comes with a $1,200 donation.

“What became very clear is we need to be driving our train a little bit more,” Wilde said. “We’ve taken some proactive steps. The ultimate goal is to retain the core of YouthZone and as much of the program as we can.”

If there is a silver lining to YouthZone’s struggles, it’s that the organization has realized its own resiliency, and has been forced to operate in a more business-minded fashion. Its staffers – and the communities it serves – have come to realize how important its work is, Wilde added.

On the other hand, the agency’s ability to tailor its services to each individual youngster’s needs and assess the outcome of its efforts to ensure those needs were met has suffered, she conceded.

“It’s a little shakier now – whether that happens for every kid,” Wilde said.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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