Alexander: Slow and steady expansion for Buddy Program
Mentorship has been identified as such a critical protector for youth mental health and outcomes that January is recognized as National Mentoring Month. Experts in the field of youth development repeatedly point out that having a trusted adult can significantly change the trajectory of a child’s life.
Since 1973, the local non-profit Buddy Program has been connecting adult volunteers with local children. The organization was truly a grassroots effort from its inception. It was started by Gregg Anderson, a local mental-health professional who had been a Big Brother in college before moving to Aspen. He started by pairing friends with the sons of single mothers in Aspen. In 1991, the first executive director was hired to create a more formal structure.
In 1994, the program expanded its reach to the midvalley, and in 2010, it went further connecting youth with mentors in Carbondale. Until 2016, YouthZone, another youth-serving non-profit, offered a mentoring program reaching from Carbondale into Glenwood Spring but realized it needed to shift its service to focus on youth intervention.
Jami Hayes, executive director of YouthZone, approached Buddy Program’s board in 2016 asking them to consider taking their proven model into Glenwood Springs to cover the newly created gap.
Buddy Program credits its long-term success and impact on its intentional expansion and thoughtful connection to community, so it was decided in 2019 that the next logical step to expansion would be into Glenwood Springs. In 2021, the board committed to an impact campaign to launch this expansion effort in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration this year.
Now the Buddy Program is celebrating 50 years of serving our community, honoring their lessons learned, and seeking community support to bring their proven model to youth and families in Glenwood Springs.
The critical need for mentorship in Glenwood Springs has been underscored by the pandemic’s impact on housing. Many working parents are now facing longer commutes and adding on second or third jobs, leaving children without trusted adults to turn to for guidance and support.
Currently, according to Lindsay Lofaro, executive director of Buddy Program, there are fewer preventative programs for youth in Glenwood Springs than you may find in Aspen or Basalt.
Buddy Program serves children as young as 6, but the majority of Little Buddies (youth mentees) are 8 to 12 years old, which is a critical time to connect with youth before late middle school begins to add challenging social situations and pressures,
”Early middle-school years are critical for connection as kids start to discover who they are and what they want to be before other systems become more persuasive,” Lofaro said. “All of these things shape their future, and with an adult walking beside them, lives are changed and supported because the right choices can be made when they have an adult to be a sounding board.”
Collaboration with other community partners is another critical component to the success of the Buddy Program.
“Buddy Program is one piece of the puzzle that connects kids to possibilities and a larger world of healthy choices, and it exposes them to more opportunity,” Lofaro said.
While much of Buddy Program’s work is 1:1 mentorship, they also offer an outdoor-leadership program for older students through the LEAD (Leadership through Exploration, Action, and Discovery) program, which allows students from four middle schools and three high schools to engage in year-long experiential learning. High-school students commit 300 hours annually and experience single- and multi-day backcountry trips and connections to community partners like EcoFlight, Aspen Center for Environment Science, Wilderness Workshop, and others.
In these collaborations, Lofaro said, the Buddy Program does not have to re-invent the wheel but is able to leverage the strength of other organizations in our valley, exposing youth to more opportunities that connect them to the environment around them.
Because LEAD offers students connections to many opportunities, it expands their horizons of what is possible. Lofaro said one student was committed to joining LEAD despite having physical disabilities that made some experiences challenging. She ultimately was able to grow her confidence in what was possible so much, she pushed herself further to pursue a travel-abroad opportunity she previously had not considered. She continues to thrive with a solid foundation of confidence cultivated in LEAD.
Aspen Community Foundation’s Youth in Nature Program is in its pilot year as a youth experiential-learning opportunity, and Buddy Program is one of six community partner organizations. This collaboration has allowed more students to experience the LEAD program who might not have the 300 hours to commit to the program.
After 50 years of thoughtful collaboration and connection, Buddy Program is setting its sights on increasing its impact in a sustainable way to serve more of our rural resort community.
Buddy Program currently serves about 450 youth, in addition to over 130 adult volunteers. Within three years of its expansion effort, it seeks to add 275 youth annually, along with 100 more adult volunteers. Its expansion efforts will bring the LEAD program to another high school and two additional middle schools. It is currently recruiting volunteers in Glenwood Springs to begin pairing mentors at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
To learn more or get involved, call 970-920-2130 or visit http://www.buddyprogram.com.
Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communications for the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.
The festive season is upon us with lots of holiday events and activities on the calendar and a cheerful atmosphere with snowy slopes and twinkling lights all around town.