Giving Thought: A safe (and free) place for kids to go

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Where do local kids go after school? For many, especially those with working parents, it’s an open question. The hours between the afternoon bell and dinnertime are often when unsupervised children make poor decisions and get into trouble. The Aspen Youth Center (AYC) was founded in 1991 to provide kids with a safe place to go after school and during summer. Executive Director Michaela Idhammar says the organization continues to grow and evolve to meet the needs of today’s youth.

Aspen Community Foundation: Who participates in your program and activities?

Michaela Idhammar: Currently we have over 2,025 participants in grades four through 12. About 50 percent live in Pitkin County, and the other half are from Basalt on down to Parachute. Among those, we have a few more boys than girls.

Surprisingly, 48 percent of our kids come from families who, according to the Self-Sufficiency Standard of Colorado, make less than the adjusted poverty line of $63,717 for a family with one parent and one child in Pitkin County; 12 percent of those kids come from families that make less than $25,000. The common perception that everyone in Aspen has the means to do whatever they want isn’t true.

Regardless of your background or where you are from, kids are inherently at risk. Having a place to go after school with caring adults is shown to help curb the early usage of drug and alcohol as well as other detrimental behaviors.

ACF: What issues face today’s youth, and are they different from the ’90s?

MI: Yes and no. AYC was started after a study showed that drug and alcohol use in Pitkin County was significantly higher than the rest of the state and country. Our founders realized those kids needed something else to do. These problems still exist, but most of today’s kids have gotten the message about substance use. I personally see a bigger problem with technology and social media.

Through their smartphones, kids have access to things that I didn’t. They ask us a lot of questions about online content that is sexual or violent in nature. Depending on kids’ ages or experience, those can be difficult questions to answer.

We’ve also undertaken trainings to better understand our kids. We’ve done ally training for the LGBTQ community and we’re doing trauma-informed care training to better understand any traumas our youth may have experienced. Maybe it’s a divorce, or someone in the family passed away. Often they’ll tell us about the problem first, so we need to know what to do and, if necessary, who to send them to.

ACF: What else has AYC done to evolve with the times?

MI: The first big change came in 2003, when we moved into our current space in the Aspen Recreation Center, which includes a computer lab, game room, media room, gym and kitchen. We offer art, science and cooking classes in addition to games like pool, ping-pong and foosball. The most popular activity is dodgeball, which occurs in the gym.

Our numbers skyrocketed when we became free in 2010. My job is to make sure that we stay free. It’s the big kicker for us. The same benefits apply with after-school sports activities or camps that families pay for, but we’re here to fill those gaps for kids who aren’t athletes, can’t afford other options, or want a place to hang out with their friends when their parents are still at work. They need a place where they can just be kids.

ACF: Describe your space on a typical spring afternoon.

MI: There are usually somewhere between 30 to 60 kids. Most of them come in around 3:30 and get picked up around 5:30 or 6, but a few hang around in the Rec Center until 9, if their parents work later.

Dodgeball starts every weekday at 3:40 and 5. While waiting for dodgeball, they’ll usually play a game or catch up with us about their day. It gets pretty loud, but when dodgeball starts it goes quiet because everyone is in the gym.

We also have art, science and cooking classes. The cooking classes are really popular and we try to pick dishes that they can easily replicate at home alone or with their families.

Our activities vary day to day but we always try to get them to interact. We don’t have many things they can do alone.

ACF: Any special plans for the future?

MI: On (Saturday,) we’re hosting Dance Valley Dance, a 12-hour dance benefit at Carbondale Rec Center. It benefits AYC and Stepping Stones of the Roaring Fork Valley, which provides after-school programming for kids in Carbondale. You can join us by dancing, volunteering or watching. The minimum amount to fundraise is $25 but if someone raises $150 or more, then they get entered into a prize raffle. Go to DanceValley​ for more info.

We’re also preparing to redo our kitchen for the first time since 2003. Aspen Games for Good, the creator of Aspen Monopoly, is donating $7,000 for this project and HS Built is donating $7,000 in labor. We’ll be launching a campaign to raise matching funds for a full remodel. I’m excited about that.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.