Giving Thought: Engaged philanthropy leads to increased support for youth

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
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

Individuals can create ripples for social change, but an engaged community can create waves that change the landscape. Social challenges are more complex than ever requiring deeper conversations and connections. The mental health crisis among the region’s young people is one of these challenges. Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Giving Network met last week to explore this issue and to learn more from those who are working directly with youth and families.

Since 2016, the Giving Network brings together local philanthropists to explore issues that are affecting the outcomes of youth and families from Aspen to Parachute. Each year, members take collective action in supporting positive change within the region. They do this by learning from issue experts and nonprofits. Several times a year, they meet community members, nonprofit leaders and experts to explore the landscape and possible solutions. At the end of the year members work as a collective to support programs that they believe will bring us closer to a vision where all children and families within the region can thrive. This year, members elected to learn more about youth mental health and social emotional well-being needs.

For the first summer convening, the Giving Network hosted three nonprofit leaders in a panel discussion on the issues impacting youth mental health within the region.

Jami Hayes, executive director of YouthZone, shared that her organization is seeing higher rates of conflict in homes impacting youth behavior. YouthZone is a family first nonprofit, dedicated to fostering positive youth development for teens that call the Western Slope their home. Their work is focused on intervention and prevention; many of the youth they serve have been engaged in the legal justice system.

Hayes noted that there the level of offense youth are coming to YouthZone with has increased as youth are becoming more violent in their interactions. She attributes some of this to the increased stress that families are dealing with such as the housing crisis, food insecurity and an increase in substance abuse. When adults in a home are struggling to manage stress, this is passed on to the children who are not equipped to handle the stress of their own lives.

Jonathan Greener, assistant director of Stepping Stones of the Roaring Fork Valley, echoed that substance abuse in families is impacting youth outcomes. He noted that a rising number of youth he sees are joining the workforce and becoming primary breadwinners in families due to parental substance abuse and that more youth are finding themselves in unstable situations. Stepping Stones is a community-based youth mentoring program that operates drop-in centers for youth ages 10 to 24.

Leigh McGown, principal of Yampah Mountain High School, shared that from her perspective, youth mental health has been impacted by the struggles COVID brought to the forefront in society. Additionally, the rise of social media usage has led many to feel like they have to constantly “be on.” This has compounded the issues of substance abuse and unhealthy coping mechanisms. McGown shared, “anxiety is now the baseline for every student and that was not previously the case.”

Yampah is a learning community designed to develop meaningful relationships, a pursuit for lifelong learning, and the academic skills in support of multiple pathways to high school graduation and post-secondary success. The school offers a Teen Parenting program to support pregnant and parenting teens work toward self-sufficiency while earning their high-school diplomas and recognizes the importance of considering how parental stability and support is critical for positive youth outcomes. 

While the rise in substance abuse and exploration of generational issues highlighted areas of struggle, a few areas that are working well to support our youth were also shared. The benefits of peer support groups and the desire for peers to help others was noted by each of the panelists. Youth coaching and mentorship programs have also been shown to have a positive impact. Recent research suggests that when teens have a positive adult relationship has been shown to decrease attempted suicides by up to four times.

The discussion also underscored the importance of supporting the adults in children’s lives. It is important to not only have supports in place for our young people, but also for the ecosystem around them. Child care and early childhood education resources support both adults and children when supported by employers and community members because it allows a safe place for children’s brains to develop while also reducing parental stress. Supporting nonprofit staff working with children, like employee assistance programs with access to therapy has served as a lifeline for her staff.

Improving the mental health outcomes of children and families is a multi-faceted endeavor, but our region has a breadth of resources available to support its progress. Conversations like these create possibilities for growth, understanding and increased impact.

Allison Alexander is the Development Director of 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.