Giving Thought: ‘One block in the quilt’ to protect local teens

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger/Courtesy

Last month, Colorado’s attorney general announced the investment of $300,000 in a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit called YouthZone. The grant was the last in a series of gifts to youth-serving organizations across the state under Colorado’s Healthy Youth/Colorado Strong Fund. YouthZone was included, Phil Weiser said, because it meets troubled teens where they are emotionally and then helps them turn a corner onto a better path.

“Too often, we give up on young people who end up on a path that doesn’t lead to good places,” Weiser said, as reported in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. “What this program is about is alternatives and about opportunity.”

Jami Hayes, a former schoolteacher who recently became YouthZone’s executive director, describes the organization’s mission this way: “Youth usually come to us because something has happened, an incident in the community or school or something, but it’s never the incident that we treat. Instead, we dig deep and ask a lot of questions around the ‘why’ of it. We discover the root cause or causes, and that’s where we begin our treatment plan.”

According to Hayes, teenagers’ worlds are significantly more complex and confusing than they were 10 years ago, let alone 40 years ago, when the organization was in its infancy. Challenges like peer pressure and substance abuse have long been part of the teenage landscape, but the growth of technology and social media have changed the rules. And let’s not forget that global pandemic.

“The complexity of things getting thrown at today’s kids is so much and so different — it’s in their phone, it’s on their computer, it’s what everybody’s talking about,” Hayes said. “There’s a heightened need out there because the things kids are dealing with are bigger than we’ve seen before.”

Fortunately, Hayes continued, knowledge about teens’ brains and behavior has grown considerably, and YouthZone and its partners in the valley take advantage wherever and whenever they can. She’s proud of the fact that 94% of YouthZone’s teen clients do not repeat their mistakes after going through the nonprofit’s programs.

“We’re understanding the power of intervention, early intervention, and we understand, now more than ever, the desperate need for that in building healthy and strong communities,” Hayes said.

Now, with the additional funding from the state, Hayes and her teammates have been able to increase staffing and enhance the services they provide. Hayes is quick to note that YouthZone won’t be moving into any new mental health or therapeutic areas but will expand or deepen what they already do.

“I’m very careful to stay inside the guardrails that are set by our mission and our board,” she said. “We already do good work, so how can we do the work that we do even better?”

In its early years, YouthZone’s caseload came mainly through the courts, when kids were charged with theft, vandalism or drug possession, for example. Court referrals still account for roughly half of the organization’s cases, but now the other half come from schools, other youth-oriented organizations, individual counselors, human service agencies or school-affiliated family resource centers. Every case depends on the individual needs of the involved teen, Hayes said. Some needs can be fulfilled at school or through another organization offering different services, and some require more specialized or long-term attention.

“We work really hard to maintain strong relationships with our community partners,” Hayes said. “We’re like one cog in the wheel or one block in the quilt. We meet often with them and talk often with them.”

Using the infusion from the state, YouthZone is expanding its bilingual capabilities and establishing satellite offices in six towns between Aspen and Parachute.

“We cover a very large area, and our biggest barrier is expanding our human capital,” Hayes explained. “This is where the money from the attorney general is such a gift.”

Also worth mentioning is how Weiser awarded the money to YouthZone — without naming particular programs or attaching any strings. Essentially, the state’s top lawyer allowed Hayes and her team to decide where and how to deploy the dollars for maximum public benefit.

“Often, these grants are earmarked for very specific things,” Hayes said, adding that this gift came with an extraordinary amount of freedom. “He essentially said, ‘We trust that you’ll keep doing the good work that you’re doing, and you’ll be able to do more.'”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.