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YouthZone: A Story of Second Chances


Stephanie South

In 2010, El Pomar started the Regional Strategic Support project, a team of El Pomar Fellows dedicated to helping El Pomar’s Regional Councils maximize the strategic effectiveness of their grant dollars by tracking, analyzing, and spreading cross-regional knowledge, best practices, and ideas. Periodically, the blog will feature stories that focus on RSST research projects--this one thanks to the research of El Pomar Fellow Mariah Golden.

If you head west on I-70, somewhere between Rifle and Grand Junction, you pass a small rural Colorado town called Parachute. With a population of just over 1,000 people and a median household income of about $31,000, a teenager in this small town might just try to create his or her own own fun.

Imagine a fifteen-year old boy from Parachute, we’ll call him Ethan, doing just that.

It’s another Friday night without the prospect of a good time. There’s not even the smallest bit of small-town gossip floating around or a good movie in the theatre to see, let alone an awesome concert to attend or a bumping bar where he could legally grab a drink. So, Ethan and a couple of his buddies decide they’ll just make the night more interesting on their own.  An hour later, they’ve carefully shoplifted a plethora of snacks from the convenience store, grabbed a handle of vodka from one of the boy’s parents’ liquor cabinets, stolen Ethan’s dad’s truck, and are speeding down a dirt road just outside of town. Not too long after they’ve stopped and had just enough vodka to make them forget how many laws they’ve broken, flashing lights have crested the hill.

They’ve really done it this time. Hello, juvenile detention and a future marred by a record.

Enter YouthZone.

YouthZone is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for kids like Ethan—who might otherwise enter a lifelong cycle of jail time—to be responsible, contributing members of society. In 2010, the organization served 1,090 children ages 6 to 18 years old in six towns (Rifle, Glenwood, Carbondale, Aspen, Parachute, and Basalt) that are part of El Pomar Foundation’s Northwest Region.  In Ethan’s town of Parachute, the office served a total of 36 youth, and, given a population barely exceeding 1,000, almost four percent of the population was affected.

YouthZone is held in high esteem by its staff and the communities it serves. According to Northwest Council Member Tom Kenning, YouthZone is one of the most highly respected organizations in the Region. Its positive leadership and team-oriented culture, combined with the small population of Northwest communities, allows the organization to thrive. It is extremely active in the Region’s communities, simultaneously understanding needs and soliciting financial and moral support. Many local businesses support YouthZone, and the organization receives 89 percent of its revenue from fundraising.

Much of this support for YouthZone centers on respect for the organization’s philosophy. Robin Tolan, YouthZone’s development director, explained, “YouthZone doesn’t see any child as a ‘bad kid,’ but rather a good kid who made a mistake.” Tolan said the organization’s effectiveness is also built around the effort it makes to understand community needs and tailor services appropriately. As the only organization in the region that serves court-referred youth, YouthZone listens to community perspectives and maintains a willingness to alter ineffective programs.

This philosophy and responsiveness have led to results.

YouthZone has collected data on the impact of its programs since 1989. That data indicates that 75 percent of children who have committed a crime and are referred to participate in YouthZone do not reoffend. There is a reason that 95 percent of juveniles that end up in the court system in the Northwest Region are referred to YouthZone programs--the same reason that convinced El Pomar Foundation’s Northwest Regional Council that Parachute needed a YouthZone location. The Council granted $25,000 to that end in 2007.

Funding like that can make a big difference.

Remember Ethan, the fictional kid from Parachute who got in trouble? This is what would unfold after the court system refers him to YouthZone:

Ethan is assigned a case manager, Jena. He meets with her  for a pre-assessment survey that ranks risk factors; he shows high use of drug and alcohol.  Following the initial meeting, Ethan enters a drug and alcohol class, has six months of case management and then graduates from high school. Today he attends Colorado Mountain College and study photography.  Because he went through Youth Zone, he does not have a juvenile record.

According to Nancy MacGregor, a Parachute case manager, the Northwest Regional Council funding provided a valuable opportunity for YouthZone to expand its staff and services to Parachute, and it was needed. There are no similar services in Parachute as the area is mainly composed of a highly transient population of families seeking jobs in the oil and gas industry.

Thanks to YouthZone programming, kids like Ethan—kids who made a mistake—aren’t just getting lost in the court system without any way to get to bigger towns or better futures; they’re getting second chances at creating the life they truly want.

See below for more grant stories:

RSST Report: Two Approaches to Childcare Solutions

Regional Substance Abuse Prevention Program