Local nonprofit workers say the economic downturn, massive cuts in education spending and unstable families threaten to create the perfect storm for area youths.
At the center of that storm is Montezuma County Partners, an organization designed as a safety net for area youths by providing mentoring, delinquency diversion as well as help for homeless and runway young people.
Fred Blackburn, executive director for the organization, said he believes workers in health care and social services are beginning to see the effects of these changes on area youths.
Our systems are getting too taxed, he said. We cannot support what is happening here.
Funds allocated through the program to support homeless youths and their families were supposed to last until June, Blackburn said. The money ran out in January.
Brian Kelley, coordinator of the runaway/homeless program for Partners, said although the economic downturn began a couple of years ago, there was an influx of requests for help beginning in the fall of last year.
People who were living off savings for a year, or living with relatives for the last year and a half, finally had nothing to do. They had nowhere to go, he said. It took a year and a half after people lost their jobs. And its getting worse.
The runaway/homeless youth program is designed to provide 21 days of financial and placement assistance for youths in need until they can get back on their feet or find more permanent help with another agency.
Kelley said the help the program has provided only scratches the surface of the need.
Whether theyre couch surfing or staying here one night and there one night, they might have a roof over their head, but technically theyre homeless, he said. So I dont think weve served a fraction of the kids that fall under that category.
If youths are able to find long-term assistance through social services, there is a gap in benefits between ages 18 and 21, Kelley and Blackburn said.
Were able to help them in developing an independent living, Kelley said. Through finding a place, paying rent initial expenses of getting into a place and making sure that theyre connected with the organizations that are already in place. Well assist with car payments, rent, college and things like that.
Kodie Sirois and fellow M-CHS student Lisa Lopez have received assistance from Partners and have since become interns for the program traveling the state and advocating for youth services. They gave a presentation on the program to local officials Friday.
Sirois said she is grateful for help from Partners.
At this time, Im still receiving help from social services as well. That will happen until the end of May and then Im on my own, she said, adding she is in a program that teaches her to balance her personal budget.
Partners staff say youths often slip through the cracks of the education system. In the worst cases, they wind up in the juvenile justice system.
To this end, Partners offers juvenile diversion and restorative justice programs as alternatives to detention.
The entire process is to make sure that we do everything we can, starting in mentorship and going in to diversion to keep these kids out of jail, Blackburn said.
The diversion program includes electronic monitoring, substance abuse testing and restorative justice in which offending youths have a conference with their victim and a mediator.
Tami Graham, director of the restorative justice program, said the system allows a juvenile to see how their actions impact their family and the victim.
Its an opportunity for healing and for youth to be held accountable for their actions and to develop empathy, Graham said. Its an opportunity for youth to be held accountable and also to support making better decisions in the future.
In one case, Graham said, a conference was arranged between two juvenile girls and a man whose fence they spray painted. The girls agreed to repaint the mans fence, and he said he would consider hiring them to work at his business.
Thats a huge turnaround, Graham said.
Blackburn said it is important that youths not feel worthless in order to succeed.
He estimated that every dollar spent by Partners saves the justice system $10.
To prevent area youths from offending in the first place, Partners offers tutoring and mentoring programs.
Staff at partners agree that a strong education and adult role model can prevent a youth from slipping through the cracks.
Crescent Rossiter, case manager at Partners, said 70 youths ages 8 through 17 are on the waiting list for a mentor.
Were in dire need of mentors, she said.
Mentors go through a 20-hour application and screening process. They agree to spend a minimum of three hours per week with a youth for one year. Partners also offers recreational and educational activities, Rossiter said.
Besides Mentors, Partners is seeking volunteers, board members and donations. Those interested can call 565-4926. Individuals interested in mentoring can contact Rossiter at extension 13.
We need to give youth a chance, Blackburn said. If we dont value them, were wasting our time here.
Reach Reid Wright at [email protected]