After small start, the Vail Valley’s YouthPower365 continues to accomplish big things | VailDaily.com

After small start, the Vail Valley’s YouthPower365 continues to accomplish big things

Editor's note: This is the first part of a three-part series about the 20th anniversary of The Youth Foundation, now called YouthPower365.

AVON — More than two decades ago, Mark Smith — the Smith in Slifer Smith & Frampton — was riding his bicycle when he spotted a bunch of kids doing … basically nothing. Smith kept riding, and started thinking.

His mental wheels turned as fast as his bicycle wheels, and before long, those wheels rolled around to the idea for an organization to help local kids. Other bike rides and meetings followed, checks were written and The Youth Foundation was born.

That was nearly 20 years ago: Oct. 7, 1997.

Good-hearted All-Stars

Chupa Nelson was in, and so were Gerald Gallegos, Bob Brown and Susie Davis. They tapped Kathy Brendza as The Youth Foundation's first executive director.

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Business success taught Smith many things. Among those lessons: Time and talent have value and are worth paying for. Sure, no one accomplishes anything without good-hearted volunteers, but The Youth Foundation paid its staffers from the very beginning.

The group saw a gap. In fact, they saw many gaps. A gap in student achievement. A gap in after-school activities and access to scholarships. A gap between the valley's haves- and the have-nots. Instead of talking about it, they decided to do something about it.

Gerald Gallegos was a have-not. He launched Gallegos Masonry with his brothers and set about using his business acumen to help kids like him. Gallegos was born and raised in Minturn. He grew up hardscrabble and hard working.

"The community has afforded me the opportunity to prosper," Gallegos said in the announcement 20 years ago that their idea for The Youth Foundation was becoming a reality.

When he signed on as a founding director of The Youth Foundation, his goal was clear and uncomplicated: to show local minority kids that they could be successful here.

"The Vail Valley has given our family opportunity, and we have taken advantage of it," Gallegos said 20 years ago.

Gallegos died several years ago, but his philosophy lives on. No matter who you are or where you're from, this is your community and your community was going to make sure you had a fair shot at a good education.

Here to help

Even in a place as affluent as the Vail Valley, you don't have to look hard to find ways to help. Right now, 43 percent of Eagle County's school students are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, the government's definition of an "at-risk" kid.

Like most big things, The Youth Foundation — now the Vail Valley Foundation's YouthPower365 — started small. The focus was after-school activities and programs that helped kids with academics.

Among the first were a computer lab at Gypsum Elementary School and a scholarship fund.

Other programs grew quickly. The COPA soccer program gets almost 700 kids off the couch and outdoors. The Magic Book Bus for preschoolers is also theirs. So are the PwrHrs (Power Hours) academic programs for older kids. They arrange internships and apprenticeships for young adults.

"This is a great program. I feel blessed that this is offered at such an affordable cost and that the kids get to continue their learning," said Rebecca Ocepek, a PwrHrs parent.

The PwrHrs program also provides thousands of kids each year with academic help, along with nutrition, character building and other life lessons.

"I love this program," said Brittany Rivera, PwrHrs teacher. "I am able to see kids in a new light. As I walk around the school to check in on teachers, kids are actively engaged and having fun. They are learning and they don't even know it. Our teachers are outstanding and work hard to provide a fun summer camp for our most needy students. Our students are in a safe, engaging and loving environment for four weeks, and they might not get these experiences all summer long if it was not for (YouthPower365)."

What's in a name?

The Youth Foundation merged with the Vail Valley Foundation in 2012. It was a great move, but because both are foundations, it tended to confuse some donors.

Also, foundations provide grant money to other groups, and The Youth Foundation had not done that in a long time, said Melissa Rewold-Thuon, YouthPower365 executive director.

So, last year, The Youth Foundation changed its name to YouthPower365. The vision is to serve every child, every day.

They're well on their way, Rewold-Thuon said.

What started as a few folks deciding there was more we could do for kids after school and in the summertime has become an organization with more than $3 million in expenditures, helping more than 4,200 children a year and helping more than 8,500 children during its 20-year run, Rewold-Thuon said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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