Creating safe spaces for youth in Eagle County
Having a safe environment to explore one’s identity and make connections can be life-changing
Children and adolescents are currently facing a mental health crisis in Eagle County. For students struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation, stress, social pressures and more, the value of having a safe space to explore one’s identity and make connections can be life-changing.
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“Our students — and I don’t think this is different than other places in our country — want to fit in. You don’t want to be different, and if you are different, that’s a really hard road to navigate,” Carol Johnson, director of programs and events at SpeakUp ReachOut. “It’s so vital for youth to have safe spaces to go to.”
While Johnson added that our community is lacking in some of these safe spaces, she said there are organizations that are taking steps in the right direction.
Identifying safe spaces
Bright Future Foundation is a local organization that was created to help break the generational cycle of violence and provide resources to families in need. The organization offers two youth-focused prevention programs in the community: Buddy Mentors, which offers one-on-one community mentoring between an adult volunteer and a local youth, and Hot Spot Mapping, a program that identifies safe spaces for students.
Rachel Halzel, the youth advocacy manager for Bright Future Foundation, said that this hot spot mapping program is done in schools with students. With it, students are asked to think about their day-to-day environment at school, how they interact with each other and identify areas where they feel unsafe.
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“If a specific space or a particular group of students marks an area as unsafe, then the school community can intervene to make that space a more welcoming place for all,” Halzel said.
Last year, the organization conducted hot spot mapping with nearly 600 students, which will be presented to school district stakeholders later this year. And while in the past, this program has focused on school spaces, Halzel said that it will also be rolled out to the community at large this year.
Megan Vogt, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Megan Vogt Counseling in Eagle County, primarily she works with adolescents. And this year, she’s started working with more LGBTQ clients and parents.
“For the most part, the clients I see — specifically their parents — really want them to have a support system outside of them,” Vogt said. “Most of the parents are quite supportive and they just don’t necessarily have the language or the knowledge of exactly what is going on and how to support them. And so they just really want their kids to have a place to talk about identity.”
For the kids, Vogt said they’re “pretty comfortable” in terms of their identity and use the sessions in terms of exploration and allowing them “to talk about what they feel in a really non-judgmental space.”
Having non-judgmental and safe spaces is crucial for all students, and over the past few years, the county has started to build some critical infrastructure and supports for LGBTQ youth.
“It makes them feel so much less alone,” she said. “Just the knowledge that help is out there and these things are being talked about and all of that is just comforting for anybody to know, because I think that so much anxiety happens when you are struggling, but you don’t know where to go or if there’s anything available for you.”
Last year, a committee of community leaders formed Eagle County Pride to put on Eagle County’s first organized Pride event. Since then, the organization has hosted its second Pride in the Park at Nottingham Park in Avon and has started to increase its programming and community events, something that recently has grown to include youth-centric programming.
“This is an area of support our community is lacking in,” said Madison Partridge, a committee member of Eagle County Pride. “We want to fill this gap and be the resources our community needs. We want to do all that we can to improve the lived experience of LGBTQ+ individuals in our valley by providing inclusive programs and events, fostering relationships and educating the community on inclusivity and equity.”
So far, the organization has begun to facilitate two monthly peer support groups through the Vail Health and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s Mountain Strong Peer Support group. One is for parents and the other is a LGBTQ peer support group.
“These groups foster healthy friendships and connections that many may not have,” Partridge said. “Peer support groups strengthen community, self-worth and benefit mental health.”
Some schools have begun to introduce student gender and sexuality alliances that “help raise up LGBTQ+ voices,” Partridge said.
These groups help create safe and affirming environments in schools, environments which, she said “will be a key to improving outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth.”
Creating positive pathways
Another organization working to build a safe space for students is My Future Pathways, which has campuses in Edwards and Gypsum.
The organization was formed in 2019 to help serve the social emotional needs of youth in Eagle County, primarily first-generation Latino youth.
“The value in this program is we provide opportunity for first generation youth in our community,” said Gerry Lopez, mentoring and project manager at My Future Pathways. “We then provide an environment that feels like family and nurtures trust amongst our youth.”
Bratzo Horruitiner, executive director of My Future Pathways, said the organization’s goals are to increase high school graduation, increase students’ employability and teach students to be leaders in the community.
“It’s a matter of instilling and reinforcing values, and trying to promote real communication, real relationships and positive pathways for the future,” Horruitiner said.
The organization does this in three major ways: through social-emotional support and gender-specific and age-appropriate peer mentoring, through academic tutoring, and through wellness activities including sports and experiential learning opportunities.
“We have two youth centers which provide a safe environment for the kids to hang out, always supervised. It’s an alcohol — and all other substance — free zone, plus they build a family there,” Horruitiner said. “Instead of going home to sometimes an empty house or not a safe environment, you can hang out here, learn, socialize, do homework.”
For his students, Horruitiner said the value of having this safe environment is it increases participation and decreases isolation.
“We have a lot of suicides. We have a lot of depression. We have a lack of a sense of belonging,” he said. “A lot of our kids were not participating in anything and because they came here they learned something, they came to our mentoring — they were able to participate in other things and therefore, feel part of a community, feel integrated and get that sense of belonging.”
This, he said is the “magic of having a place where they can be kids and feel a part of something.”
Student voice, involvement
The community has come together in recent years to begin building more of these safe spaces to open up conversations around mental health and also to ensure students are receiving the help that they need. And for some organizations, this includes letting students take the lead.
Mountain Youth has always been engaged in including student voice in the conversation, said Michelle Stecher, executive director of Mountain Youth. And one way is through its Valley Voice program for middle and high school students. Valley Voice allows students to work together on solutions to problems their peers are facing.
“So a young person might see a need in the community or something their friend is struggling with and they propose a project around it to support their own peers and they propose it to a youth board of their peers,” she said. “If it gets approved, which I think 100% of them have, they are eligible for significant funding toward their project and they can have the backing of a full support team in pursuing their projects.”
In recent years, many students have proposed and developed projects that are mental health related, she said.
During the pandemic, students created Tu Gui, or Your Guide, which is designed as a tutoring and mentorship program.
“It started during the pandemic and kids were learning at home and families didn’t know how to best support their student’s learning, both academically and to support them with social, emotional learning,” Stecher said. The program matches students and families with a mentor, typically a high school or college student, to help the parents and students to build and learn skills — both academic and social-emotional — that support that student’s need.
“If we want to make a difference in this community for youth, then we need youth at the table helping to make those decisions and lead those efforts,” she said. “We are expanding that to try and engage younger youth, getting middle schoolers involved in running these projects and helping to see some peer support with some training so they can help be there for their friends that are having a tough day.”