Local foundation has roots in a bike ride | VailDaily.com

Local foundation has roots in a bike ride

Scott N. Miller

One of the valley’s most active foundations started on a bicycle.

Mark Smith of East West Partners was on a bike trip in Italy when he formed the idea for what would become the Youth Foundation. That bike ride led to other local rides with local business leaders; checks were written and the foundation was born.

Over the past seven years, the foundation has spent about $400,000 per year on projects throughout the valley, from bike and computer giveaways to sponsoring “academic soccer” clubs that offer both tutoring and sports to local middle schoolers to running a bookmobile through the valley to keep kids reading. Most of this activity goes on with the active help of local schools.

“Our first step was to talk to teachers, to find out where they see needs,” said Kathy Brendza, executive director of the foundation. The next step, she said, was to talk to parents and other community members.

From those conversations were born the foundation’s first big projects: The Magic Book Bus and a computer giveaway.

Net nights

The book bus doesn’t replace access to libraries, of course, but does provide a way for kids to get books in places including Edwards and Dotsero, where a car trip is the only way to get to a library. That effort is still going strong.

The computer giveaway isn’t. Responding to a request from teachers to have students turn in typed homework, the foundation a few years ago went on a mission to find and refurbish old personal computers, then put them in the hands of students who didn’t have access to a home computer.

Over the course of a couple of years, more than 800 computers were given away. But the program is no more. There was no shortage of computers, said Brendza. The problems were the time and manpower needed to refurbish machines, the problem of ensuring that unlicensed software wasn’t distributed and the issue of who would fix the things when the inevitable glitches arose.

At the recommendation of Brendza and development director Susie Davis – the foundation’s only paid staffers – the program was phased out, replaced by “neighborhood net” nights at local schools.

“That’s one of the great things about the foundation,” Davis said. “We can really assess what we do and be fluid if we need to be.”

Games are OK

The desire to be “fluid” – to shift on the fly if necessary – is one of the founding principles of the foundation. Another is to develop as many partnerships as possible in order to get as much bang-per-foundation-buck as possible.

Those partnerships are generally with organizations that have facilities. “That way, we don’t need bricks and mortar and we can concentrate on programs,” said foundation board member Richard DeClark.

Using schools for many programs provides the buildings the Youth Foundation need. The neighborhood net nights are a great example. The foundation pays to keep the school computer labs at Gypsum Elementary School and Berry Creek Middle School open after school hours so students can catch up with homework. Of course, lots of kids just play, which is fine, too.

“Playing games is OK,” Davis said, adding that many of the games on school computers have a learning element. The important thing is that the computer rooms are open to the public, and both kids and adults have access to computers and the Internet in a place they’re familiar with, Davis said.

“We really encourage schools to be open to the community,” Davis said. At Gypsum Elementary School, for instance, the foundation pays for preschool services at the school on nights when adult English classes are offered. “When the building is open, parents are more familiar with the schools, kids are more familiar with the school and everyone is exposed to English,” Davis said.

Just as important, the middle school kids who are using the computer rooms are also in a supervised setting. “My goal is to keep busy as many kids as possible for as long as possible,” said Dianna Halbert, Berry Creek principal. Busy kids, especially young teens, are much less likely to find trouble, she said.

‘Academic soccer’

Keeping kids occupied and out of trouble is also the point of the foundation’s “academic soccer” program, run through Berry Creek and Gypsum Creek Middle School, which combines tutoring and homework assistance with organized soccer in the spring. The program, like most others the foundation sponsors, was the result of a request by a school principal for help.

For the kids of Mexican immigrants, the chance to play organized soccer is a big deal, Brendza said. “When we started, kids would go to study hall or after-school study sessions to ensure their academic success and then they get to put on these hot-looking uniforms,” she said.

The kids involved in the program are passionate about playing. Snow covered the field in Edwards one day last spring, before a game with a team from Aspen, Brendza said. The boys from Aspen were ready to go home, but the local team broke up some cardboard boxes, duct-taped some of the pieces to the front of a pickup, and cleared the field.

“That’s how important this is to them,” Brendza said.

‘Pretty lucky’

The continued success of the Youth Foundation is also important to its board members. Smith is in Denver most of the time these days, running an East West project near downtown, so he isn’t as involved in the foundation as he once was. But he’s pleased with what he’s seeing.

For one thing, the board is made up of a lot of people like Smith, who said, “I’ve been pretty lucky in Vail. It’s my responsibility to do something for the community.”

That sense of responsibility extends across the board, Smith said. The fact the foundation continues to thrive without him is proof of the idea, he said. Still, the Youth Foundation may be the most active local nonprofit many residents have never heard of.

The reason the foundation keeps a relatively low profile is because board members and backers mostly just write checks. The foundation has started a radio auction on local station KZYR, but that’s about the extent of public fund-raising efforts.

“Events are great for exposure, but they’re not a good way to raise money,” DeClark said. “They’re an awful lot of work to raise money, so we’re happy to write checks.”

Beyond the 22-member board, the foundation has other friends. The members of the Eagle Springs Country Club at Wolcott have become strong supporters of the foundation, DeClark said.

While the foundation is able to do a lot, there’s always another project, another deserving person just out of reach. “There’s such a huge need,” DeClark said. “But we just try to do a few things really well and I think we’re doing that.”

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