The Youth Foundation’s roots 20 years ago grew into YouthPower365’s current reach | VailDaily.com

The Youth Foundation’s roots 20 years ago grew into YouthPower365’s current reach

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

AVON — Ideas can start on white boards or cocktail napkins, but often stay right where they started or land in the trash bin. They seem like a good idea at the time, yet nothing is done to bring them to fruition.

But once in a while, those ideas grow into something that transforms lives.

It was 20 years ago that The Youth Foundation was born, the brainchild of Mark Smith and a cast of several. In 2012, the organization merged with the Vail Valley Foundation, and though the name changed to YouthPower365, the mission did not, said Executive Director Melisa Rewold-Thuon.

“The Magic Bus program is very effective because it sparks an interest in learning at a very young age.”Fernando OrtegaParent

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"The philosophies of the early days have carried on in the new organization, YouthPower365, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year," Rewold-Thuon said.

'I was in'

Smith and other original board members realized that many of the children in Eagle County and Leadville were not getting the support they needed. Speaking of support, they needed someone to run their fledgling organization, so they put the pitch on local school administrator Kathy Bendza. Smith called her to discuss "possibilities."

"Do something different, something good for all kids. Not just the kids in your building," Smith told her.

"I was in," Brendza said.

The original board of directors Smith gathered were "great guys," Brendza said. She sat down with each board member, and they were all on the same page: Do something great for kids. Exactly what remained to be determined — but it would be great.

"I thought, 'I have to get into the community.' We tend to tell people what we think they need. The only way to really learn what people need is to listen to them," Brendza said.

Of course, that requires a truck.

Board member George Shaeffer and his crew got a van from Colorado Mountain Express and converted it into a bookmobile. Gerald Gallegos' crew made it run.

Brendza hired Deb Dutmer to run it. Dutmer is still running it.

"The Magic Bus program is very effective because it sparks an interest in learning at a very young age," said parent Fernando Ortega. "The program has helped my daughters in learning to read and write their names. It has also developed their creativity, discover new experiences and relate to their classmates."

Academics and athletics

It was Christmas Eve 1997 when Brendza's husband picked up a ringing telephone. John was principal of Berry Creek Middle School, and was spending Christmas Eve with his family; it was their son Will's birthday.

Youth Foundation board member Chupa Nelson and a couple of others were on the phone and wanted to speak with Kathy about a lightning bolt of brilliance that had struck them. Lightning strikes don't last long. If you can catch one, then you'd better do it.

An hour later, the components of The Youth Foundation's academic soccer program were in place. And they did it all before Santa Claus rolled through the valley. What a merry Christmas that was.

"These kids wanted to play so much that they had shovels and window scrapers clearing the field," Brendza said.

In fact, they wanted to play so much that they were kicking the ball around in the street in Edwards and back and forth across U.S. Highway 6, or in the Edwards rest stop around the tractor-trailer rigs.

Talents and time

Different board members brought different talents to the table.

Steve Fossett, Peter Abuisi and Gallegos put together a program to "grow our own" and came up with a plan for a communitywide scholarship program. Kids filled out one application shared by organizations across the valley. At the same time, they paired those kids with mentoring programs.

Those ripples are still rolling. A decade and a half later, a teacher in Alamosa still writes Brendza a note every year, thanking her and reminding her that she would not be a teacher if not for the scholarship she received through The Youth Foundation.

Fossett used to say, "Call me when it's really important. I can make things happen." And he could, and did.

Someone would tell Gallegos about a kid. "Take care of it, and tell me what I owe you," he said.

Like the one kid who did not speak. His teachers said he could, but he just didn't. So they bought him a computer that spoke for him. Gallegos was thrilled, and the kid learned to tell the most hilarious knock-knock jokes.

Brendza convinced Gallegos to put on a bunny suit and deliver Easter eggs in Dotsero. Pictures exist. As soon as we see them, so will you.

"Think about how busy these guys are. But any time I needed them, they were there," Brendza said. "They kept saying, 'Do great things for kids.'"

Great things cost great money, and 10 years after its inception in 1997, The Youth Foundation was running a $1 million annual budget. They launched a fundraiser, The Star Dancing Gala. It's now the valley's largest fundraiser, bringing in more than $1.3 million in 2017.

Because they wanted to keep the overhead low, for the first several years Brendza was the only staffer and worked out of her house. The board finally told her she could hire someone. She sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. and exclaimed "Susie Davis!"

Davis says she was having a midlife crisis in 1999 and was working in a coffeehouse. Brendza came in regularly with Mark Smith's marching orders emblazoned on her brain: "I'm not going to tell you how to do it because I don't know. Just go about doing it."

"I didn't know much about what she's doing, but it sounded like fun," Davis said.

The board was comprised of smart, successful people who left their business hat outside the door, Davis said. Then when they needed to, they picked up their business hat. The board's philosophy was remarkably uncomplicated: "We know success, now we're looking for significance."

"That's pretty magical stuff. It was one child at a time, and that mattered to the board," Davis said.

They were giving away scholarships, and one year some money was left in the scholarship account.

"Why?" asked board member Rod Slifer, the Slifer in Slifer Smith & Frampton.

"A couple kids did not pick up their scholarships," Davis explained.

"We want you to find out why," Slifer said.

"What do you want me to do? Knock on the door?" Davis replied.

"Yes, I do," Slifer said.

So she did.

A younger sibling opened the door and the house was dark that morning. The girl came out and tried to explain that she could not go to college because her single mom needed her to take care of her younger siblings.

Davis gently explained how that plan wasn't working out at all well; she was sleeping and the kids were sitting around watching TV.

The girl started college and is now a successful local business person.

Board member Steve Coyer and his wife were making sure a local trailer park was wired for internet, just before the time Vail Resorts was upgrading its computer system and helped bridge our local digital divide by refurbishing all their old computers and giving them away to Youth Foundation kids. They even threw in a printer.

For the bike giveaway, bike shops around the valley cleaned up the bikes and The Youth Foundation gave them away to kids around the community.

"I was lucky. I managed to hire people with great ideas who figure out how to implement them, whether it was music, or athletics, or academics," Davis said. "It's not controversial. Everyone wants to help kids. You can see hope coming from it."

"We were all over the place. The gift of seeing where it is 20 years later, focused on seeing where kids are succeeding academically."

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

YouthPower365 by the numbers

• 12,000: Students served over the 20-year span of the organization.

• 4,200: Students served in YouthPower365 programming during the 2016-17 school year and summer 2017.

• 428,000: Contact hours in 2016-17 school year and summer 2017.

• 16: Programs serving cradle to career.

PwrHrs

• 73 percent: Growth in PwrHrs kindergarten through eighth-grade programs since 2014.

• 93 percent: Students who improved oral reading fluency after PwrHrs programs.

• 89 percent: Students who improved math computation after PwrHrs programs.

• 74 percent: Students enrolled in PwrHrs who are Hispanic.

Parent Mentors

• 22: Parent Mentor volunteers who served approximately 380 students and 22 teachers in 2016-17.

When Parent Mentor participants were asked to reflect on their 2016-17 program experience, they reported that:

• They increased how much help they could give their children in their learning from 40.9 percent to 100 percent.

• They increased how much help they could give in their children’s school from 13.6 percent to 100 percent.

• They increased how much support they could give the community from 9 percent to 84.6 percent.

• They increased how many times they were able to access community resources from 4.5 percent to 90.9 percent.

Other programs

• Approximately 1,000: Students who participated in Celebrate the Beat in-school, after-school and summer programs last year.

• 680: Children ages 3 to 18 who played soccer in the COPA summer league.

• 11: Schools offering GirlPowHER programs by the end of the 2016-17 school year, up from six at the beginning of the school year.

• 96: Students who were enrolled in the Magic Bus Mobile Preschool in 2016-17, with 15,744 contact hours. Social/emotional development improved from 58 percent of students meeting/exceeding expectations to 89 percent of students meeting/exceeding expectations from October to May for Magic Bus Mobile Preschool students.

• More than $266,000: Amount YouthPower365 Dollars for Scholars and 16 partner entities awarded to 67 graduating seniors.

• 80: Students involved in year one of YouthPower365’s middle-school college/career mentoring program, along with 20 adult mentors.

Source: Vail Valley Foundation