New youth program aims to provide inspiration, avoid trouble
Aspenite Jackie Long has made it her life’s mission to help youth who are dealing with homelessness, hunger and addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Now, she’s using her boundless energy to launch a new initiative to help youth in the upper Roaring Fork Valley avoid those predicaments.
Through her nonprofit organization, Callie’s Backyard Foundation, Long is organizing a mentoring program that will tap into the broad wealth of experience of professionals, people in trades and crafts, and artists to work with youth ages 13 to 21.
“It’s all about community,” Long said. “We have so many inspirational people here. We should be using our own resources.”
She envisions a drop-in facility and program where youth will be encouraged to come and talk to staff about their aspirations. One kid might want to meet with someone from theater to explore acting. Another kid might want to work with an architect so see if that is a career path to be pursued.
“These kids in this town are thirsty for a place to go,” Long said. A youth advisory board is helping establish the program and providing input on what it will take to attract youth.
Long has lined up more than 100 potential mentors who are willing to contribute their time and expertise as mentors. Her enthusiasm for the cause is contagious. She hasn’t been rejected by anyone she has approached.
The drop-in facility would also be a place where at-risk kids could talk to case managers who could steer them into proper avenues of help, such as suicide prevention and drug and alcohol addition counseling.
The program, called the 100 Club in reference to its location, would tap into existing services in the Roaring Fork Valley rather than create duplicative agencies. And as with all programs administered by Callie’s Backyard, the youth wouldn’t be judged on the basis of their background, experiences, choices or behavior.
While mentorship would be the major thrust of the program, another aspect will be establishing an overnight facility where youth facing some sort of trouble can stay with oversight of professional staff. Currently, if a minor child gets in some sort of trouble where law officers must intervene, a domestic fight, for example, they get taken to a juvenile facility in Grand Junction.
Long’s vision is to provide a local option, where professionals can provide help to try to diffuse situations. It could also be a short-term facility where a young adult seeks help with an addiction.
Long aims to launch the drop-in facility in Aspen between February and spring. It would be wise to bet on her success, given the track record of Callie’s Backyard.
She started the nonprofit foundation after she became aware in 2009 of girls and young women in the Front Range of Colorado being swept up by the sex-trafficking industry. She wanted to provide help to victims and shine light on the problem.
Tragedy struck her own household in 2013 when her daughter Callie died the day before she would have collected her college degree at University of Colorado in Boulder. Callie succumbed to addictions she was battling.
Jackie took a couple of years to grieve and regroup. Since 2015, she has dedicated her efforts with Callie’s Backyard to battle sex trafficking, homelessness and substance addiction, which are often intertwined issues. One big push is delivering free food and providing information on services available to homeless youth in the Denver area.
She is also concerned about the level of drug use and suicide in the Roaring Fork Valley. She believes the inspirational mentoring can be a preemptive solution.
The project is off to a good start. Some months ago, Long had a chance encounter with a wealthy individual who took interest in her efforts.
“When we serendipitously met, he said, ‘I had no idea this was going on in Aspen, I want to help,’” Long said. “Without hesitation he told me he had been homeless at the age of 15 and the product of an alcoholic father. He said (at that time) he was never going back.”
That’s why Long’s project struck a nerve with the man.
“He said he wanted to do a kids’ club where kids could have inspiration and help from successful people,” Long said. “We created a partnership.”
The man has anonymously donated a structure near downtown Aspen where the club can be established. It might initially open in a temporary facility in Aspen, Long said. The anonymous donor also provided seed money to help establish the program.
Long said she also has endorsements of all law enforcement agencies in the upper valley. Several past and present law officers are providing guidance, among them Bruce Benjamin, a 37-year Pitkin County deputy sheriff who has worked as the juvenile officer full-time since 1992.
“There are quite a few resources that are already here, but there are still a lot of needs,” Benjamin said.
Long’s vision is to establish an entity that partners with the existing resources and finds the right help for kids. It’s a big challenge.
“The needs are different for every kid,” Benjamin said. “We’re still seeing struggling youth. Aspen has its challenges. If you’re not the college type, you can fall through the cracks.”
Brian Stevens, a former school resource officer for five years in Aspen with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, is also helping consult with Callie’s Backyard. He is excited about the mentorship program as a way of inspiring kids and allowing them to explore their passions. It could open opportunities they don’t necessarily have in school, he said.
“Jackie is a real go-getter and there is a need in the community,” Stevens said. “This program could fill some of that.”
Benjamin said the crisis management aspect of the new project would also serve a useful purpose.
“We are still seeing a lot of youth in conflict at home,” he said. “There is no place for these youth to go.”
If a crime is committed, law enforcement currently has no option other than transporting the kid to a juvenile detention center in Grand Junction, Benjamin said. The crisis management aspect of the Aspen Project 2020 would provide local authorities with a welcome option.
“There might be a case where a kid can cool off,” Benjamin said.
Establishing that crisis management branch will require more time. Stevens said there are strict state guidelines that have to be met.
Long envisions about 75 percent of the new program being dedicated to mentorship and providing resources for youth. The remaining 25 percent will be crisis management.
She is eager for the launch in 2021.
“This is a model project that no one is doing,” she said. “I’m honored and humbled to help our youth.”