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By Laurie Dunklee

Every young person is one relationship away from changing their life,” says Russel Dains, CEO of Save Our Youth, a 25-year-old mentoring organization in the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood. “For an at-risk kid who is behind in school and being raised by a working single parent, a positive relationship with another adult can be a big fix.”

Save Our Youth matches struggling kids one-on-one with long-term mentors, who provide support with life skills and school pressures. “The bottom line is that kids who are lonely and failing in school need hope. So, we come alongside them,” said Trudy Swain, associate director, who co-founded Save Our Youth in 1994.

Save Our Youth occupies a corner building at 3443 West 23rd Ave. that was formerly the Sun Ray Super Market. The building was transformed into offices and meeting rooms using volunteer labor and donated materials.

Swain and Luis Villarreal, a licensed clinical social worker, started the organization in response to Denver’s infamous 1993 Summer of Violence. That summer left 74 dead from gang-related violence and people were frightened, especially by random drive-by shootings. Then-governor Roy Romer said of the violence, “It’s not just the number of acts … It’s the increased awareness that these are very young people who have no code of conduct, no moral framework that teaches them to respect life.”

Swain and Villarreal were compelled to act.

“We started making phone calls to social workers and pastors, asking ‘What can we do?’” Swain said. “The kids were from broken families and most had no father in their lives. They were lonely and looking for a family, so some turned to gangs. Even kids who were not in gangs were affected by gang violence in their communities.”

Now is not so different, she said. “Gangs are still here, though they are less visible. Kids suffer from domestic violence and neighborhoods are being broken up because of gentrification. Kids need the same support as when we started.”

Many low-income families have moved out of northwest Denver because of gentrification, so Save Our Youth has expanded its area to include Edgewater, Aurora, Littleton, Lakewood and Adams County.

“We go where the kids need us,” Swain said.

In 2018, 350 mentees were helped one-on-one by an equal number of mentors. About 45 percent are boys and 55 percent are girls. The number of young people served depends on the number of mentors who volunteer.

Mentors range in age from people in their 20s to nearly 80. They include teachers, business people and retirees. Many come from area churches.

“They are people who are looking to give back,” said Dains, who succeeded Villarreal as CEO in January 2018. “They all have their own struggles to share. It’s an opportunity to model resiliency and other life skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking. When it comes to kids, what you do is most important. More is caught then taught.

“Mentors have more to offer than they think. It’s amazing what happens when you keep showing up.”

Mentors share one to three hours per week with a young person for an outing or just to spend time together.

“Kids get to experience arts and sporting events that they probably have not been exposed to,” said Dains. “They go to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Rockies, the Nuggets and the Avalanche all donate tickets to us.”

Mentors also encourage good attendance at school and may be on a teacher call list if their kid misses school. Save Our Youth’s Summer Academy helps mentees improve their math and language-arts skills, allowing them to catch up to their grade level. Mentors also help high school seniors transition into college or trade school — and keep checking in with them until they graduate.

Save Our Youth started The Master’s Apprentice program, where young people learn plumbing, welding, carpentry and other trades from businesses that often hire them. The Master’s Apprentice is its own nonprofit organization now.

Save Our Youth is a faith-based organization that encourages mentors to share their spiritual journey with their mentees.

“Faith aids with healing,” said Dains. “But it’s OK if mentors don’t want to pray. We would never proselytize or try to convert a child.”

Mentors make a one-year initial commitment but remain with their kids an average of 42 months — a long stretch compared with the national average of nine months.

“Mentors stay because they get support from our trained social workers. We mentor the mentors so they don’t get discouraged,” Dains said.

Dains and Swain said current challenges facing kids include legalized marijuana and the prevalence of social media.

“The marijuana industry in Colorado is not favorable to kids,” said Swain. “All of us are stepping up our prevention efforts.”

Dains said social media and video games have expanded the definition of poverty to include relational poverty.

“Digital communication is no substitute for real relationships. It’s an opportunity for us because kids respond to human connection.”

About 80 kids are on a wait list for mentors.

“Kids call us, or their parents call us, asking for a mentor,” Dains said. “We just need more mentors. If they are willing, the impact is great.”

Dains’ vision for the future looks like more mentors helping more kids.

“I can see what would happen if every young person had someone to care about them, someone to turn to for help.”

For more information see saveouryouth.org.