Local Organization Works to Educate, Mentor, Coach & Inspire Area Youth

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Sarah, an 11-year-old youth, was more than a shy girl in school. Exhibiting signs of selective mutism, she refused to talk to teachers or peers for fear of being judged. But then she started working with Youth Connections, Inc. and as the year progressed, she blossomed socially.

“When we first saw her, she didn’t talk at all. By Christmastime, she started opening up and by the end of the school year, she was going to friends’ houses, singing in the hallway, and talking in class,” says Shana Gilbert, the newly appointed Executive Director of Youth Connections.

This is the kind of success story that Youth Connections, Inc. is all about as it strives to be the premier agency in advocating for youth and their families in Johnson, Morgan and Brown Counties, providing dynamic programs and services that promote family support and positive youth development. The nonprofit organization, which primarily works with children ages 7-17 has been around for more than four decades.

“After 43 years, we felt like we needed to shake things up a bit,” says Judy Olds, referencing the reorganization and need to adapt their programs to serve today’s youth and their families.

For the past four years, Olds has been the organization’s Executive Director, but she felt that it was important that Youth Connections keep up with the current trends in fundraising and program management so she opted to step down and invite Gilbert to move into the position. Olds is now settling into her new role as Director of Community Relations, which enables her to network, go out into the community and explain all that Youth Connections has to offer while cultivating the interest for new donors.

“We hope with this change that we can increase our funding and get more folks involved with the agency by serving on the board or volunteering,” says Olds, noting that their mission can be a hard sell simply because it’s difficult to get donors to understand what, exactly, Youth Connections does.

“We can’t bring in a puppy and say, ‘Isn’t it cute? It needs a home, please donate,’” Olds says. “There are so many services we provide and each program requires funding to support it.”

Youth Connections has 177 Safe Place sites in the three counties they serve. Though the national Safe Place is probably the most recognizable program, the organization also offers many other programs that are not as visible to the community due to confidentiality issues. For instance, they provide Child Custody Evaluations, Supervised Visitations, and the Families in Transition program, which requires couples with children who are divorcing to take this class. They also provide Youth & Family Mentoring. The programs are facilitated by Youth Connections staff of four.

“Providing case management and referral services is a new program for us,” Gilbert says. “Single people or couples with children can apply.”

Youth Connections works with each family for a minimum of four weeks.

“We have found that by serving the whole family we are able to see a generational change,” Gilbert says.

Youth mentoring has been a game-changer as it improves such things as interpersonal skills, time management skills and conflict management skills.

“We were not having the impact we wanted with youth during the school day so we partnered with the Boys & Girl Club in Franklin and the Martinsville Youth Development Center to offer the after-school Overcoming Obstacles program,” Gilbert says.

It’s a 12-week curriculum that teaches students about goal setting and how to pursue a career, culminating with a service-learning project. Gilbert says that it’s empowering for students because they lead some of the curriculum. Plus, they learn about how charity organizations work.

A big part of the organization is taking preventative measures to keep youth safe. This includes educating them about the hazards of vaping, substance abuse, healthy relationships and human trafficking.

“We do a lot of cyber safety training, not only for the students but for the parents as well so they know what to look for,” Gilbert adds.

This is key given that human trafficking is becoming prevalent in Johnson County.

“We are excited about our transformation and hope the community will be as well,” Olds says. It will only make Youth Connections stronger.”

In the New Year, Youth Connections, Inc. is hosting their second annual Johnson County Kids Got Talent. Held February 7 at Franklin Community High School, kids can participate in one of two age groups: 5-11 and 12-17. First-place winners in each age group will receive $300, second-place recipients will receive $150. KORN radio 100.3 is the media sponsor.

“It was wildly successful this year,” Gilbert says. “We’re hoping for an even bigger turnout in 2020.”

Youth Connections, Inc. is located at 1195 N. Morton Street, Suite A in Franklin. For more information, or to make a donation, call 317-738-3273 or visit youthconnections.org.

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