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Entering adulthood: Nevada County’s Youth Collaborative seeks to make teen years easier, healthier

A pair of students admire artwork in NEO Youth Center in Grass Valley. NEO is a nonprofit youth center and youth empowerment program for yound people aged 11-25.
Courtesy Kial James

The Youth Collaborative is a group of local nonprofits who identify and work with partnership with programs and services aimed at providing resources in support of at-risk children and youth.

The breadth of its collective knowledge is substantial, and its members are all experienced professionals representing their respective organization in an effort to help local youth thrive.

The collaborative offers services for children of all ages, and acknowledges that a child’s teen years, from age 13-18, are often the years that significantly shape a person’s life.

Notably, said New Events and Opportunities (NEO) Youth Center director and co-founder Lynn Skrukrud, teen years are incredibly impactful on a person’s sense of self and worth.

“Independence is huge at that age,” Skrukrud said, “so that’s just an overarching thing that they are looking for – their independence, but at the same time they need a lot of guidance to help them along the way. A lot of youth just need someone to talk to, but without being bossed around.”

Dena Valin Malakian, associate director of The Friendship Club, agreed.

“They need to build their self-confidence,” said Malakian. “That’s a really big thing that I am seeing with adolescent girls, that they come to us not knowing their own worth. And so we’re really helping them discover who they are. If they’re different, that’s awesome. It’s about embracing that.”

The Youth Collaborative is eager for the community to become more familiar with their services, and utilize them as needed.


The Friendship Club identifies itself as an entity that offers social, emotional, and academic support. Founded by Executive Director Jennifer Singer in 1995, the nonprofit organization offers a year-round program that serves between 80-100 girls in grades 6-12 annually.

Singer said the program is structured, and does not operate on a drop-in basis. Instead, she said, participants are enrolled in the program, where she and her staff hope they will remain through high school.

“We have six program focus areas,” said Singer. “The six areas are goal setting, health and wellness, community connectedness, self sufficiency, healthy relationships, and awareness. Everything we are doing is touching one or more of the six program impact areas.”

Girls in the Friendship Club are referred to the program, and are interviewed as part of the intake process. The girls’ families are also interviewed, so that the club can form a more formal relationship with each girl and her family.

Each girl can be connected to counseling services or one-one-ones with staff if needed, and Malakian said such support can make all the difference in a young woman’s life.

“If they’re really needing extra support from someone they trust, we can spend time with them and take their minds off of some of the challenges happening now,” she said.

A number of participating girls come from homes where support from a female role model isn’t available. Some, Malakian said, are being raised by fathers or grandfathers who often don’t understand the changing needs of a teenage or adolescent girl.

“They have these relationships with us where they do feel if they are not getting it at home, they can come and talk to us,” said Malakian.

Depending on the grant year, about 85-90 percent of funding for The Friendship Club comes from the community and their donations. Singer said without the community support, the club likely wouldn’t exist.

“Teens are trying to be more independent and assert their independence,” Malakian said. “They don’t get that they need adults there for them more than ever, because they are going to be faced with really difficult choices.”


Skrukrud of NEO Youth Center sees firsthand nearly every day the need for 13-16 year olds to exert and maintain their newfound independence. In addition, she said, kids are dealing with a whole new 21st century challenge: cyber bullying.

“I do think that bullying is a big problem for teens today,” says Skrukrud, “but I think it looks different than the stereotypical bullying we think of from the past. We don’t see kids stealing each other’s lunch money. Instead we see cyber bullying, where youth are attacked online via social media.”

NEO, she added, is able to support youth who are bullied by providing a safe bully-free place for youth to connect with others in a positive social environment. Its staff and volunteer mentors act as a support system for youth who are struggling and refer them to resources as needed.

Skrukrud and her co-director Halli Ellis-Edwards founded NEO when they were fresh out of high school. They noticed the lack of positive and productive activities available to local youth, and in turn saw many kids – including people they knew – making negative and misinformed choices.

At their drop-in center, Ellis-Edwards, Skrukrud and their staff have enrolled 500 active members and typically see 20-70 per day.

“We really get youth from every walk of life,” says Skrukrid. “We have a lot who are at-risk and we consider that every youth is one life-changing event from being at-risk.”

“So no matter how good of a family they come from, how well they are doing in school, it just takes one thing. It could be being bullied in school, or divorce, or all kinds of things that could then set them off.”

Through hands-on activities and a myriad of learning opportunities – yoga, car maintenance, and video design are but a few offered classes – NEO hopes to prevent teen and young adults from becoming a statistic.

Skrukrud said it is a known fact that more teen girls become pregnant during the hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. This is the most common time for teens to be without adult supervision, and therefore engage in risky activity.

Enrollment in NEO is completely free, and the majority of its funds come from individuals and fund raisers the center holds. The group’s success is evident in its plans to expand its space in January to 5,00 square feet of indoor space and an 8,000 square foot outdoors area.


The topic of mental health has been prevalent in the media, and youth are not exempt from depression, anxiety or a variety of other symptoms or disorders.

What’s Up Wellness has implemented a program in local high schools that screens students for suicide risk, depression, substance abuse and other emotional health challenges. In such a critical time as adolescence, their hope is to provide prevention and support to those students who need it.

Shellee Sepko, licensed family and marriage therapist, is director of What’s Up Wellness and said their screening program is essential for determining mental and emotional health challenges early on.

What’s Up began as an offshoot of the Suicide Prevention Task Force, a group made up of representatives from different service agencies and community members. Sepko said there was a community effort to find an evidence-based screening program to help prevent suicide.

Much research was done and eventually the group located a program out of Columbia University called Teen Screen that provided a model for what would come to be What’s Up Wellness.

In addition to screening youths for mental and emotional challenges, the program also offers additional referrals to services such as housing and food assistance.

What’s Up’s main goal is suicide prevention, said Sepko, but they also strive to provide resources and introduce kids to healthy coping skills.

“Academic stress is big for kids; the pressure is on for them,” Sepko said. “There are worries about their grades, and bullying is a big thing on campus. Schools are doing their best with that, but it’s there.”

Social media, she said, is also a relatively new source of stress for many teens. Online bullying is more prevalent than ever, and there is an overall pressure on students to be liked, which can lead to sensitivities that are specific to the use of online platforms.

What’s Up Wellness offers all incoming high school freshmen in the Nevada Union and Tahoe Truckee Unified school districts the opportunity to be screened. Parents are sent a consent form at the beginning of the school year, and much of the funding for the program is provided by the state.

“They take the screening and it opens their eyes to the emotional health world of their peers,” added Sepko. “In general kids are open to it. It’s totally voluntary. If they are willing to do is up to them. It can bring them perspective, and some are appreciative of just being asked the questions.”

The importance of educating high school aged kids is of the utmost importance, according to Sepko, as tenth graders hold the highest rate of completion of suicide.


The Youth Collaborative offers many services for youth age 13-18.

Community Recovery Resources offers support with a full spectrum of wellness-focused programs to reduce the social, health and economic impact on families and children from all types of substance abuse and behavioral health issues. More info can be found at http://www.corr.us.

PARTNERS Family Resource Centers engage and partner with families, educators, and the community to better support children’s development, create connections, and increase access to local resources. Visit www.partnersfamilyresourcecenters.org for details.

Community Beyond Violence offers many services for children and adults, including children’s individual counseling and group programs for the children of domestic abuse victims. They collaborate closely with local public and private social service agencies in Nevada County to make sure its clients have access to a full range of social services that may help them in their situation. Additional information can be located at http://www.cbv.org.

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.

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