By Lynn Utzman-Nichols
|Shari Simmons cut the ribbon to open Corbett House in July 2011.
|Common kitchen area in Corbett House
The 17-year-old girl wears her dark hair long with a splash of red on top. Trendy, yes. And she’s eager to get on with life.
Sara is her first name, and she benefitted from an opportunity that led her away from marijuana, alcohol, stress, anger, and confusion and into college this fall with an optimistic future.
She is one of the teens who have called Corbett House home since the live-in, life-education unit opened a year ago at Mountain Crest Behavioral Healthcare Center. There, she learned life skills, received a high school education and, most importantly, prepared for the rest of her life.
She is about to start her freshman year at Colorado State University, where she’ll live in a dorm and study biochemical engineering. From the outside, you might think she can do this because she had a solid foundation—a supportive family with the means and commitment to help her succeed.
For the most part, Sara has been on her own since childhood. Her parents struggled with addiction and bad choices.
“I grew up fast,” she recalls. “I was always a straight-A student, a very responsible kid. Then I kind of went crazy in high school. I tested my limits and got into trouble.”
Sara’s substance abuse and tough emotional bouts ended with encounters with the legal system and landed her in Mountain Crest’s residential treatment program in November. In February she moved into Corbett House, which offers a transitional living program for youth.
In August she will pack her bags and head to CSU -- quite a journey in less than a year.
She says she always knew she has the ability to attend college, but “I never thought I would. My whole way of life was not moving toward it. Today, I have a full-time job, an awesome boyfriend. I am sober and I’m going to college next month.”
What got her to this point? “Support at Corbett from the counselors and residents, plus my therapist and support group. And my boyfriend, of course,” she says with enthusiasm as she runs her fingers through her hair.
“They gave me the message: ‘You can do it. Let’s see you do it.’ They guided me, but they didn’t tell me what to do. I wasn’t hovered over or leashed up. They cheered me on when I did great and helped me up when I fell on my face.”
What Corbett House is all about
Shari Simmons, manager of Mountain Crest’s residential program, including Corbett House, has a tender spot in her heart for troubled youth. She knows that often they have nowhere to go once they leave foster care, a residential treatment center or are emancipated from their parents.
At 18, they are aged out of the social services system, meaning they are too old to continue receiving government-assisted care provided to minors. Corbett House can help these older teens, who range in age from 17 to 20. It isn’t a walk-in shelter, though. Youth who are placed there are authorized by the Colorado Department of Human Services and Colorado Department of Youth Corrections.
When she cut the ribbon to open Corbett House a year ago, Simmons promised that the youthful residents would have the individual attention they needed to succeed. “We will give them the skills we all need to be successful,” she said.
Corbett House has four bedrooms, with two beds each; a common living area and kitchen; and separate entrance. The average length of stay is six months. Currently, all rooms are full and mostly have been since the doors opened.
Great teaching moments
Simmons says the high occupancy is good because it means Corbett House is used to its full capacity, but disheartening in another way since it reflects the high need for residential services for at-risk youth. In Larimer County, more than 850 youth from the ages of 17 to 20 are homeless. That number of youngsters on the streets translates to about 11 percent of the local chronic homeless population, compared to the national average of 7 percent.
Corbett House’s big focus is on helping teens transition into the real world. “We’re readying them for life,” Simmons says. “We constantly present the youth with tons of real-life scenarios and offer them the tools for navigating through the times that can become tough as young adults.”
Consider this situation that many adults face at one time or another: renting an apartment or home. It can be challenging to deal with leases and landlords.
“We have kids sign a lease and do a walkthrough,” Simmons points out. “There’s an eviction process, just like with real landlords. Each month the youth get Monopoly money in the amount they might earn at a full-time, minimum-wage job. With it, they pay bills that we slip under their doors each week.”
“This really creates those teaching moments for youth that are so important to learn prior to venturing out on their own,” she said.
Teens 17 years or younger who stay at Corbett House have limited options if they leave. They have yet to reach the legal emancipation age of 18, so they eventually might be returned to their family, where things may not have been working well, or they enter the foster care system. Neither option may be the best solution.
“I would have probably ended up in foster care,” Sara said. “It wouldn’t have worked. I’m too rebellious.”
Life at Corbett House
On a typical day, a life coach teaches such practical skills as navigating the bus system, applying for housing or Medicaid, preparing simple meals, getting a driver’s license, and more.
There is important interaction with Fort Collins community members. The program collaborates with local businesses and community resources to secure job opportunities.
Teens attend classes in the evening to learn about resume-writing, job interviewing, home maintenance, healthy relationships, health care and coping skills. They are encouraged to complete online schooling to earn their high school degrees.
Counseling sessions with Mountain Crest’s therapists re-teach the youth healthy approaches to life, Simmons says.
“We take them to Old Town (downtown Fort Collins) and talk about which people they gravitate toward and why—and who might be a better or safer choice," Simmons said. "One girl had a relapse at school and walked out. We took her back to school and walked the halls that she walked. We asked, ‘What was running through your head?’ We talked over new thoughts and options. We call these teaching moments ‘re-dos’ where we help youth see differently.”
Adds Sara: “You have to be willing to face your challenges head on and bust through them or you won’t get anywhere."
Mentoring is an important treatment component, says Damond Dotson, supervisor of Mountain Crest’s Wraparound Program, which brings together a client’s family members, therapists, appropriate community members, and others to help guide the person along the best path.
“We try to have a mentor for every teen,” he says. “We like mentors who have a heart for guiding young people and helping them chart a path for their life and make good decisions. Sometimes mentors are adults who have gone through their own strife and struggles, and are willing to share how they overcame them. This is especially valuable.”
The business of operating Corbett House
Simmons and others who operate Corbett House had revelations during the first year that led to improvements. Simmons explains: “We realized that all kids don’t come to us at the same level, so we added two tracks. Track-one youth need more help with independent living skills and they still need group and individual therapy. They also need supervision in the community. Track-two kids have more skills, no longer need group therapy, and can spend short periods unsupervised in the community. They demonstrate responsibility and a steady learning of independent living skills.”
The program recently signed a contract with the Colorado Department of Youth Corrections to accept youngsters who get released on parole and have nowhere to go. The state agency funds their stays.
UCHealth support provides a substantial foundation, but the largesse of individuals and organizations is also an important asset. Contributions have arrived from many quarters of the community. The Poudre Valley Hospital Volunteer Association donated $33,275 to assist with construction costs, while Home State Bank in Fort Collins, gave $8,000 worth of living room and dining room furniture. Ironwood Plaza Mini-Storage donated a storage area where dishware, towels and other start-up essentials can be stored for youth to take with them when they move out on their own.
OtterCares Foundation, the charitable arm of OtterBox, donated funds for a community garden. The Fort Collins Bike Co-Op lets the youth volunteer as a way to earn a bike. The Larimer County Workforce Center provides pre-employment classes. A Mountain Crest employee, Sara Tcheshie, donated a refrigerator, oven and microwave, and health system employees held a fundraising drive to help get Corbett House open.
All of these efforts have helped shape the youth and gone a long way in ensuring their success. “They deserve a strong start,” Simmons says, “and we give it to them.”
Sara agrees. She says she can hardly wait to arrive on campus and begin unpacking in a dorm room. “I’m looking forward to everything.”
Lynn Utzman-Nichols is a Fort Collins author. To learn more information about Corbett House’s needs or to become a mentor, contact Shari Simmons at 970.207.4800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.