Noting a lack of services in NoCo for teens, Laurie Klith stepped forward to empower youth to make healthy choices.
SHORTLY AFTER THE final school bells ring around town, a group of teenagers congregates inside a cozy building in Old Town. Lounging around an oblong table, they check their phones, scrolling, tapping, eyes glued to their screens. Suddenly a spunky woman in a flowing skirt breezes into the room, readers dangling from a cord around her neck. It’s Laurie Klith. She greets each person by name, joking with them, demanding in a firm- but-fun way that they turn off their phones. “You know me,” she says, grinning. “I make you actually look at and talk to each other!”
After a quick catch-up, Klith gets down to business. She asks the youth to tell her about drugs they’ve used. One boy, a sophomore in a gray T-shirt, murmurs something about OxyContin. The tween girl next to him says she got a ticket for underage drinking but has also tried cocaine. Another boy, a freshman in a baseball cap, says he got caught with weed at school, and he doesn’t understand why it’s such a big deal, because it’s legal in Colorado and his parents smoke pretty much every day. Before Klith can address this, emphasizing that just like alcohol, marijuana use is illegal for youth, everyone starts weighing on this topic, threatening to overpower the conversation. Klith raises one hand in a stop signal. “Let me ask you,” she says. “How easy is it for you to get these drugs?”
The kids laugh. One guy shouts, “Easy. Don’t even have to leave home!” Another holds up his phone. “Five minutes?”
Klith nods. She’s been doing this work for more than three decades, so this doesn’t surprise her, although in the last couple of years it’s struck her that smartphones have become the go-to resource for adolescents, with information and “connection” literally at their fingertips. Which is why, as the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Family Outreach (TCFFO), she directs them to power off their devices, encouraging them to look inside themselves to identify why they’re using, and fostering the real-life skills and tools they need to make healthy decisions. Her work extends beyond substance abuse; she and her team also tackle anger management, conflict resolution and a wide variety of mental health issues.
Klith’s passion for kids started early in her career, when she found herself advocating for youth and families in her job at the sheriff’s office, trying to keep adolescents out of the court system and often not succeeding. She acknowledged that there was a glaring gap in services for teens in NoCo. Finally, in 2000, she took a leap of faith, going home to her husband and saying, “I’m going to open up a nonprofit that will do education, prevention and early intervention for kids ages 8 through 18, and we’re going to build a system that keeps kids out of the courts.”
Her husband balked, asking her if she knew nonprofits didn’t make any money. (She did.) But he supported her vision, so she went for it, working with the district attorney’s office to launch her nonprofit with a Diversion program, an education and skills-based program for youth who had received a ticket, taking on an initial caseload of about 50 kids. She had only a few staff, and one phone.
Over the last18 years TCFFO has grown significantly, serving nearly 25,000 youth in Fort Collins and Loveland and working with about 500 adolescents each year. The staff now includes multiple case managers, sliding-scale therapists (including an addiction specialist and animal-assisted therapists), and a service-learning coordinator. Most youth spend three to four months with TCFFO as they navigate an individualized plan that engages their whole family, and kids are referred from a whole host of community resources: human services agencies, the faith community, law enforcement, and school counselors. “It’s not just referrals,” says Klith. “At any time a parent can come in and say their kid’s getting into trouble or they noticed a warning sign. They can call us, come in, visit our website. We have so many resources.”
One of the things that makes Klith most proud is that her nonprofit has proven to be effective: TCFFO has an 88 percent success rate of keeping youth out of the court system. There are many examples—the 13-year-old boy who was referred to TCFFO for severe anger issues and is now thriving in the armed forces, or the 16-year-old girl who was getting into loads of trouble, and after completing her plan with TCFFO, recently graduated from high school.
But of course, there is always more work to be done. Moving forward, Klith would really like to expand her services to reach 18- to 24-year-olds, and she also believes NoCo desperately needs a mental health facility so that kids aren’t sent away for treatment. As for her role in all of this? “Well, I’ve been working in this field for 32 years,” she says. “And I’m thinking, hey, another three or four, and then maybe I’ll be done?”