In a sunny space just south of the Salida High School football field Saturday, members of the Family Youth Initiative, (FYI) Chaffee County Youth Alliance (CCYA) and volunteers worked to build a dedicated conversation place, ringed by colorful flowers and landscape rock with two centerpiece chairs for meaningful talk.
At the same time, FYI and CCYA staff and volunteers were creating similar spaces in Buena Vista and in Poncha Springs. The coordinated approach underlies this premise: that meaningful talk can potentially change, and even save, lives.
The Chaffee County Youth Alliance program “Listen Longer”, encourages making time to connect in important conversations. It is supported by funds from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and private donations.
CCYA Coordinator Craig Bingham encouraged everyone to find the other “Let’s Make Space” locations within the county. Simultaneous ceremonies were held at Chipeta Park in Poncha Springs, McPhelemy Park, as well as Columbine Park both in Buena Vista.
The effort reflected in similar spaces created around the county is designed to help prevent youth-impaired driving and substance use or other risky decisions by providing a safe space for such frank discussions.
“I know I have a tendency, as the elders in the south would say, [about me] I’m bad about it – greeting somebody, asking how they are doing and immediately turning to something else,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “… It’s very important for us to take time and listen to each other and have empathy, we feel that inner obligations to our fellow human beings, need to take time to listen to each other. I love the way these chairs are configured, it forces whoever is sitting there to be face to face — to listen to each other.”
“My parents were terrific, but they were busy, other adults were good resources for me,” said Buena Vista Mayor Libby Fay, who said she needed outside support as a teen when her father became ill with cancer. “I appreciated that they were there for me.”
Bingham welcomed participants in the Salida location and directed the work of installing the decorative flowers and shrubs in a semi-circle around two tailback wooden chairs facing parallel to each other.
The idea for the Listen Longer spaces has been brewing for a time; the pandemic and things like supply chain issues had delayed it until this year, according to one supporter.
Youth Advisor to the Alliance Matt Eckert said the group usually meets weekly on Tuesdays to plan youth events as options to more potentially risky activities such as drinking and driving.
Among the volunteers working to plant the flowers was County Commissioner and former Salida Mayor P.T. Wood, along with students and adult organizers.
Before cutting the ribbon in dedication after the planting was complete Wood said: “One, getting kids talking and talking deeply about tough subjects can be hard, but it’s really important; and I think also equally important is actually getting adults to listen to kids talk, and hear what they’re saying.”
“I really hope these two chairs help facilitate those really important tough conversations that we need to be having with our kids and that folks are hearing them and listening to them and making those important connections,” he added.
“Every two years the state does the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, where we listen to kids, and collect data,” said Baker. “We have found 80 percent of the kids had a trusted adult, but when they needed that person, it turns out that fewer than 60 percent of youth ever turn to those trusted adults. ”
“It’s very important for youth to have conversations with adults, and for adults to show real empathy, not be judgemental and truly mentor them,” he added.
The chairs are both public art and functional, noted Baker, adding that the project has been funded with a statewide Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) grant program. “If we can keep kids from driving impaired, we might keep them alive a little bit longer.”
The Family and Youth Initiative, now under the Chaffee County Department of Human Services is 15 years old and has a focused goal; “to provide evidence-based prevention programs to promote safety, health, and self-sufficiency among Chaffee County youth and families.”
Editor’s Note: Managing Editor Jan Wondra contributed the Buena Vista viewpoint to the main news story written by AVV Senior Reporter Dan Smith.