Melissa Mouton founded 5280 High School in Denver after meeting a teenager who had gone six months without using heroin.
When she asked him how he stayed sober, the teenager said he had to drop out of school because it was like a “drug den.”
The encounter left Mouton, a physician, with a nagging feeling. High schools weren’t working for kids like him — who needed an education in a space free from drugs. So a year later, she took the plunge and launched 5280 High School, a school aimed at supporting students in their recovery.
5280 High School is just one of 18 grantees that the Caring for Denver Foundation supported this year as it works to shore up alternatives to the criminal justice system. Grants also went to co-responder programs run by the city that are designed to bring mental health services to people who are in crisis, programs offering medication-assisted treatment for addiction and supportive housing for people in recovery.
The foundation was created in 2018 after Denver voters approved a 0.25% sales tax to fund behavioral health services.
The group’s aim is to “reduce the folks touching the justice system, because of mental health and substance misuse,” said Lorez Meinhold, its executive director. This year, it awarded $12.1 million to nonprofits and organizations — with an emphasis on helping young people. The awardees say the fund has allowed them to improve and transform young people’s lives, diverting kids from the streets or jail.
“We’re making sure we’re not just bringing young people to their trauma, but helping them get through it,” Meinhold said.
Youth Advocate Programs, which also received a Caring for Denver Foundation grant, said the support will help expand its reach, said Patty Rosati, the program’s southwest region vice president.
Youth Advocate Programs — a national program which began 47 years ago and focuses on juvenile justice and child welfare — does everything from setting up families with the local food bank to keeping kids busy during potential “trouble hours” by doing special projects at home or teaching them to give back to the community. Some kids feel they have nothing to give back, Rosati said, but the program aims to instill value and confidence in kids by teaching them that everyone has something to offer — even helping an elderly neighbor carry in groceries.
The group’s Denver office received $150,000 for the next two years. With the funding, the organization plans to hire a full-time staff member, which Rosati says will allow them to hire staff and get numerous kids off the wait list for the program.
Right now, the wait for service is about three weeks, with the Denver program serving around 35 to 50 kids at any given week. Rosati hopes to be able to expand that to 50 to 60 kids in a week, which the grant will help them do.
A statewide labor shortage has made it difficult to find people willing to do the “soul-searching, gut-wrenching type of work” that comes with working in child welfare, Rosati said.
The job isn’t the standard 8-5 shift, but Rosati said that’s what makes it so rewarding. She recalled a time where the mother of a family they’d been working with died and the siblings were set to be separated, with two of the children being sent to relatives in Kansas.
But when the child had to return for a court date regarding custody, the state did not have a spare bed for him. “Even though the child did nothing wrong and had been through all this trauma, they had nowhere for him to go,” Rosati said. “So they were going to put him in a detention facility.”
Rosati and her team knew that the child had been through enough trauma, so the director of Youth Advocate Programs got certified by Denver Human Services, took the kid in for the weekend, fed him and supported him. When the kid was sent back to Kansas, the program’s counterpart in Kansas picked him up from the airport.
5280 High School has a different approach. Mouton said that the program has been able to reduce substance misuse by spending eight hours a day, five days a week with teenagers in some of the most transformative years of their lives. School is the “mechanism for change,” she said.
They received $122,000 each year for the next three years through the Caring for Denver Foundation grant, which Mouton said allowed them to fund recovery staff, including therapists, for their program. Schools are underfunded in general in Colorado, Mouton added, and the small school with a specialized mission needed the extra support.
To measure success, Mouton said they ask kids to report on their mental health and quality of life. When students first come into the school, they generally rate their quality of life on average at a two. But within six months, Mouton said kids start ranking their quality of life at an eight on average.
She hopes that Denver will become a national model for behavioral health services and transforming young lives. The work they do, Mouton said, is not a quick fix. It’s thinking about the “long game.”
“We truly can fundamentally put people on different paths in life for the long term,” Mouton said.