Initiated by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health, COACT connects leaders in the field of youth services, human services, and education. COACT knew they were interested in creating an AmeriCorps program specifically to support youth mental health. They imagined that Youth Peer Support Specialists (YPSS) in this role would help youth move into adulthood, obtaining good jobs, creating networks of family and social support, and making educational gains. What it would look like exactly, they had not yet decided.
Before jumping straight to action, COACT partnered with The Civic Canopy, Unfolding Directions, and Local County Site Coordinators to engage in a year of planning. Taking this time comes out the belief that to truly achieve equitable outcomes, we must go slow initially to go fast in the long run. To ensure that those most affected by the potential AmeriCorps program would be able to impact the decision, the Canopy hosted conversations throughout:
- Garfield and Gunnison Counties on the Western Slope,
- Denver and Boulder Counties in the Metro Area,
- Pueblo County in the Southeast,
- Lake County in the Central Mountain Region
The Canopy brought a range of perspectives to the table from contractors, to state agencies, to local youth organizations and advocates, each with their own personal and rich history around youth advocacy and mental health. Some of the results could be expected, like repeatedly hearing that youth should be supported to have independent living skills and meaningful employment. What was unique, however, was the way these varied stakeholders were able to think through what it would mean for youth had experience navigating systems, changes, and difficult experiences to provide peer support to others.
Often service providers see these youth as victims of their growing-up experience, rather than as people who provide support to others. Thinking through how they could play a role as Youth Peer Support Specialist (YPSS) required that they think through, from the youth perspective:
- What times of training and supports would be required?
- How to ensure YPS members had their basic needs met?
- Who would be eligible and how to handle background checks?
As a result of taking the time to really think through the program potential, the collaborators created a description of the YPSS role, training plan, supervision structure, and coaching schedule. In the first year of the program, they received 9 applications from across the state that included collaboration between over 40 different agencies.