William Wooten, MD, founded Youth First in March 1998 with just his checkbook in his back pocket. Twenty years later, the local nonprofit has placed 41 master’s level social workers in seven area counties, boasts 60 employees, and receives help from more than 1,000 donors, 150 volunteers, and more than 70 schools.
The mission of the organization is to strengthen youth and families through evidence-based programs to prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.
“That’s been the focus of the organization since the beginning,” says Wooten. “One of the things that inspired me was all the barriers to receiving care. Youth First removes all those obstacles.”
Through Youth First, students and families can receive care and services regardless of ability to pay, whether it be prevention programs offered in the community or one-on-one guidance from social workers placed throughout the school system.
“People all over the country were just wringing their hands saying ‘What can we do?’” says Carol Lynch, a founding board member of Youth First. “It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning. [Wooten] says it was harder to start Youth First than it was going to medical school. We are a well-kept secret in Indiana and the country.”
The Youth First Social Work Program is the organization’s largest and most impactful strategy provided in the community, annually serving more than 15,000 students — some starting in elementary school and continuing until they graduate from high school. During the 2016-2017 school year, 98 percent of graduating seniors who received Youth First Social Work services had college or career plans and 99 percent of caseload and small group students advanced to the next grade level or graduated.
“I think the community and schools recognize the needs and recognize the value Youth First provides,” says CEO and Youth First president Parri Black. “Kids and parents have told us lives truly have been saved. Our school administrators have seen a big change.”
“It’s really a win-win with the school and our mission,” says Wooten. “They’re getting a lot of oversight and training that would not be available to a standalone social worker. They can follow these kids throughout the school year and into the future if they need to. They know their family. They know their issues. It’s invaluable.”
One such student benefiting from Youth First’s programs and services is 16-year-old Ethan (who prefers to be identified only by his first name). He began working with Youth First last year at Harrison High School in the Teen Series program, which is designed for freshmen and provides the tools to handle topics like substance use and abuse, dating, depression, anxiety, and anger.
Throughout his time with Youth First, Ethan has worked closely with one of the organization’s social workers Dawn Tedrow, finishing the Teen Series curriculum and moving on to Reconnecting Youth — a semester-long program for high school students at risk of dropping out due to drug use, school performance, or emotional and mental distress.
“It probably wasn’t until a few months into Reconnecting Youth that I realized I had a drug abuse problem,” says Ethan. “I first thought Reconnecting Youth was just trying to fix me, and I didn’t like that in the beginning until I understood what it was.”
“Ethan struggled with his anger but used Reconnecting Youth to learn new coping techniques to deal with things,” says Tedrow. “I hardly recognize him now. He has matured so much.”
After working with Tedrow and graduating from Reconnecting Youth, Ethan decided to attend high school online and plans to graduate a year early next year. His goal is to continue on to college to study business and marketing.
“It’s important to know there’s a way out. There’s always another road you can take,” says Ethan. “You need support. I felt like I had something holding me up and feeling accountable. I don’t want to let Youth First down. I don’t want to disappoint my family or anyone.”
Wooten says he would like to have at least one Youth First social worker in every school within Daviess, Martin, Pike, Gibson, Posey, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties to provide programs at all levels. At the end of the organization’s first two decades, the nonprofit already is providing programming for expectant parents through every stage of development up until graduation from high school.
“Youth First is paying attention to the learning curve and being ahead of it,” says Black. “There always are new kids, new parents, and new challenges.”
“You can’t stop,” says Wooten. “You can’t take your foot off the gas.”
What: Edward Jones Emerald Gala Celebrating Youth First’s 20th Anniversary
When: 5:30-11:30 p.m. April 21
Where: Tropicana Evansville, 421 N.W. Riverside Drive