It was just after 3:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon when exclamations, shouts and laughter erupted from the room of a Carbondale home.
There, six teens and their campaign leader were gathered around a table just getting into a soon-to-be three-hour afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons.
As they took on the roles of their characters, voice effects and all, the young adults exercised creative freedom through the tabletop fantasy game as they’d done most every Wednesday after school since they started the Dungeons and Dragons group last spring.
But it wasn’t just a game meet-up at just any home in Carbondale. It was a time for the teens to check in with each other and their mentors at Stepping Stones, a Carbondale-based safe space that aims to give kids ages 10 to 21 up and down the valley consistent access to positive adult mentors, basic needs, educational support, skills development and empowering experiences.
“It’s nice that there’s a place where you don’t have to worry about what people think,” said Juliana Carpenter, 15, one of the teens at the Dungeons and Dragons table.
“You can be and connect on your own terms and let go of the daily stress of your life for awhile,” added Shannon Moran, 19.
Over the past five years, Stepping Stones has created partnerships with families and schools to offer guidance and support to teens during the day and in the evenings.
Five nights a week in two buildings adjacent to each other, teens can access free dinners, laundry, showers and educational support. Adult mentors are available to talk one-on-one with young adults, or in group settings like the one held every Wednesday.
“I try to check in on everyone by working it into the game,” said Jonathan Greener, assistant director of Stepping Stones, mentor and the Dungeons and Dragons campaign leader for the Wednesday night group.
“Our model is about meeting kids wherever they’re at and living out life together in a way that prioritizes personal health and is empowering for ourselves and the young people.”
CREATING A YOUTH-DRIVEN SAFE SPACE
According to the Stepping Stones’ 2018 annual report, the nonprofit served over 6,000 meals, saw 6,279 drop-in visitors and engaged 92 kids in 1,232 mentor sessions.
The annual report also shows 68.85% of the drop-in centers’ youth identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 27.86% identify as White or Caucasian.
But while Stepping Stones aims to ensure the valley’s young adults have access to meals and other basic needs, along with experiential learning opportunities like camping and mountain biking, Executive Director Kyle Crawley said the nonprofit is anchored on building positive relationships.
“There aren’t a ton of brick-and-mortar spaces in the valley for just kids and having that space is important, but we want to go deeper than that,” Crawley said. “Here we meet with kids on an individual level and so naturally the challenges they face come up which we help them work through.”
Crawley said Stepping Stones mentors work with youth at a 10 kids-to-one adult ratio, and have seen everything from gender and identity struggles, to substance abuse and mental health challenges.
Because the nonprofit’s programming and resources are all free and voluntary, Crawley said not all of the kids who come to Stepping Stones are a part of the mentoring program, but those who are meet with adults on a consistent basis, year-round and whenever the young adult needs them.
“Life happens at all different times,” Crawley said. “These kids have a variety of needs and are facing a myriad of challenges that requires an in-depth kind of attention.”
Crawley has worked to give that level of attention as a mentor himself to several young adults in need, including Austin Brown, 19, of Snowmass Village.
Brown has been coming to Stepping Stones at least once a week ever since it opened its doors in 2014, and views it as a space that has helped him conquer his personal challenges.
“When I came in here, I struggled with a video game addiction. I’d spend two to three hours a day playing games because in that world, I could be who I wanted to be,” Brown said. “The video game world became the real world for me.”
Since he’s come to Stepping Stones, he said people like Crawley have helped him realize video games aren’t everything in life, and it’s best to go out, be active and meet people.
He also said the youth space has introduced him to new friends and helped him grow more confident in himself.
“In the past I’ve felt a lot of depression and felt this was the only place I could go in the valley and the only place that could help me overcome it,” Brown said. “Stepping Stones is a place that no matter what you’re going through you can really be yourself and no none will judge you. … Not only do you make friends, the moment you walk through the door it’s a big family that always has your back.”
STEPPING UP FOR MORE VALLEY YOUTH
Crawley said although the majority of the kids Stepping Stones serves are based in Carbondale, there are some teens who utilize its services from Snowmass Village to New Castle.
In 2018, the nonprofit started its youth program for middle-schoolers, expanding to the building adjacent to the original Stepping Stones house, which Crawley said was just the start of its plans to elevate its youth mentor model in Carbondale and bring it to more kids in need across the valley.
Over the next few years, Stepping Stones plans to renovate its roughly 8,000 square foot combined space in Carbondale, connecting the two buildings and creating more of a community hub for both kids and their families.
The renovation is the first phase of a three-pronged project, which includes raising $800,000 to revamp the Carbondale space, pay off the nonprofit’s loans and lastly start to expand its services through the creation of a new drop-in center in the Basalt area called Patrick’s Place.
“Our life-changing spaces and mentoring program creates stepping stones for youth to rise above adversity and find belonging and personal growth that would last a lifetime,” a Stepping Stones campaign statement reads.
For Temple Glassier, the expansion to the Basalt area, El Jebel specifically, is important to ensuring these stepping stones reach more of the young adults living up valley.
On Nov. 3, 2017, Glassier’s 15-year-old son, Patrick Palardy, died by suicide just a year after his father. Soon after Patrick’s death, Glassier partnered with Stepping Stones to craft the vision for Patrick’s Place, a drop-in center similar to the ones in Carbondale that would be open longer and offer more activities for Basalt-area youth, including sports fields, a student sculpture plaza, garden, barn with animals and more, according to preliminary plan documents.
A 1.8-acre area west of the El Jebel fire station was donated to Glassier and Stepping Stones for Patrick’s Place, meaning moving forward just comes down to raising the money; first to renovate the space in Carbondale and pay off loans, then to start on the previously estimated $2.2 million El Jebel project.
“It’s a big dream but it’s a dream that fulfills a huge need in our valley,” Glassier, a Stepping Stones board member, said of the Patrick’s Place project. “It’s still the same vision, it just takes time and it’s a matter of getting the valley community to buy in and want to participate.”
Glassier, Crawley and the rest of the Stepping Stones team aren’t the only ones who want to see the nonprofit grow its services and expand its reach in the Roaring Fork Valley — the young adults at the recent Wednesday night group meeting, the majority of whom are from the Basalt area, voiced their hopes for the Stepping Stones youth community to grow, too.
As they continued to roll their fates in the Dungeon and Dragons campaign, they talked about how the weekly group has grown to become a good support system for one another, and how they work to spread the word about Stepping Stones mainly through word-of-mouth.
“The diversity at Stepping Stones is amazing, when all of the groups come together for things like hut trips it feels like we’ve all been friends this entire time,” Chey French, 17, said. “You don’t get that in a normal school setting, there’s nothing like that.”
“In our area, I think a lot of young people feel isolated geographically, socially and financially, and our valley has one of the highest rates of mental illness and suicide in the country,” Shannon Moran, 19, added. “But this is a safe house. It’s a reprieve from all of that. Everyone should come here.”