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Empowering youth

A look at Colorado organizations impacting young lives

At age 18, Devin Urioste was struggling. He was behind on school credits and had experienced a run-in with the law for spray-painting. In order to catch up on credits that he needed to graduate, Urioste enrolled in Denver’s Respect Academy, a public school dedicated to a blended and flexible learning environment to help motivate students to earn a high school diploma. It was there that Urioste was introduced to Youth on Record, a Denver-based youth outreach program using music to empower students. That’s when things started to change for the better.  

“At that point in my life, I thought that art was just something that was going to get me in trouble, and that I couldn’t do anything with the skills that I had,” says Urioste. “[Youth on Record] came in showing me that there’s a positive direction where I could put all this energy.” 

For Colorado’s youth, the road to graduation and post-graduate life isn’t always easy. Adams County ranks 21 out of Colorado’s 25 counties for overall child well-being, according to the 2015 Kids Count in Colorado report. Faced with a variety of socioeconomic factors, students can find themselves faced with challenges at home, school or with peers. But some students are finding a new hope through less traditional avenues like music, entrepreneurship and outdoor exploration. 

Achievement through music

Youth on Record began under the name in 2008, originally organized by members of rock and hip-hop group The Flobots, as an organization centered around youth-focused community outreach and voter registration. Since then, the organization has evolved to become the largest music provider for Denver Public Schools. 

“Our model is pretty simple,” says Youth on Record Executive Director Jami Duffy. “We employ professional local musicians to go into high school classrooms and teach for-credit classes to youth who are off-track to graduate from high school.”

Youth on Record primarily serves high-needs kids, using music courses as an incentive to get them excited about school. In addition, Youth on Record also operates a 4,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art recording studio and facility, the Youth Media Studio, which allows students to expand their musical passions beyond the classroom and work on special projects. Most importantly, however, the organization focuses on the mentorship between teachers and students, with an emphasis on contextual learning and career readiness. 

To do this, students are partnered with teachers of similar cultural and geographic backgrounds who work with students to develop and follow through with music-based projects – anything from the ukulele to sound production. Students who are interested in performing are encouraged to do so through the organization’s many partnerships and reach within the overall music community. 

For Urioste, it was a transformational experience. Now at age 21, Urioste performs under the name Mace Windu and applies the skills he learned with Youth on Record in his personal and professional life. He both performs and produces music, and was recently featured in his second art show. He’s also sharing the knowledge he’s gained along the way by teaching beginner’s music production at his former school, Respect Academy. Urioste is also an artist in residence at Anythink, teaching music production to teens.

“I’m using [music and art] as my income,” says Urioste. “I’m doing things I never thought I could do for a living.” 

Girl power

Walk into the lobby of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library in Denver, and you might just find yourself with a warm cup of coffee from the Bold Beans pop-up coffee cart, with all the espresso, coffee and tea drinks you could expect to find at any local café. But what sets this small business apart is that it’s fully operated by teenagers. The teens are all part of Girls Inc. of Metro Denver, a non-profit dedicated to the empowerment of young girls, and their involvement goes far beyond pouring coffee. 

“They’re baristas, but they also do engagement and take the business out to the community,” says Sonya Ulibarri, president & CEO of Girls Inc. of Metro Denver. “They helped with the business plan and the brand ideas. They ran a pilot and invested the money from the pilot into the business. From product development to product and loss, they understand the concepts. They are deep in the operational components of that business. They’ve been involved from the very beginning stages and are now supported with hourly positions through the cart.” 

Bold Beans is just one example of the ways that Girls Inc. empowers young women. The organization promotes everything from rock climbing to robotics, but they have three major focus areas for programming: academic success, health and leadership, and self-advocacy. With these goals in mind, Girls Inc. helps to reach girls and push them to new bounds not just for success in high school, but into adulthood. Because the organization focuses on girls and women specifically, it also works to address some of the larger social issues they face.  

“For us, we’re able to really meet the unique needs that girls have and understand the social context in which girls and women are operating today, which includes being able to meet the needs in gap areas,” notes Ulibarri. “STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is an example of that. We know that although girls are going to college at a higher rate than boys, that still only about 25 percent of college degrees for girls are in the STEM fields. We also know that because nine out of 10 of the highest-paying jobs are coming out in the STEM degrees, that it’s an area tied to long-term economic empowerment and economic self-sufficiency for women.”

The call of the wild

Colorado is home to some of the country’s most celebrated landscapes. Individuals come from all over the world to hike, climb, ski and explore the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding high plains. But many kids that live in the Denver area don’t have those same opportunities to access the state’s most treasured features. In fact, 80 percent of Denver Public School children have never been to the mountains, according to the Colorado Independent. 

Colorado Outward Bound School is working to change that. The school, which has been in existence since WWII, runs a variety of programs that take young adults on epic adventures to help them learn valuable life skills. While traditional programs might take aim at some of the more academic challenges that students face, Colorado Outward Bound School focuses instead on providing transformational experiences that help promote empowerment and compassion. 

“We’re a character-development school,” says Peter A. O’Neil, executive director for Colorado Outward Bound School. “The academics are covered by a lot of great high schools and universities. We do the other piece that is so integral to shaping a human being.” 

Those other pieces include a focus on five specific tenets: an enterprising curiosity; tenacity; readiness for sensible self-denial; an indefatigable spirit; and, above all, compassion. To achieve them, Colorado Outward Bound School instructors – many of whom are former students – take groups of young adults out into the wilderness for adventures. Leaving behind technology, students embark upon explorations, including rock climbing, river rafting, backpacking and canyoneering. And the results of these adventures are impactful: One year after completing Colorado Outward Bound School courses, 93 percent of surveyed students reported a stronger belief in their ability to succeed, and 74 percent of participants had participated in community service.

For students who have had limited exposure to the great outdoors, that transformation can begin with simply experiencing nature for the first time.  

“I watch these students just absolutely soak up being in the forest or sitting by the creek writing in their journals,” O’Neill recalls of a group of Denver students on a recent Colorado Outward Bound School trip. “They were just reveling in the beauty.” 

Want to get involved? 

Become a mentor. Organizations throughout the Denver metro area need volunteers to help empower students. Find a group that fits your needs or visit to search available opportunities. 

Become an artist in residence at Anythink. We’re looking for videographers, graphic designers, musicians and other creatives to work with customers to push their creativity to new bounds. Visit for more information. 

Can’t commit to in-person mentoring opportunities? Some organizations now offer e-mentorship opportunities that allow you to help mentor through texts, emails and online chat. Visit to learn more. 

Send your questions or feedback to or post in the comments below.