From Hanging Out to Healing: Vermont Teens Find Support Through Spectrum Youth & Family Services | Paid Post | Youth | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Christina Brown, Basic Needs program manager; Hannah Hutchens, AmeriCorps food coordinator; Faith Hughes, youth coach - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Christina Brown, Basic Needs program manager; Hannah Hutchens, AmeriCorps food coordinator; Faith Hughes, youth coach

On a cold and blustery Vermont winter day, it's a relief to duck inside and warm up. Young adults with no place else to go can come to the Spectrum Youth & Family Services Drop-In Center, at 177 Pearl Street in Burlington.

The Drop-In Center serves youth ages 14 to 24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The well-lit, newly renovated space has a full-service kitchen, and colorful art hangs on the walls. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, it offers a safe place to hang out. Visitors can take a shower, do laundry, charge their phones, get free hygiene products or pick up winter clothes. They can work on a jigsaw puzzle or an art project or even cook a meal with a Spectrum staff member.

"It's a cozy space. It's a warm and welcoming space," said Basic Needs program manager Christina Brown. "That's what I feel when I'm there."

This homey place can provide comfort and stability to youth unaccustomed to either. Many of the young people whom Spectrum serves are struggling with a wide range of issues, from housing and food insecurity to substance-use disorders and other kinds of trauma.

"We're supporting folks through some of the hardest times in their lives," Brown said.

The Drop-In Center functions as a kind of front door to Spectrum and all of its services, which have expanded since the organization was founded in 1970. Today, Spectrum provides counseling, housing and job training to roughly 1,500 youth and their families each year through its facilities in Burlington and St. Albans. Its counseling program, Riverstone, serves youth in Spectrum programs and is also open to local families.

Brown said she and the Drop-In Center's four staff and two AmeriCorps members focus on building relationships and trust with the young people they meet. Over time, the youth might take an interest in Spectrum's other services, including living in transitional housing. "We can make all of those referrals right out of the Drop-In Center," she said.

Youth in Crisis

Spectrum's work is more important than ever: The U.S. is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis.

On December 7, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about it. "Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade," he said. "The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating."

Two days later, Riverstone counseling manager Kristen Breault-Bolio delivered that message to the Vermont House Committee on Health Care. During a virtual meeting, Breault-Bolio reported seeing an increase in depression and anxiety among Vermont youth during the pandemic, as well as an increase in suicide attempts and ideation.

She told lawmakers that about 30 percent of youth who come to Spectrum are experiencing thoughts of suicide at intake.

Spectrum works to connect these youth to intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment, but the state needs to increase the number of beds available in hospitals and treatment facilities, said Spectrum executive director Mark Redmond. He pleaded with lawmakers to do more to fund acute mental health services: "I'm begging you today," he said.

Counseling appointments are also in short supply, said Breault-Bolio.

Though Spectrum recently doubled the size of its counseling staff, the waiting list for appointments is still growing. It takes an average of three months just to see a counselor.

"Three months is a really long time to wait for services," she said.

Shelter — and So Much More

Spectrum Youth & Family Services Drop-In Center, at 177 Pearl Street in Burlington. - COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • Courtesy Of Sam Simon
  • Spectrum Youth & Family Services Drop-In Center, at 177 Pearl Street in Burlington.

Though she's working on the front lines of this mental health crisis, Brown loves her job. She started at the Drop-In Center as a youth coach in 2018. After a stint in the senior staff position, she moved up to manage Spectrum's Basic Needs program.

She points out that the winter can be an especially challenging and scary time for a young person experiencing homelessness in Vermont. She knows how valuable it is to them to have access to the Drop-In Center during the coldest and darkest time of the year.

She's seen firsthand that this supportive place can help people change their lives. Often, someone will come to the Center just for a meal or a new coat. From there, they may get connected to Spectrum's Warming Shelter, giving them a safe place to sleep. Over time, the Drop-In staff will get to know them and will help these individuals move through Spectrum's Supported Housing programs, watch them start to build life skills, and maybe get a job with Detail Works, the car-cleaning social enterprise business that Spectrum runs to provide job experience to the youth it serves.

This journey can take years, for some, and Brown is grateful for the opportunity to be part of it. "It's really powerful," she said.

It's especially moving when people who've left the program successfully return to visit. "We see a lot of youth come back who want to donate or cook meals or volunteer for events," Brown said. Many of them have experienced a lot of change and turmoil in their lives, and Spectrum is one constant.

"It's a place they can keep coming back to," she said.

Detail Works Featured on 'CBS Mornings'

Detail Works staff - COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • Courtesy Of Sam Simon
  • Detail Works staff

Spectrum's car-detailing business, Detail Works, appeared on the nationally televised "CBS Mornings" show on December 9. Correspondent Christina Ruffini visited the Williston shop in the fall to talk with its employees, as well as with Spectrum executive director Mark Redmond.

Spectrum started the business in 2017 as a way to give teens and young adults experience with holding down a job. And it works: 86 percent of participants stay for at least 90 days. At Detail Works, they learn communication skills and accountability while earning a paycheck — and achieving tangible results.

Cleaning up a mess can be very satisfying. "Here, you know you accomplished something," Redmond quipped.

Ruffini also interviewed several Detail Works staffers, including former employee Charles Hemingway, who worked there before landing his current job, which he's had for four years.

"Detail Works has taught me everything I know about my work ethic, about communication, about making sure I take care of myself, as well as my job, so that I never wind up in a situation where I'm jobless or homeless again," he said.

Ruffini noted that Hemingway recently donated $250 to Spectrum to help others have the same chance to learn as he did.

See the "CBS Mornings" segment on the Spectrum website, spectrumvt.org.

How You Can Help

  • Make a donation. Find out how at spectrumvt.org/donate.
  • Volunteer as a mentor. Spend a few hours a month with a youth who has been recommended for the mentorship program. Contact Spectrum at mentoring@spectrumvt.org.
  • Cook meals and deliver them to the Drop-In Centers. Sign up to bring meals to the centers in Burlington and St. Albans at spectrumvt.org/volunteer.
  • Have your car cleaned at Detail Works. Schedule an appointment at detailworksvt.com.
  • Sign up for the Spectrum Sleep Out. Raise money for Spectrum by pledging to spend a night outdoors in solidarity with homeless and at-risk youth on March 25, 2022.Email Spectrum at events@spectrumvt.org for more details.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Pomerleau Real Estate.