Thank you to Lammé and Associates.
Aaron Stites and Ashley Elliott sat side-by-side on one of the couches in The House living room, small stacks of paper lying nearby as residents of The House passed by on their way to the kitchen. Stites’ and Elliott’s life and jobs surrounded them; realistically, they didn’t have time for an interview, but they took the time for me.
“What’s the goal of The House?” was a question I was eager to ask them, because whatever the goals of The House are, they will go right through the pair sitting across from me.
Stites’ and Elliott’s stories read almost like two mirrors reflecting each other. Both grew up in Grand Junction and went to Fruita Monument High School. Both graduated from Colorado Mesa University. Both spent significant time working among teens and other young people in unstable situations. And now, both of them are essentially the one-two punch for The House, Stites serving as Program Coordinator and Elliott as Case Manager, positions they’ve held for nearly two months now.
“Each kid represents The House’s goal,” answered Stites, confidently. “The goal is tailored to each kiddo’s diverse situation.”
This response typifies the approach Stites and Elliott take toward their kids at The House, an approach begun and groomed by Stites’ experience in an education program in Nicaragua and Elliott’s experience as Senior Case Manager for Mesa County Child Protection Services, positions the two of them held prior to joining The House.
“I really enjoy working with people and helping people toward their goal, whatever that is,” said Elliott. “I really found my niche with teenagers. They want to learn, they want to grow, they are willing to try new things. They are really challenging too, which is why I really enjoy working with them.”
“I feel like I grew up in a bubble – good family, good home,” added Stites. “And then I heard about this homelessness. I saw the numbers and was shocked at how big the problem was and how little it was being addressed.”
That bubble has been popped, according to Stites.
“Just being part of a program that addresses this very real problem drew me in,” said Stites. “We hear about kids that are digging holes by the river; it’s hard to fathom. I don’t know how I would have ever dealt with it if I had to go through what they go through..”
“It’s a different philosophy here on working with kids, which I was very excited to be a part of,” said Elliott. “It’s not the punitive, ‘You’re bad, you’ve done wrong,’ it was, ‘Yep, that is your life, let’s take you as you are and move forward.’ I tell that to all the kids: ‘Once you’re my kid, you’re always my kid.’ And they definitely feel that around here.”
“When I first applied I wanted to be a part of The House no matter what it was,” added Stites. “What’s been really neat is seeing just how this community has coalesced around this cause. And I really don’t believe that that would happen in any other community.”
For months, Stites and Elliott heard all about the numbers representing the homeless teens in Mesa County. Putting faces to those statistics has sent ripple effects through both of them.
“I am so shocked at the diversity of kids walking through the door,” said Elliott. “Everything from very young ones running away from parents all the way to graduated and trying to go to college. They have the future all planned out, but they need the help to get to that next step. The variety here has been amazing, which is very challenging in my position, because it’s not anything cookie-cutter at all, you have to think outside the box with every single kid.”
“I anticipated that maybe we would see kiddos come in that were completely broken and with a sense of hopelessness,” added Stites. “And while there may be elements of that, overall they do have a lot of hope and a lot of goals and they haven’t nearly given up. And it can get busy around here and I get stressed out, but you always have to think about what they’ve been through and how we can best help them out. That’s got to be the root of everything.”
Stites and Elliott started this race needing to clear a few hurdles, and having cleared those hurdles early on has prepared them for the ones they know are coming.
“There were times when we were really struggling just to get the license for this place,” said Stites. “And those were hard days. But recently we’ve been hearing kiddos say, ‘I feel really safe here,’ and, ‘The House is a beacon of good,’ and I don’t think that’s lip service; I think those are just some examples of the sentiments that we’re starting to hear. And early on in the program, that’s all you could ask for. That’s what gets us through the tough days.”
The doorbell to The House then goes off, a rapid-fire succession of rings, and Stites just smiles.
“That’s one of our kids,” he said. “He always rings the doorbell like that.”
Stites lets the young man inside, and as he makes his way to the kitchen, Elliott locks her eyes onto mine.
“Right there,” pointing at him, “is a perfect example of the need for safety at this place. That kid was having hallucinations, delusions, very severe mental health issues, and it’s been days since he’s had any of those experiences. Above all, this place provides a safe place where kids can have an environment where no one’s going to hurt you. But I also think it meets that need we all have as humans, to connect with people and have that deeper layer of relationship, to get connected into a community. And that’s what drew me here.”
“I think we went from an idea, this big dream on May 1, to now; it’s actually going, it’s running, and it’s working.”
She pauses, glancing at the young man in the kitchen.
“Cause the kids are telling us it is.”
To learn more about The House and how you can donate or volunteer, please visit the website at www.thehousegj.org.