YSS success stories showcase benefits of service

-Messenger photo by Adri Sietstra
Andrew Allen, YSS chief executive officer, and YSS Self-Sufficiency Advocate Becki Anderson spoke with students at Webster City High School on Wednesday morning as a part of J-Term. The two-week course is designed to help students learn outside the box.

WEBSTER CITY — Students at Webster City High School are diving into J-Term. Now in its second year at WCHS, J-Term is an outside-the-lines learning approach to give teachers and students more critical thinking and real-world skills.

It consists of two parts: a teacher-led course that teachers have designed around a project or real-world content and students developing their own passion project.

YSS Chief Executive Officer Andrew Allen and YSS Self-Sufficiency Advocate Becki Anderson spoke to students interested in service learning and career exploration on Wednesday morning. The mission at YSS is to create hope and opportunity by putting kids first.

“To get a chance to come to this alongside Becki to encourage a group of young people to talk about the services of YSS from a prevention standpoint, treatment standpoint and a transitional services standpoint is a great opportunity,” Allen said.

“Our teacher-led course at J-Term is to experience service and giving back to other people, so we invited Andrew and Becki here because we realize that anybody can volunteer and have a good reason for giving back,” said Cathy Oswald, Webster City High School in school suspension coordinator.

“The reason that we do this work is because this is the next generation. We want to encourage them and we love the adult-youth partnerships,” said Allen. “This is a way the teachers are coming alongside the kids in a way that helps them focus on their passion and how they can impact and serve their communities.”

YSS, formerly known at Youth Shelter Services, has been serving children in the state of Iowa for over 40 years.

“We started as a small volunteer organization, no paid staff. Trying to help kids who were really struggling with things,” said Allen. “It started as a small volunteer organization where kids could come and hang out. There were only two rules: no guns and no drugs.”

Founder George Belitsos grew this organization into what Allen believes to be “the most diverse and comprehensive youth serving agency in the state.”

There are now more than 400 employees working at seven locations around the state. Along with Webster City, YSS has locations in Ames, Boone, Des Moines, Marshalltown, Mason City and Nevada.

Many youth who use the shelter have issues with substance abuse, mental health, traumatic experiences or alcoholism. YSS provides treatment services to help combat these issues. YSS focuses on prevention, treatment and transition.

“We’ve got a key focus on helping kids transition into adulthood,” Allen said.

Prevention is one of the three important aspects on which YSS is focused.

“At some point, when you’re trying to help kids who are homeless or runaways, you have to start asking yourself, How did they become homeless? What caused them to run away? and you start to look at prevention and preventative measures that we can do now to keep kids from making bad decisions or even providing education and tools to the parents so that they can be good parents,” Allen said.

Allen traveled a winding path to get to where he is today. As a teenager, he was addicted to alcohol and marijuana and eventually became a client of the organization he now leads.

Anderson, of Williams, shared her story with students. Her world was turned upside down after her brother died in a garage explosion in 2001.

“That huge impact affected my entire family,” said Anderson. “My parents turned to drugs and alcohol because they didn’t know how to deal with the loss of their son.”

Anderson, who was 11 at the time, turned to the streets. She experimented with drugs, developed negative relationships and endured many hardships for the next four years.

“There were some days I wished I could just end it,” Anderson said. “I realized it was wrong, but I didn’t have the willpower or the strength to say I need help. I didn’t think anybody was there.”

After multiple run-ins with the law, Anderson was sent to the 712 House in Ames. She was later placed in foster care. She aged out of foster care and was sent to Quakerdale in Waterloo.

“After 18 I decided to come home,” Anderson said. “I got involved with the aftercare program, which is what I do now.”

She credits her advocate at the aftercare program, Becky, with helping her stay sober and achieve monumental life goals.

“Anytime I needed her she was there. If I wanted to use and I had that moment, all I had to do was call her and she was there for me the entire time,” Anderson said. “She got me enrolled in college. She helped me get my associate’s degree and bachelor’s.”

“I thank God to this day,” said Anderson. “If I never would have met her, I would probably be in prison or dead.”

After returning home, Anderson welded for seven years. Although she enjoyed welding, she wanted to give back and find her true passion. She got in touch with YSS and shared her story.

She was put in touch with Allen and the two shared their stories. Allen invited Anderson to speak to girls at the 712 House where she once went for help.

Soon after, Anderson was hired as a self-sufficiency advocate at YSS in Webster City. In order to get this position, she had to complete 4,000 volunteer hours. She has been working at YSS since Dec. 1, 2016.

“Becki is someone who I look up to a lot,” Allen said. “Her personal story, the fact that she has overcome adversity, and the way that she wants to give back today is something that humbles me and excites me about the work that we do.”

Anderson is currently working with 14 individuals through her position at YSS. Anderson helps individuals find housing, jobs, education, scholarships, obtain documents such as license, birth certificates, and SS cards.

“We work with kids from the age of 17.5 to 21. It’s normally kids that are aging out of the foster care system or coming from a shelter or detention,” Anderson said. “It’s an extra support system.”

“I’ve been around this field for 20 years and I’ve not ever heard a success story as dramatic or as impactful as Becki’s,” said Allen. “I don’t know many people that have the desire to help as much as her.”

“We wanted to see their story to remind us how important it is to give back and how impactful it can be on other people’s lives,” Oswald said. “They totally showed us that they were impacted by how other people served them. We really wanted that to speak to the kids today about why it’s important to give back to others.”