It’s about 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday during the school year as high school teens begin to trickle in through the doors of CROYA, giving high fives and shouting hello’s to friends and staff as they grab a snack and pop in and out of the youth workers’ offices to chat. Music plays in the background. The din gets louder as spontaneous games start up and as more teens stream through the doors and the 7 o’clock hour nears.
When it’s time to start the meeting, though, everyone gathers round the main room of Student Union wherever they can find a spot. They get relatively quiet as Haley Banta, this year’s Chairman of the Senior High Youth Executive Committee, kicks off the weekly high school youth meeting. There is no adult in charge; they observe and facilitate from the sidelines. The first 25 minutes are reserved for ice breakers, announcements, sign-ups, and safe initiations for first-timers. After that comes the big game of the week (e.g., Bubble Ball, Dating Game, What’s Behind that Door?)—a critical element that keeps youth coming back.
If you could be a fly on the wall, you’d be truly amazed by this is a group of self-directed teenagers coming together in a “mostly” quiet and organized fashion to get some business done, and to have some much needed mid-week fun.
“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve gotten to do in high school,” says Banta of her role as chairman. “I’ve looked up to the chairs so much, and I always dreamed of being an example of CROYA for others and give back doing something I love so much.”
This is where everything starts at CROYA—with youth—and what has made this rare community-supported youth organization survive, and thrive, for 40 years. To celebrate this milestone, CROYA will host an anniversary event on May 30—inside and outside its own Student Union. The block-party-type event will feature CROYA bands involved with the youth organization over the years—including alumni and current CROYA musicians. Local vendors will offer food for sale (ideally at “1980s prices”). And, founders, supporters, and trailblazers along the way will be recognized for their contributions.
“Our 40th is a real opportunity to have people come back and see the facility, see what we’ve been doing, and have fun,” says CROYA Director Todd Nahigian. “We are bringing back some of the bands that got their start in CROYA 30 or 40 years ago.”
THE EARLY YEARS
For those not so familiar with CROYA and how it came to be, it is apropos to take a look back to understand the impetus, the visionaries that spearheaded what eventually became CROYA, how it works (everything really does start with youth), and how it has evolved and grown to be a nationally respected model for a community youth organization.
While CROYA was officially founded in 1980, under the leadership of Mayor Frank J. Waldeck, the seed for its formation began to grow in the mid-1970s in a community hit hard by problems with its youth: teen suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, vandalism, and a teen gang called “The Losers.” Also, the movie, Ordinary People—which was set and filmed in Lake Forest and neighboring communities, and told the story of one affluent teenager’s attempted suicide—hit too close to home. Concerned community residents and civic leaders decided to look beneath the surface.
The City of Lake Forest commissioned a study by the Lake County Youth Service Bureau, tasked with assessing youth needs. Their report specifically recommended the formation of a “youth council” with a “non-threatening, low-key, informal counselor” to be hired by the city and directly responsible to the city council. The youth council would be community-based and have youth as its only focus. The CROYA committee was thus established and formed of citizens appointed by the mayor of Lake Forest and the village president of Lake Bluff. The original governing body included a chairman, students, parents, and members at large who represented the communities of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
In addition to Waldeck, some of those early community visionaries and youth advocates were Eugene Hotchkiss (then president of Lake Forest College),then Aldermen Frank Farwell and John Hennessy, John Fischbach (then city manager), and Scott Bermingham (CROYA’s first adult board chair).
“I am very proud of what’s happened to CROYA in 40 years,” says Eugene Hotchkiss, president emeritus of Lake Forest College and CROYA’s first chairperson in 1980. “It has matured and become an important part of our community. “I think it was essential for CROYA to get the city’s approval and support early on. The city’s support continues to be vital to CROYA and Lake Forest is special in supporting an organization like this.”
THE CROYA PROCESS
The financial support was one key piece, but getting started wasn’t easy; the fledgling youth agency persevered through trial and error in the first few years to find its footing and figure out a formula that worked. It seems unanimous among people involved with CROYA in the 1980s that the real turning point came when Margot Martino became involved, first as a volunteer, then as head of the board, and finally as CROYA’s first director in 1984. At first, she often held meetings with as few as six youth in attendance, and they met in various places, among them Gorton Community Center, City Hall, and sometimes her own home.
“It was because of Mrs. Martino that CROYA became an organization which listened to the youth while hearing adults as well,” says Hotchkiss. It was Martino who, when adults wanted to step in and take control, insisted that CROYA should be youth-centered and run by youth.
“When I started, there was no prototype,” says Martino, longtime Lake Forest resident. “I believe that kids are the greatest treasure we have to leave to the world, and I found that kids are very intuitive when it comes to knowing what the problems are and what are some solutions we can work on.”
The critical element that eventually became clear was that youth must be at the center—conceiving, developing, and being accountable for their own youth-guided programs and activities.
“Too often, activities were imposed on the youth, in which many participated but felt little sense of ownership,” explained Hotchkiss in the book Empowering Teens.*
“The CROYA Process doesn’t come easily,” Martino commented (also in Empowering Teens). “Turning over ownership to kids is the hardest thing to do. Kids take pride in CROYA. They police themselves. They don’t want bad things to happen.”
It became clear that youth could only find the gratification and empowerment they needed by directing those initiatives themselves, learning by failures and successes—always with trusted adults guiding them along the way. And, it was also essential that those trusted adults not be parents, but trained and qualified adult youth workers whom teens could trust and respect in a different way than their parents. The CROYA Adult Board was the advisory resource body put in place to invite participation from parents at an oversight level, but they are not involved in day-to-day CROYA operations or activities with youth.
“Many people don’t know that CROYA has been a force in our community for 40 years,” says Jennifer Winick Karras, current chairperson of the CROYA Adult Board whose two daughters have been involved in CROYA. “This is an organization that deeply cares about the youth in our community, that each young person deserves to be respected and valued. It is an empowering place where the competent staff helps kids go through the process themselves of recognizing their own abilities and nurturing them.”
The staff (i.e., youth workers), it seems, are essential to the formula for success. “CROYA is a healthy support system; we lean on the staff for advice your friends aren’t qualified to give,” explains Banta. “The staff makes us feel that we are equals, friends, and a trusted resource. They understand what high school is like, know how to empathize with that, treat us like we are responsible people, and give us the trust we give them.”
In the early years, not having its own place was preventing CROYA from realizing its full potential. In 1987, a generous donation from the Waldo Morgan Allen Charities, Inc., allowed CROYA to build out its own space in a portion of the Lake Forest Recreation Center with a community room, kitchen, and staff offices. It was modest but it was a place youth could call home. In 2003, CROYA was able to expand again, occupying a larger section of the recreation center. And, not long after, CROYA, the Adult Board, and the CROYA Foundation Board embarked upon a $3 million capital campaign that (thanks to the generosity of community members) would expand CROYA’s footprint to a 10,000-square-foot new Student Union in 2007—complete with a huge gathering space, performance stage, movie screen, lighting, sound, music and tutoring rooms, large kitchen, wellness studio, and more.
Also over the first two decades, more youth workers were hired to fill the roles representing high school and middle school youth programming, CROYA’s extensive community service initiatives, peer mentoring and training, and counseling. Todd Nahigian, CROYA’s current director, joined the agency in 1995 as the high school youth worker, and through his 25 years of service and dedication, has gained the experience, respect, and trust of both youth and adults.
“The founders who had this dream 40 years ago never could have thought this is where we’d be today,” says Nahigian. “It’s a huge support system for youth and the community.”
Kamy Daddono took on the leadership as director of CROYA after starting as a staff member in 1986. She led CROYA through facility and staff expansion, developed strong relationships with public leaders and school administration, saw the agency through its Student Union campaign and addition, and continued to develop the CROYA Process.
As CROYA grew and evolved, it developed youth executive committees at both the high school and middle school levels, who are elected by their peers. In addition to teaching them leadership skills, they do real committee work—brainstorming, organizing, and encouraging other teens to join new initiatives and programs.
Activities and programs took hold, and expanded over time. This includes weekly youth meetings for both middle and high school students, a robust community service program, peer training and peer mentoring, biannual retreats to Wisconsin, dances, barbecues; end-of- and beginning-of-year activities to welcome newcomers and send off graduates; and so much more. The annual Recognition Dinner is a rite of passage for many adults and teens that have been substantially involved.
Music has always been a key component in attracting youth passionate about making music. Battle of the Bands, Summer Jams, Activator Music Academy, and other music-related programs evolved and expanded. Annual events like the Donut Bowl and Donut Cup, where teens play flag football or floor hockey with the local police officers, became popular and important to keeping communication open.
Naturally, programs have come and gone as the teen world and world-at-large changes. Since the expansion with the Student Union,
CROYA has become a drop-in center for teens after school five days per week between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. (the CROYA van transports students from Lake Bluff Middle School on those days.); and during the summer, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The essence of CROYA remains strong as it continues to grow organically into its fifth decade with teens as the impetus for that growth. While it is impossible to cover the breadth and depth of CROYA’s work and programming in this brief article, it is important to appreciate this community gem that we are so fortunate to have serving the communities youth in grades 7 through 12.
“CROYA is so central to what my life has been during high school,” Banta says. “”I’ve met some of the most important people in my life. I would have been on a different trajectory without CROYA. It taught me about my community and broadened my horizons; I found my place in it, and my voice in it.”
Hotchkiss sums it up aptly: “CROYA works because it is run by youth. We can never lose sight of that.”
Elaine Doremus (Slayton) is the author of the book about CROYA: Empowering Teens: A Guide to Developing a Community Youth Organization, published in 2000 by CROYA Press.
CROYA is located at 400 Hastings Road in Lake Forest, 847-810-3980, croya.com and on Facebook. As we go to press, CROYA’s anniversary event is scheduled for May 30. Check website for updates before attending.