Program helps teens mend fences

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JUNTOS: Joining and Understanding Now, Teens Overcome Separation

By Carol A. Clark

Youth in Los Alamos, Pojoaque and Española are building better relationships with one another through an innovative program called JUNTOS.

Los Alamos resident Lori Heimdahl Gibson had the idea for the youth leadership effort several years ago.

“I worked at both UNM-LA and at Northern New Mexico College and with youth leadership programs,” Heimdahl Gibson said.

“I heard the kids in Los Alamos talk about not wanting to go to Española because they would get their tires slashed and get shot and I heard kids in Española talk about not wanting to come to Los Alamos because they would be treated badly. The thought kept coming to me that if we could just get all these kids together then they’d probably become life-long friends.”

Heimdahl Gibson retired from NNMC in 2005 and mentioned her idea in 2006 to fellow participants in her Leadership Los Alamos class including Police Chief Wayne Torpy, Fire Chief Doug Tucker and other community leaders.

“I told Sharon Stover (County Councilor) and she said: ‘Let’s get a meeting together,’” Heimdahl Gibson said.

“Twenty-four adults attended that first meeting in April 2007 and we held our first youth meeting the next month,” she said. “I just had an idea and people grabbed on to it…the time was right for mending fences that had been broken for a long time.”

Municipal Judge Alan Kirk, Stover and the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board embraced JUNTOS, which stands for Joining & Understanding Now, Teens Overcome Separation. JJAB contributed the original seed money to get the program off the ground and continues to be the program’s strongest supporter, Heimdahl Gibson said.

JUNTOS delved into the issues that kept young people from Española and Los Alamos separate and looked at what teens could do to overcome that separation.

The program is now administrated by the Los Alamos Y and coordinated by Jenn Bartram through the Y, Heimdahl Gibson said, adding that it runs year-round with no fee or application required.

Youth from Pojoaque are now participating in the program, which is growing throughout Northern New Mexico, she said. Adult and youth meetings are held in each of the communities. A Youth Summit is typically held annually at which youth stay overnight and experience team building activities and establish relationships.

The First Youth Summit was held at Northern New Mexico College-El Rito campus in 2008. More than 30 youth and 20 adult chaperones participated in the two-day event. Youth from each community were divided into five teams. They had the opportunity to get to know each other and dispel community myths. Over the course of the event, the teens participated in summit activities including ice breakers, cultural speakers, art projects, a campfire gathering and action planning. Both youth and adults participated in the action planning process, brainstorming specific activities for JUNTOS to accomplish during the following year.

Along with teens, adult leaders now meet regularly to promote authentic dialogue aimed at eliminating the divide that has persisted for decades between these three geographically close communities.

The young people provide the ideas for bridging the gaps with activities, education, history, art, music, dance and other activities while the adults find funding sources and provide guidance and coaching.

“This has totally been a grassroots effort with so many people getting together to support it, which I love,” Heimdahl Gibson said.