Oak Tree youth group expands outreach in Southwest Colorado

Mathew Petry shovels snow at the Durango Community Recreation Center. Petry is an example of the success one young man has found with the help of Oak Tree Youth Services of Durango. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

Nonprofit has helped 58 youths get off the streets and meet their basic needs.

A helping hand never hurts, and sometimes it is all someone needs to flourish. Since its inception in March 2020, Oak Tree Youth Services based in Durango has been reaching out to youths in need across Southwest Colorado. The nonprofit has helped young people in tough situations navigate life’s rough edges and lay the foundations of security that can turn struggle into success.

Eighteen-year-old Mathew Petry of Durango is an Oak Tree success story whose promise is reflected in his cheerful attitude and a steadfast work ethic his supervisors at the Durango Community Recreation Center say is hard to match.

“He’s been here a month or so and is doing very well,” said Dan Rippe, a maintenance technician who helped train Petry in his new job as a custodian. “I wish I could find more like him. He actually likes to come to work, which is rare these days. And in this job you have to be self-motivated and work well alone.”

To help

Oak Tree relies on community partnerships, grants and donations and is always in need to help youth in need. Its big goal is to open a home for youth. To help or learn more visit https://oaktreeyouthresources.org/ or call 335-9667. Oak tree is located at 1150 Main Ave., in Durango.

New Cortez and Montezuma County outreach volunteer Amanda Vodicka can be reached at [email protected]

Petry knows about being alone. He was adopted out as a small child after a family tragedy. But his adopted family, which was in Oregon, eventually broke apart when social workers stepped in to remove his adopted siblings and his adopted father kicked Petry out – at age 16 – and then drifted out of state.

“There was a lot of stress because at the time I was a minor,” Petry said. “And I was kind of just thrown out into this crazy world.”

Petry lived on the streets, couch-surfed, slept on park benches and did his best to keep his few possessions from being stolen. When he turned 18, he contacted his biological sister, which led him to move to Durango. But staying with her didn’t work out. And without a vehicle and nowhere to live, Petry once again found himself living on the streets, couch-surfing and stressed.

Then he learned about Oak Tree, which has helped 58 young people get off the streets and into a safe place with a warm bed. For Petry that meant a hotel room where the nonprofit paid for him to stay for a month while also helping to get him securely on his feet. Finding temporary shelter for youths in need, helping them to apply for jobs, stay on track with school or get back into school, secure long-term housing, pay rental deposits and open bank accounts – just scratches at the surface of what Oak Tree provides.

The nonprofit’s latest endeavor includes branching out to Cortez where it is partnering with the Cortez Public Library to do street outreach once a week, as well as with Southwest Open High School where it donated vouchers for 90 students to get new shoes.

“The high school has a really great community that looks after the students, so we approached them to see with the winter what type of needs the students have,” said Amanda Vodicka, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer who started with Oak Tree in December.

The “we” included Oak Tree director, founder and driving force Carie Harrison, who when not behind the scenes making things happen, is on the front lines with her sleeves rolled up as she helps kids take care of the nitty-gritty details of daily life.

“When we were talking about different needs with the high school counselor in November, I mentioned how sometimes you can tell if a young person is struggling by looking at their shoes,” Harrison said. “So I just made that passing comment and the (counselor) said, ‘Oh yeah, our kids need shoes.’ And I said, ‘We can take care of that.’”

The result was 90 vouchers worth $50 apiece at the Shoe Department in the Durango Mall. The kids won’t have to pay tax on the shoes and the store is giving a 15% discount.

“SWOS is so lucky that we have this resource in Oak Tree,” said school counselor Sarah Sticha. “They are so amazing. They have also supported more than one of our students in finding housing and figuring out transportation issues, which in a rural county is a pretty huge deal. But in terms of the shoes, over half of our classes are making field trips the first one or two weeks back to school to Durango so that we can buy shoes in person.”

Oak Tree provided enough vouchers to buy shoes for every student on campus.

Meanwhile Vodicka, who is the first volunteer with Oak Tree to live in Cortez, is eager to coordinate with the library this month to be a part of its Afternoon Club on Wednesdays.

“There are a lot of youths there that are hungry,” Vodicka said. “So starting this month I will be at those meetings providing snacks, hygiene kits and just be there if they want someone to talk with. And just kind of introducing Oak Tree to Cortez and letting them know who we are and how we can help.”

There is census data that shows one in four youth under 18 in Montezuma County are living in poverty, “meaning they cannot meet their basic needs,” Vodicka said.

Petry learned of Oak Tree from a life coach at his high school. He credits the nonprofit and Harrison in particular with helping him to not only meet his basic needs, but also find an apartment and gain a new lease on life.

“In that month I was able to stay in the hotel, she (Harrison) took care of all the expenses and I was able to figure out all my stuff, my situation,” Petry said. “I felt like I was worrying for such a long time. And now it feels like I’m living. I never did think that when I turned 18, into an adult, that I’d have my own place and still have resource workers to help me out, and Oak Tree made that happen.”

Harrison continues to help Petry with grocery store and laundry runs as he is working on his next goal of getting a driver’s license and a car. And she not only helped him secure and move into an apartment, she helped him outfit it with dishes, furniture and even a television.

“And all of that makes it feel more like a home to me,” Petry said. “And she (Harrison) continues to help me because she knows I’m on track and wants to keep it that way because being 18 and on your own can be pretty rough.”

Mathew Petry checks cleaning supplies at the Durango Community Recreation Center, where his bosses praise his good attitude and work ethic. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

In the meantime, he is paying bills, overcoming his past bouts with procrastination and learning how to follow through with his goals as he finishes his last five credits toward his high school diploma, and enjoys his newfound work experience at the recreation center, which he plans to someday parlay into a job in the trades.

His big boss, Recreation Facilities Maintenance Supervisor Ed Walinski, said he’s just glad to have him.

“He’s a good kid,” Walinski said. “He’s reliable and likes to keep busy. It’s honestly pretty rare to see someone who wants to work these days, as sad as that sounds. And he is always eager to work.”

Post courtesy of The Durango Herald 

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