DENVER — Nestled in the heart of an often forgotten Denver community lies a hidden gem.
At Sun Valley Youth Center, each day is met with new challenges and new opportunities to learn how to cope with them.
“We practice trauma informed programming around here," said Kris Rollerson, executive director of Sun Valley Youth Center. "So as kids are coming in, they may be dysregulated from school, they might be having a hard time or had a hard day. We want to be that safe place where kids can come and just really kind of let it loose and know that like we're still going to support them.”
Support — something Rollerson says is missing from a lot of these children and their families.
“There's a lot of single moms, single family, single parent families, and so giving them some support, for sure," said Rollerson. "Some of our moms are coming out of horrible domestic violence situations, and so like they just literally have zero support.”
The center serves as a safe haven for many kids during what can be some of the most challenging yet influential years of their life. That's why the staff is dedicated to the pillar of TBRI, or trust-based relationship intervention, which means building relationships and addressing behaviors while also giving each child tools they can use to handle their emotions.
“We talked to them a lot about mental health and mindfulness, and just being in tune with their emotions and also recognizing emotions and how they might come up in the body or make them act or make us act a certain way, and like how to go about dealing with those and managing those emotions," said Diamond Sykes, elementary program director.
While Sykes is now the elementary program director, she once sat exactly where these kids sit today. She says without the center, many kids might never get the chance to experience anything outside of the confines of their neighborhood.
"It also gives us an opportunity to kind of explore our passions and stuff that we otherwise might not even think of," Sykes said. "I feel like it helped open my mind a bit to what's all out there, even in my city and stuff."
It was success stories like Sykes' that prompted Sun Valley to launch a social media campaign.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Rollerson started the campaign to highlight a different person every day, including stories of hope and faces who have walked Sun Valley's halls and gone on to do great things.
Those faces include current students who love the center for the simple things.
“What's your favorite thing to do here?" asked photojournalist William Peterson.
"Um... um... play!” replied 9-year-old Salah, who has been going to the center for four years.
“The staff here are actually, like, really cool," said 10th grader Numan Mahamed, who has been going to the center for 10 years. "Like, they're not like teachers, they're almost like friends. Like, they're accepting of me.”
Accepting each individual for who they are is key, Rollerson says, because at the end of the day, each child needs to know they are heard and they matter.
"Just a kid having a smile on their face because they knew after school, they were gonna go to somebody that was going to embrace them and love them no matter what," said Rollerson. "I think for me, seeing lives transformed, seeing families twisting out of generational poverty, and just the joy and hope that I see, that's what keeps me going every single day."
To learn more about the Sun Valley Youth Center, click here.