Empowering Iowa youth

by Kate Frentzel

When Luther grads work together, powerful things happen. Take the case of Community Youth Concepts in Des Moines, Iowa, where Amy (Ostrander) Croll ’97, Jane Jeffries ’97, and Alicia Vermeer ’12 have been leading the charge to connect young people with their communities in life-changing ways.

Left to right: Jane Jeffries ’97, Alicia Vermeer ’12, and Amy (Ostrander) Croll ’97 lead Community Youth Concepts.

Founded in 2008, CYC partners with school districts in the metro area to provide programming that helps students develop essential life skills.

To do this, CYC offers various programs based mostly in volunteer service. One program, uVoice, is a youth philanthropy board that lets students identify public health issues in their community, then develop a grant application and allocate money to organizations that best address that challenge. Another CYC program matches students with adult mentors working in a career field of interest to the student, giving them a behind-the-scenes look. “Hopefully,” Vermeer says, “getting that exposure and information now, while they’re in middle or high school, will better prepare them to make decisions about their future when they graduate.”

Other programs, like Got Bounce, help young people build leadership and teamwork skills through service projects or through working to resolve problems in their schools or communities. CYC also offers Stowe Heights, a challenge course open to groups of all ages and abilities to help them work on problem-solving, communication, trust, accountability, and more.

CYC was Croll’s brainchild. A psychology major at Luther, she’s spent her career in youth-development programming. In 2008, while working for the state of Iowa providing technical training for youth programs, she kept meeting resistance. “What we heard on a consistent basis was, ‘That’s great, but you can’t do that with my kids—my population is different, they’re special, they’re more difficult,’” she says. “People just didn’t have a model to look at to understand how to do it successfully. So we started CYC to say, ‘You know what? You can do it with these students.’”

In the decade-plus that CYC has been operating, Croll, Vermeer, and Jeffries have seen the positive impact it’s made on young lives. Croll shares memories of students who’ve been empowered to pursue college. Vermeer talks about a CYC alumna who went on to launch a robust philanthropy program at her college sorority.

She also shares that during the pandemic last year, the Got Bounce students really focused on mental health, partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness–Iowa to do an activity and presentation about reducing the stigma of mental illness and how to reach out for help if you need it. One of the Got Bounce students was so inspired that he’s been working with his own school’s student council and administrators to plan a mental health–based event for his entire school. Croll, Vermeer, and Jeffries overflow with stories like this—they’re at the heart of what they do.

Now that the CYC engine is chugging along, Croll made the decision to step down as executive director this past August. “I’ve always believed that systems work best when they have new ideas and new approaches,” she says. “I really thrive when I’m in a challenging environment that requires figuring out processes and systems, and once those are really developed, it’s probably time for someone else to come in.”

That “someone else,” in this case, is Vermeer, director of operations, and Jeffries, director of Stowe Heights—two Luther grads Croll had a hand in hiring. “I’m excited to see where these two take things,” she says.