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Chris PettograssoCaring Adult Nominee Lansing Superintendent of Schools Chris Pettograsso. Photo by Patricia Marie Photography

Most Tompkins County parents are familiar with their local youth services, or Ithaca Youth Bureau.  For the most part those parents aren't aware of an umbrella organization that provides programs and support to local organizations such as Lansing Youth Services.  Tompkins County Youth Services Department has been supporting local youth agencies for 40 years.  To celebrate they asked the public to nominate 'caring adults' who have also supported local youth, often without recognition, across the county.

"When we began our celebration journey we discussed ways to celebrate the past 40 years," said Youth Services Director Amie Hendrix at an event at the Ithaca Marriott on the Commons on October 18th. "As we drilled down to what this celebration meant for us there were several considerations – it had to be something that showcased our values, we wanted it to have meaning, and it needed to be more than an event. Using our mission as a foundation, we spoke with key stakeholders about what makes youth services so special. It was then that we realized that we heard the same thing time and time again – we are the behind the scenes department that is the constant, consistent advocate for young people in Tompkins County. We invest in each community in Tompkins county providing our time, talent, resources and funding. For these communities and organizations – we are often the caring adults that are behind the curtain."

While the campaign was designed to make the Youth Services Department more visible, Caring Adults Campaign Coordinator Cheyenne Gorton, a Lansing native, expected perhaps 40 nominations county-wide -- if they were lucky.  But something resonated with the community.  Nominations totaled more than three times that number.  That was too many people to invite to the celebration, but certainly not too many to honor.

"We were not expecting a huge response, but we ended up getting over 140 nominations," Gorton says.  "We were very happy with that turnout, and there was good representation from each municipality.  The population percentage in the city and municipalities was similar to the distribution of nominations.  We knew were going to have a celebration for our 40th anniversary, so we randomly selected 40 people to attend from among the nominees.  They were selected according to the same population ratio. "

Amie Hendrix, Cheyenne GortonYouth Services Director Amie Hendrix (left) and Caring Adults Campaign Coordinator Cheyenne Gorton. Photo by Patricia Marie Photography

The eight Lansing nominees were After School program worker Ramona Cornell, retired Lansing teacher Judy Hinderliter, Musician and teacher Robert Keefe, Lansing School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso, Lansing teacher Phillis Smith-Hansen, Learning Web mentor Alex Specter, 4-H Youth Development Team Leader Megan Tift, and RC Buckley Elementary School main office secretary Judy Vaughan.  Nominees were culled from different areas of each community.

"We got people from 4H," Gorton says.  "We got Chris Pettograsso, who is a school superintendent.  And Judy Vaughan, who works in an elementary school.  Some people were nominated by youth, saying this is someone who got me through difficult times or fun times or different life experiences.  It's cool to get a broad spectrum of people."

Everyone was recognized.  No one nominee was singled out, but instead all nominees except a few who chose not to be publicly recognized, were celebrated, both at the event and on an ongoing basis on a Web site and Facebook page.  The people who were not selected were mailed a copy of their nomination letter with a gift from the department: a window decal with the Tompkins County Youth Services logo on it that says 'I am a Caring Adult'.

Judy HinderliterCaring Adult Nominee Judy Hinderliter with husband Bill. Photo by Patricia Marie Photography

The Youth Services Department provides funding, support, and programs to local agencies.  The Department provides oversight of programs, recruiting and training, outreach, and serves as youth services liaison to local community boards, non-profits and governments.  part of its purview is to collect data that pertains to best practices for youth programs, as well as youth program training for local governments, organizations and individuals.

"A lot of people don't know about the services that are available to them that our department focuses on," Gorton says.  "We have the people and the funding to be able to support different groups and agencies in municipalities that support youth.  It's been interesting to see people who recognize the campaign and things we do for a specific municipality.  This campaign was about getting the word out.  Going forward we're going to try to branch out to what people really want to see in youth services, and what youth need."

In May tthe Youth Services Department reported there were 653 children aged 0-4 in the Town and Village of Lansing, 725 aged 5-9, 698 10-14, 421 15-17, and 234 18-20.  Students who said they feel safe in their neighborhood has hovered around 90% in the last three two-year reporting periods, a slightly higher number than the county-wide average.  14.8% of youth below age 18 are below the poverty level.  In the 2015-16 school year 26% of Lansing Elementary children qualified for the free lunch program, as well as 19% in the Middle School and 16% at Lansing High School.  34% of students county-wide qualified.

64% of Lansing students in grades 7 through 12 felt welcomed and appreciated by school adults.  93% felt safe at school.  66% said they had a trusted adult in school who helps them with problems. 

"People should read some of the nominations," says Gorton, herself a Lansing High School graduate.  "It's a good feel-good moment, and it supports nominees when people see it and tell them so."

With the success of the 'Caring Adults' campaign, Gorton says her department hopes to keep recognizing individuals who make a positive difference in local children's lives. 

"I don't want it to be that just because the 40th anniversary year ends in December that the recognition for the people that were nominated has to," she says, adding that she hopes people will take the time to read about all the nominees on the 40th Anniversary Celebration Caring Adult Web site.

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