Homelessness loomed last year for Haley Mendoza, as the Colorado Springs teen was approaching age 18 and preparing for emancipation.

“I was going through a lot of difficulties, mentally and physically,” she said. “I was going through a tough situation.”

Upon reaching adulthood, Mendoza landed not on the streets but in a revived program renamed Groundbreakers, which like its predecessor, TwoCor, helps teens who have been abused, neglected or otherwise treated poorly in childhood.

“I came here to figure it out, and they helped me find a plan and follow it through,” she said at a recent group gathering that included circle sharing, games, a team effort to cook dinner and pledges to make life greener on this side of the fence.

“They literally kept me off the streets,” Mendoza said. “It’s worked miracles.” 

Groundbreakers’ director, Brad Rounsavell, also uses that “m” word when talking about the resurrection of the unique approach to adolescent therapy that combines neuroscience, social-emotional health and work-ethic development to not only heal their psyches but also train them for a productive life ahead.

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Kricta Hill, left, and Ryan Barry, right, watch as Cody pours sauce on chicken wings for dinner at Groundbreakers on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. One of the life skills they teach youths in the program is cooking. (Parker Seibold, The Gazette)

“Just the fact that I’m still able to do this specific work was kind of a miracle for me because this is what I want to do,” Rounsavell said. “There’s nowhere else that does therapeutic work with job training for youth.”

He left the information technology and insurance fields nearly 20 years ago and went to work for TwoCor. He built the nonprofit from two kids picking up trash to managing a nearly $1 million budget.

When TwoCor became a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic and closed in January 2021, Rounsavell figured there went his dream job.

But after merger talks failed between TwoCor and Kids Crossing, a foster care child placement agency, Kids Crossing decided to continue the concept and keep Rounsavell employed.

Kids Crossing launched Groundbreakers on May 1, 2021, combining the bones of TwoCor with new innovations.

The program rebooted with eight kids, ages 14 to 17, and now is at 17 clients. It can grow to 28 and has a goal of reaching 40 in the near future. The program generally lasts for six to eight months.

“You kind of graduate when you feel you no longer need it,” Mendoza said. “They won’t ditch you if you still want to stay.”

Participants encompass youth moving toward exiting foster care and those referred by probation officers, schools, agencies and individual families. Most have had brushes with the law, problems in school, mental health issues or substance abuse.

All need healing, which is delivered in two forms — nontraditional therapy and workforce development.

‘Holding down a job is the No. 1 stabilizing thing you can do after you move out,” Rounsavell said.

Therapeutic exercises are designed to either soothe or stimulate participants, as teens learn to regulate their bodies and minds.

“The science has finally caught up to what we knew what was true: abuse and neglect on kids, especially in formative years, has a negative effect on the limbic system of the brain,” Rounsavell said.

Traumatized adolescents are more likely to revert to a “flight, fight or freeze state” of mind when encountering adversity, he said, because that’s how their brains have been conditioned to survive.

Activities like making cool, loud noise in drum circles or making fallible clay whistles as a learn-how-to-fail exercise, are engaging and beneficial, Rounsavell said.

“When they fail, we talk about this is part of a process, versus them having that inner critic saying, ‘You’re not valuable, you’re not worth anything,’” he said.

Participants also are hired to do yard work or mend fences for Silver Key Senior Services’ clients who are disabled or live on fixed incomes. And then everybody talks, maybe over lemonade and cookies.

“We encourage the kids to interact with the seniors,” Rounsavell said. “Besides making money, they get a sense of a deeper purpose.”

Teens also can be hired to do trail maintenance at parks.

Whether doing a crew or healing activity, youth are scored to “give them a clear picture of how they did that day,” Rounsavell said, as they work toward meeting personal goals.

Kids Crossing purchased a former real estate and security office at 1710 E. Pikes Peak Ave., in August 2021, for the Groundbreakers program.

A $200,000 renovation created a friendly space for teens to be coached in basic life skills, do facilitated group discussions, learn culinary arts skills and bicycle repair, tend to an herb garden and take part in other activities.

Kids Crossing’s Family Preservation Services and Tutoring occupies part of the building.

The big difference in TwoCor and Groundbreakers is that Medicaid picks up the tab, with funding also provided by grants and private donations, whereas the Department of Human Services paid for core services in the past, Rounsavell said.

“We can take any kid, 14 to 17 years old, who has hard experiences growing up, as long as they have Medicaid,” he said. “So we have a very big net, and anyone can refer a teen.”

Mendoza is excited that she’s heading to college in August. She wants to study to become a nurse.

“This program can really change your life, as long as you’re wiling to put in the effort to change it,” she said. “I recommend they get as many people in the program as possible.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.