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Partner Spotlight

A Community Partner 75 Years Strong: Denver Kids Helps Students Maximize Their Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential

Written by Bannon Puckett on Jun 10, 2021

Related content: 2U Denver, Corporate Social Responsibility, Outcomes

Over the past 75 years, Denver Kids has supported diverse populations of students through pivotal moments both historical and personal—from wartime hardship and civil rights strife to navigating virtual connections during a pandemic.

“When Denver Kids first started, we were founded to provide career opportunities for young men whose fathers were not coming home from World War II,” says Kelsey Grayson, senior development and marketing officer. “Things have obviously changed significantly since then, but what hasn't changed is the fact that our students are incredibly inspiring and they all have big dreams. They just need a little support.”

Today, the nonprofit serves over 1,100 students, from third graders to one year post-high school, across nearly 150 Denver Public Schools. The organization offers an integrated spectrum of social, emotional, and academic support services that range from one-on-one mentorship and educational counseling to enrichment experiences and college and career planning. Students are seen as “at potential,” able to overcome difficult circumstances and accomplish anything they set their minds to—like this remarkable student who recently earned her medical degree.

Some photos from the Denver Kids archives over the past 75 years

“Success Looks Different for Every Single Student”

With the support of Denver Kids, 84% of students graduate on-time from high school, compared to the public school system’s 70.5% for the population Denver Kids serves. This is significant, considering that 98% of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, 96% are students of color, 59% reside in a single parent or non-parental guardian household (i.e., living with other relatives or in foster care), and a significant number of the remaining 41% are from immigrant and refugee families. Of all students who graduate, 41% are the very first in their family to do so, and an impressive 85% go on to pursue a post-secondary option. As one student said in the organization’s latest annual report, “With the help of Denver Kids, I feel confident to walk into the real world and face any challenge.”

“We really believe that talent and promise are equally distributed, but unfortunately due to deeply ingrained systems, opportunity is not,” Grayson says. “We're there to help students navigate through the systems they're operating in, so that they have many more opportunities than life initially gave them.”

Each student is unique with their own set of dreams, aspirations, fears, and barriers. We allow them to lead their own journey, but provide them with the support they need to succeed.
— Kelsey Grayson, senior development and marketing officer, Denver Kids

Most recently, Denver Kids celebrated its class of 2021—a cohort of 110 graduating seniors who have been accepted to dozens of schools around the U.S., from the University of Denver to Harvard. “Support from Denver Kids is the best that you can ever have,” says one graduating senior. “Without the support of the counselors, friends, and my family, I would not have made it where I am."

As this talented group of graduates demonstrates, success is far from formulaic. “Success looks different for every single student,” Grayson says. “Each one of them is unique with their own set of dreams, aspirations, fears, and barriers. We allow each student to lead their own journey, but provide them with the support they need to succeed.”

Two happy graduates from the class of 2021

Making an Impact Through Mentorship

Since 2018, 2U’s Denver office has enjoyed a strong and vibrant community partnership with Denver Kids, providing eager volunteers and financial support to help the organization expand access in education and pave pathways for student success. Over the past three years, a total of thirteen 2Utes have become dedicated mentors to individual students. Our employees have also volunteered for a variety of fundraising events—everything from folding and mailing letters to donation drives, bake sales, and the annual Denver Kids gala each November.

“I love this partnership because 2U has given us so many amazing mentors,” says Audrey Reyes, volunteer mentor program manager. “They all bring such fantastic energy and creativity, and they come up with ideas I wouldn't have ever imagined. Mentors develop a meaningful personal bond with their students—they’re someone who the student feels comfortable talking to, sharing things with, and spending time with. We’ll be matching mentors to students again come November, so I’m excited to see all the new connections we’ll make.”

I love this partnership because 2U has given us so many amazing mentors. They all bring such fantastic energy and creativity, and they come up with ideas I wouldn't have ever imagined.
— Audrey Reyes, volunteer mentor program manager, Denver Kids

While Denver Kids pivoted to virtual activities during the pandemic, mentors paired with their respective students for in-person outings pre-COVID. “We strive to expose each student to something they wouldn't have the opportunity to do otherwise,” says Reyes. “That could entail walking in the park with a dog, going bowling, visiting a museum, any number of things. While our paid professional counselors focus on educational support, our volunteer mentors help with that vital social-emotional component, like decision-making and self-awareness.”

Importantly, mentors and counselors are in communication, which gives both parties and the organization at large a comprehensive picture of each student’s academic and personal development. “They work together as a team, building really well off each other,” says Reyes.

Mentors and mentees on a pre-COVID bonding hike

Hearing from the 2U Denver office, those who mentor students clearly love what they do. “Having moved to Denver from out-of-state, I was looking for a way to become involved in my community. 2U bridged that gap by leading me to Denver Kids,” says Ally Stevens, a 2U student success advisor who began volunteering with the organization in May 2019. “Throughout the past two years, my experience with my mentee and Denver Kids has been invaluable. I have had the opportunity to spend precious time getting to know her, from walks through the Botanic Gardens to sitting six feet apart, eating takeout outside of her home. Being able to act as a piece of my mentee's support system is an honor, and I cannot wait to see her journey through high school and beyond.”

“And by the way,” Ally adds, “happy 75th anniversary, Denver Kids!”

My experience with Denver Kids has been invaluable. Being able to act as a piece of my mentee's support system is an honor, and I cannot wait to see her journey through high school and beyond.
— Ally Stevens, student success advisor, 2U

Denver Kids + 2U: Better Together

“It’s quite something to see how much 2U has been a vital source of support to our organization,” says Grayson. “We’re continuously floored by 2U’s contributions. Beyond the financial support and mentors, 2U has already provided more than 100 event volunteers for us. We love seeing the passion and dedication that 2U as a company—and 2Utes as individuals—have for Denver Kids.”

“The education expertise has also been extremely helpful,” she adds. “For example, we hosted a lunch where 2Utes came in and helped students fill out their college-related applications. By the end of the event, the applications were all complete. I can’t tell you how invaluable that was.”

Looking ahead, Denver Kids is excited to keep unlocking lifelong success for every student, regardless of circumstance. “Watching our students blossom is so incredible,” Grayson says. “When some of them first come into our program, they may be extremely shy, or they may not know how to advocate for themselves or ask for help. That doesn’t mean they don’t already have that resilience and grit inside them—it means they just need someone who really believes in them. By the time they graduate, they feel empowered to keep chasing and achieving their dreams.”

The Denver Kids class of 2021 "Gratitude Board"

“During COVID, we saw several students who became the sole earners for their families, because their family members were getting sick or laid off,” Reyes adds. “They were trying to stay aligned with school, but they were also having to work nearly full-time at essential places like grocery stores. So having our mentors and counselors remain connected with students through those tough times was really important.”

“Helping some of our students rise above their current realities will undoubtedly take passion, purpose, and a whole lot of perseverance,” Grayson says. “But with the right people and resources working to enact change, progress isn’t just possible—it’s inevitable.”

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Want to learn even more about Denver Kids and its rich history? For starters, explore the organization’s “Celebrating 75 Years” interactive timeline and collection of student success stories.

Here on The Latest, you can also find stories about other 2U community partners including Higher Achievement, down the way from 2U’s Washington, D.C. Metro headquarters.

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