Junior Leadership Academy of the White Mountains

What if a two-week summer day camp could change the course of a child's life for the positive—imparting life skills that help map the future

Photo of Debe

Written by

Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

A school district call for summer program ideas matched with state funding available to assist youth in probation. A master's degree candidate and his substance abuse preventionist wife collaborated to create an "at risk/at hope" summer youth program for his master's capstone project. JLA was born as an intense one week camp led by certified teachers/caring adults to give probationers life-changing skills in goal-setting, self-esteem, teamwork, community service, drug prevention &leadership.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Arizona

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Pinetop, AZ

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Arizona

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Show Low, Linden, Pinetop, Lakeside, McNary, Whiteriver

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Among challenges of remote, rural area are complaints of lack of activities for youth. Being among Arizona's poorest counties economically, this also is a national substance abuse capital. Tribal issues, including historical/transgenerational trauma, augmented by a current culture of trauma, all mix to create an environment ripe for substance abuse as a community norm. When children grow up in this norm, they don't know how to find a way out.

In today's educational system, at-risk and disruptive youth are marginalized so others may meet test standards. They lack the opportunity for hope at home or at school. The Junior Leadership Academy of the White Mountains identifies such youth for an intensive, two-week summer program to teach basic skills so they can begin to climb out of this hopelessness. Using team-building techniques to develop a strong peer support group,  caring adults instructors show youth another path for the future. Exposure to things they've never seen or envisioned engages their thought and inspiration process. Immediate application of newly learned  skills encourages change. Evidence based outcomes prove these changes to be lasting. They are measured in follow up school successes, such as reduction in tardiness, absences, referrals to the office and academics improvement. Responses from family members & school administrators show some startling changes. Not every child is a success story but 75% show positive onward outcomes. Those who demonstrate remarkable leadership are invited back in following years as peer leaders, rewarded with a small stipend for their efforts. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Students are recommended by faculty and administration. 9th grader Mykela was given an option of school suspension f or JLA attendance. She had poor academics, attendance and hygiene. From an unstable home life, she was destined for a difficult future. After the program, her attendance and scholastic scores improved. She tried out and played for the varsity basketball team. She graduated and took custody of her younger brother, working two jobs to support them both. For her remaining high school career, she returned to the program each year as an enthusiastic peer leader. Today she attends community college and provides a home for her younger brother. She credits JLA with turning her life around.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Outcomes are measured through the “How I Think” (HIT) attitude inventory, student survey responses and reflective assessment. Pre- and post-HIT surveys demonstrate a significant shift in attitudes, at least 30% on average, among participants in two weeks. Student comments: “ I learned that staying healthy makes me a stronger person." "I learned that community services made me feel good inside." "I am thankful for the knowledge that I gained to help me make better choices." Parent comment: "I want to thank the amazing volunteers who took the time, energy and patience to help our future leaders and community members become the best they can be. I watched my daughter grow in her confidence and self-esteem all while learning and having fun." JLA was recognized by Arizona Center for After School Excellence as 3rd in 20014 and 2nd in 2015 "Best After School Program" in state.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The program is free for each child. Funds come from community, business, in-kind support, small grants & awards. As the program expanded from 1 location and grew from 1 to 2 weeks, costs grew. Now there are 3 satellite programs at 3 school districts. As each satellite has its own unique characteristics, the plan is to grow the financial sustainability per community and move ownership over to each school district, so we can grow new satellites.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

JLA is one of several programs operated under our non-profit umbrella. JLA graduates feed into a 4H Mentoring Program and have access to weekly Mpowrd Teen Addiction Anonymous program, also under the umbrella. Mpowrd also collaborates with the high school Students Against Destructive Decisions club for outreach to needy teens to build peer support. Through this chain of support, we keep tabs on youth, monitor progress, and provide a circle of caring adults they recognize, know and feel they can reach out to for support, along with the peer support developed through the programs.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Our motto: One Child At A Time. If our program saves one child, it is a success. Providing a new and attainable path for a child, along with the support of peers and caring adults to prop them up along the way, builds a while new attainable path. Learning to communicate and reach for help are obstacles they are taught to overcome through JLA. Success in reaching out and help peers and family members is demonstrated and shared anecdotally with our staff by parents and faculty. This positive shift incorporates mental, spiritual, physical & academic well-being.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 66.7%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 0%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 33.3%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 33.3%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 33.3%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 33.3%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 33.3%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 66.7%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 66.7%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 50%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 100%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 50%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 50%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%

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Attachments (2)


2015 Junior Leadership Academy participants that completed the Northern Arizona University Ropes Challenge High and Low Course, Flagstaff. This is a team-building component of the two-week day camp for at risk/at hope youth. It also levels the emotional & physical playing field for the youth—the bullies who get scared up high vs the skinny little ones that rocket up a rope. The kids recognize each others' strengths and weaknesses and bond for the benefit of the remaining camp days.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Margaret Root

Terrific program in that addresses kids who might otherwise be considered "cast-offs".  Especially in light of the follow up 4H mentoring that can continue & access to to the teen addiction program, I applaud your work. :)

Photo of Doug Gould

Great program for helping at-risk youth! I really like the use of peer leaders and peer mentoring to keep the concepts and messages alive after the kids complete the program. I would be interested to see data on substance abuse improvement and recidivism rates in the community you serve. Best of luck. 

Photo of Debe

The first year, our prototype program, consisted of all referred students from Juvenile Probation, ages 13 to 16. We quickly learned that their behaviors were already so entrenched. We looked at our mission as a "prevention" organization and backed the age group down where our efforts actually could address prevention and actually influence the participants. Those subsequent 9 years yield much better results. However, being that prevention is so hard to quantitatively measure, we look to qualitative information from parents, teachers and the youth themselves. That and office referrals for drugs and alcohol or lack thereof.

Photo of Michael Auerbach

Very well written proposal, and I admire your validated method of assessments. Would love to learn in more detail about the "basic skills" you teach to help your participants.

Photo of Debe

Basic skills we incorporate are self-esteem building, goal setting, team building and peer support, basic interview skills, table manners, responsibility, personal reflection, community service. Activities incorporate the learning so the kids don't realize the "lesson" but enjoy the results. With new interview skills they go to senior residences and interview elders. There they learn how to interact, ask questions, listen, record data, reflect and present what they learned. As a side benefit, this has led to several "adoptions" over the years of kids returning to visit their interviewee.
Goal setting is demonstrated by running a mile a day. Some start out walking, some don't even want to do it. But by tackling it bit by bit daily, they learn the stepping stones of goal achievement and improvement by the challenge to improve their daily time.
Community service and simply serving lunch to each other daily, teaches the joy of service and continues throughout the year.
A noted artist spends 2 hours showing basic drawing techniques and the kids achieve an artwork. This has thrilled and surprised many students and awoken some true talent.
Daily readings of the book  Mama Bear, Baby Bear by Linda Silvas, requires understanding personification, parallelism, introspection, empathy and group reflection. The readings conclude with a final Skype session with the Author where the kids can again apply their interview skills and self confidence.
The list goes on and on with skills learning buried in FUN!

Photo of Michael Arterberry

Very nice job Debe! Your proposal is well written and the model appears to be rock solid. From another provider of services of at-risk youth, I am so excited to see that you are achieving results which can be difficult with the many factors working against these young people. Keep up the good work and best of luck with the project!

Photo of Debe

Thank you so much Michael for your feedback!

Photo of Melanie Gilbert

Hi there, Debe:

I was a low-income kid who found great joy in the great outdoors. Our community offered a low-cost Outward Bound-type model for kids like me. We were called The Nomads, a double entendre that I appreciated even then. Through that program I learned lots of self-care wilderness skills that definitely helped me grow self awareness and with it, self confidence. I loved the outdoors, anyway, but this program showed me a level of engagement I didn't know existed such as National Parks.

I love reading about programs like yours. Having an outdoor adventure can be a spiritual experience for kids who feel marginalized at best, and lost at worst. Feeling connected to something bigger than yourself, yet responsible for it, too, can be awe-inspiring and affirming for a kid trying to literally and figuratively find their place in the world. Nature can be humbling and invigorating at the same time - a perfect mix for at-risk kids.

Programs like yours offer possibilities, and with it, hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow to kids struggling with the challenging realities of daily life.

Congratulations, from a fellow Changemaker, on an inspiring project!

Best - Melanie

PS: I followed your org on Twitter ;)

Photo of Debe

Thanks Melanie for your input. One factor I failed to include is that the final 2 days of our program are spent in collaboration with our White Mountain Nature Center with professional naturalists, biologists and others to explore, understand  and appreciate the outdoors. Despite being a rural, mountain community surrounded by National Forests and 62 lakes, youth today don't know what to do with that resource. We help instill that idea—something other than electronic games—and incorporate such community services as creating deer paths by insulating barbwire fences, reinforcing spillways and installing bird shelters. You hit on so many right eyeopeners in your comment. Thank you for sharing!!!  Follow our JLA Facebook page to see our kids unfold starting on Monday through June 17 completion ceremony!!!

Photo of Melanie Gilbert

Wow, Debe.

Your program is a fascinating hybrid of 4-H, Trail Scouts, WPA (Works Project Admin), and Audubon Society/Sierra Club! Your stewardship of environment - both kids and country - is amazing. Plus, teaching these kids how to leverage their natural resources through hands-on engagement (Nature Center) and purposeful action (building paths and shelters) helps root them in the experience.

Can you tell I'm a big fan?

Following you on Facebook. You can check out my social media presence on:

Will be following your work closely. How exciting for the kids to have such an a great program.