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Empowering Youth, Building Bonds – Lessons Learned from Five Years of Forward Together’s Remarkable Journey

 

Research underscores the profound impact of youth connection on healthy decision-making among teens, significantly reducing risky health behaviors.  

Strong relationships with adults and peers create a nurturing environment that enhances teen self-awareness, resilience, and informed decision-making 

A supportive network helps teens navigate challenges and steer clear of behaviors that could lead to negative outcomes, such as substance misuse and mental health issues. 

And in 2019, this body of research inspired an idea among staff at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE): What if we addressed a range of unhealthy teen behaviors at their root by focusing on building youth connections?  

This vision proved to be remarkably prescient, especially with the pandemic looming and the growing body of research showing of how social media alienates youth, leaving them feeling even more disconnected and isolated. 

The result was the Forward Together campaign, which over the past five years has connected teens across Colorado with each other, their parents, caregivers, and other trusted adults.  

My Why 

When embarking on a new project, particularly one spanning multiple years, discovering my ‘why’—that personal connection to the work —is crucial. 

I vividly remember the early years of the project, driving and flying across the state with our research partner to interview and meet with parents and young people.  

We held nearly two dozen in-person focus groups that year and conducted statewide surveys of youth, parents, caregivers, and community partners to understand the challenges they face in fostering connection. 

One poignant memory stands out: After a focus group with LGBTQ+ youth, I sat in my car and cried, moved by their stories of harassment and intolerance, and how they found solace only online.  

Perhaps it was my own lived experience of being a gay teen in a less-than-supportive community that hit so close to home for me.  

Their stories, along with those of other young people across the state who desperately needed connection, stayed with me every day I worked on the project. At every juncture, I asked myself how a creative concept, a media tactic, or a resource would impact the neurodivergent pre-teen I met in Durango, who had attempted suicide multiple times because they felt no one understood them, or the teen boy in Pueblo who would come home from school to an empty house and fall asleep alone in front of the TV each night while his mom worked her second job.  

These teens’ daily experiences, and my own experience as a suicidal and desperately lonely teen, were my why and they drove me to do my best work every day, year after year.  

Reflecting Back on the Last Five Years 

As we reach the end of our five-year Forward Together campaign engagement, I’ve taken a moment to reflect on the years of work and thousands of hours the team has poured into this campaign.  

Colorado was a national pioneer in going to the root of the issue, so we had to learn along the way.  Working on this project with the incredible team at CDPHE and my colleagues at SE2 has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.  

Most importantly, the campaign has worked: Third-party evaluations showed that campaign exposure significantly shifted key audience beliefs and attitudes about important steps adults can take to build youth connectedness.

The Stories of Connection campaign, which highlighted stories from Colorado youth, parents, and trusted adults, won a Heartland Emmy Award in 2023 and has been nominated again this year.  

While the award is a great achievement, what I am most proud of is that our team created a campaign that genuinely changes behaviors by building on a foundation of evidence-based strategies and messaging that can serve as a model for other states. 

Here are two key takeaways: 

1. Put Youth and Parent Voices at the Center of The Work 

From day one, and every day since, we meaningfully engaged those we seek to affect through this campaign. Our youth panel, consisting of diverse youth from across the state, along with our four on-staff youth advisors throughout the campaign, consulted on campaign concepts, created user-generated social media content, contributed to writing toolkit materials, and provided input on research questions. 

@forwardtogetherco

Reconnection can be hard, so trying to set up times to meet up again is a great step! connection friends foryoupageForwardTogetherCO teens talk appreciation

♬ original sound – forwardtogetherco – forwardtogetherco

When we faced key decisions on the campaigns, I would often hear someone on our team say, “We should ask youth/parents what they think.” And we did.  

But we didn’t just seek their input; we empowered them to shape the campaign according to their vision.  

For example, when we embarked on creating new campaign content for parents and caregivers, we recruited and collaborated with a council of over a dozen parents who brainstormed ideas with us, and wrote articles that channeled their lived experience. After all, when it comes to the challenge of being a parent of a teen today, they were subject matter experts. 

The result was meaningful, specific, and constructive content that engaged parents and caregivers on critical issues including empowering teens to make big life decisions, easing the impact of divorce, preventing teen suicide, and supporting a teen’s gender and sexual identity 

The deeply personal and impactful stories from Colorado parents provided invaluable insights, helping other parents approach these sensitive topics with their teens constructively and empathetically. 

2. Create Opportunities to Foster Connection 

Creating awareness about the power of youth connection is crucial, but research shows that awareness alone does not lead to behavior change. This insight led us, in the second year of the campaign, to provide mini-grants to community-based organizations to partner in our campaign.  

These nonprofits collaborated with us in research, creating campaign concepts and messages, developing content, and promoting the campaign in their communities. This approach has become central to our work on a variety of campaigns and issues. 

Over five years of working on the Forward Together campaign, CDPHE funded nearly 50 organizations serving diverse populations, including Black, Hispanic/Latino, first-generation American, rural, and LGBTQ+ youth. These organizations reached nearly 4,000 young people through tangible, connection-building events and activities. These groups, which are doing important on-the-ground work every day and making a difference to their communities, deserve to be recognized. 

9Health:365      ●      Asian Girls Ignite      ●      Asian Pacific Development Center      ●      Aspen Youth Center      ●      Birdseed Collective  
Boys & Girls Club Fremont County      ●      Boys & Girls Club of Pueblo County      ●     Boys & Girls Clubs of the San Luis Valley  
Boys & Girls Clubs of Weld County      ●      Boys & Girls Club Black Canyon      ●      Boys & Girls Club High Rockies  
Boys and Girls Clubs Metro Denver      ●       Center for African American Health – Denver      ●      Colorado Black Health Collaborative  
Colorado Rural Health Center      ●      Elevate Youth      ●      elevateHER      ●      Four Corners Rainbow Youth      ●      Friends for Youth 
Full Circle of Lake County      ●      Girl’s Inc      ●      Inside Out Youth Services       ●      Metro Denver Partnership for Health  
Montezuma Youth Alliance      ●     Mountain Resource Center      ●      Muslim Youth for Positive Impact      ●      Project Pave  
RISE Colorado      ●      Rural Community Resource Center      ●      Second Chance Through Faith      ●      Servicios de la Raza  
Spirit of the Sun      ●      Vuela for Health      ●     Weld County Schools      ●      Youth on Record 

 

We helped these organizations tell their stories of connecting youth and providing growth opportunities, showing the impact trusted adults can have on teens.  

As the years went on, our relationships deepened, and their engagement became more meaningful. 

In the final year of the contract, we partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Colorado to integrate campaign materials and messages into programming across the state. The Boys and Girls Club also hosted Forward Together-themed events that brought youth and parents together to learn more about each other and connect. 

The organizations regularly expressed how even a small grant helped them achieve their mission, all while supporting the Forward Together campaign goals.  

Their stories and feedback continually reinforce the value and impact of this collaborative effort. 

And for our agency, it meaningfully advanced one of our core values: elevating diverse voices.

A Blueprint for Supporting Generations of Healthy Youth 

CDPHE and SE2 were on the leading edge of an emerging issue and have built a vast body of knowledge on how to foster youth connectedness. Key insights will be shared at the upcoming Public Health in the Rockies Conference in September. 

We’re applying these lessons to other public and mental health campaigns, building on what we’ve learned.  

We’re incredibly grateful for vision and commitment of CDPHE to this campaign. It has and will continue to benefit youth today and into the future.