By Linda Lutton
Ames, Iowa—When George Belitsos first rolled into town in his Volkswagen in 1971, this college town had a growing population of runaway youth, a burgeoning youth drug problem, and one solution to both dilemmas: the local jail. It was a place Belitsos got to know well.
“I would come to pick up kids from jail, I would come to juvenile court, I would meet the chief of police and I would very often get scolded,” says Belitsos, who started a controversial youth drop-in center just a month after arriving in town and 17 months later opened a seven-bed emergency shelter for youth – Iowa’s first.
Belitsos was a 23-year-old conscientious objector to the draft who’d come to Iowa from Cincinnati to complete his alternative service – as a youth worker for the Ames YMCA. Today, he sits at the helm of the agency he laid the groundwork for 30 years ago.
Back then, nervous locals tried bribing him to take his idea for a youth shelter five miles out of town. Today, Youth & Shelter Services (YSS) is at Ames’ epicenter: The agency owns the historic former City Hal, where it houses eight programs. The jail where Belitsos once picked up runaways is now a YSS Young Parents Center. The juvenile courtroom is an activity room, home to YSS after-school programs for girls. And what used to be the mayor’s office now belongs to Belitsos.
Now in its 27th year, YSS has grown from a controversial, ad hoc initiative of the Ames YMCA into a multi-service youth agency with a $7.8 million annual budget and 19 program locations across central Iowa.
With 180 full-time employees and more than 600 volunteers, the agency offers a dizzying array of services, including transitional living for homeless youth and young mothers, foster homes, adoption services, mentoring, substance abuse counseling, delinquency and pregnancy prevention, after-school programs, parenting classes and day care.
What’s been YSS’ key to success? Those familiar with the agency cite a strong staff and board, smart finances and good outcomes. But those aren’t what they mention first.
“One word,” says longtime YSS board member Phil O’Berry. “George.”
It doesn’t take long to feel that George Belitsos’ draft board somehow shipped him to where he really belonged. Those who remember when he got here say he was on the street talking with youth that first night. Today the plates on his Nissan Altima read, “YOUTH 1.” The passenger seat is covered with pink “While You Were Out” slips, which he answers on his car phone, often while driving from one end of YSS’ service area to the other – a trek of more than four hours.
He wears out a lot of tires: Aside from its programs in Ames, YSS runs community-based centers in Des Moines and four rural communities. Until the agency hired an associate CEO a few years ago, Belitsos attended the monthly advisory board meetings for each of the community centers, plus the YSS monthly corporate board meeting and the monthly YSS Foundation board meeting. He’s cut back to five meetings a month.
“He has such a passion for what he does, and he doesn’t really tolerate a lot of people around him that don’t have the same passion,” says Greg Jaundon, associate director of the YSS Iowa Homeless Youth Centers in Des Moines. “He’s one of the most dedicated individuals I’ve ever met.” Belitsos still meets with every new staff member to discuss the agency’s history and mission.
The boss is upbeat and strikingly genuine. His magnetic personality has been a linchpin in YSS’ growth. “He’s got some charisma around him,” O’Berry says. “The city treasurer used to call him ‘Gorgeous George.’ He just has a way about him that is good, and people follow him.”
His optimism is reflected in the agency’s unusual logo: Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who fell to his death when he ignored his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. YSS prefers an upbeat interpretation, saying the logo “stands as a visual symbol of the YSS slogan, ‘Helping the next generation soar to a brighter future.’”
YSS Public Information Officer Ray Benter estimates that 75 percent of YSS donors (who contributed $2.7 million in nine months during YSS’ last capital campaign, in 1997) know Belitsos personally. O’Berry suspects that estimate is low.
“I remember a donor, Rose McCay, ” he says. “She had the same birthday as George, and for years George knew Rose somehow and they would share this birthday, and every year George would take her a flower on her birthday.
“Then in one of our capital campaigns we had a half-million dollar donation from Rose and Dale McCay. All this thoughtfulness comes home.”
Death Spurs Action
“We see a need and we try to fill it.”
That simple philosophy expressed by Belitsos has guided the agency’s methodical growth. YSS estimates it will serve 6,000 people this year, and that since its beginning it has helped more than 20,000.
“At the very beginning we got out a legal-sized sheet of paper and listed all the services that we would like to see, and we have followed that for 25 years,” Belitsos says. “It was a dream to have a comprehensive, broad-ranging youth-serving agency, a one-stop shop. We have taken advantage of the opportunities for funding as they’ve come along.”
The latest opportunity came after Reggie Kelsey turned up dead in the Des Moines River last May. Kelsey had turned 18 just months earlier, and the state had closed its file on him after he aged out of foster care. YSS staff in Des Moines knew Kelsey; he had come to a YSS meal site for homeless youth, and had slept in the bed YSS keeps open for emergencies at its transitional living facility there.
“Reggie’s death suddenly brought tremendous public understanding and insight and support to kids age 18 who are failing when they age out of foster care,” Belitsos says. “We have been trying for the last 10 years to bring attention to that issue.” When the body was found, “we immediately tried to utilize that as an example of what’s going on for hundreds of others.”
YSS worked with local media to keep the heat on, and Iowa’s government responded.
Last month, the state awarded a $600,000 grant to a network of 10 agencies to provide services to youth who age out of foster care. YSS organized the agencies in the network, submitted the proposal, and will administer the grant.
“The way that George and YSS took the lead in pursuing this new opportunity to provide additional services is indicative of how and why the organization has grown so much,” says former board member Carol Behrer, executive director of the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa, in Des Moines. “If there’s ever an opportunity for new services to be provided to young people, YSS steps to the plate and says, ‘We have some expertise in this field, we think it’s important, and we’ll find a way to make it happen.’”
Belitsos has a talent for predicting where new funding opportunities may open up, say those who know him. Agency spokesman Benter says Belitsos writes short documents on “future trends,” which he distributes to staff for brainstorming. “He tries to get out ahead of what the next problem will be.”
Being in the vanguard of youth-service provision has given YSS the freedom to design programs from the ground up, but it’s also meant the agency has had to take some big risks, Belitsos says. “We had Iowa’s first emergency shelter, we had Iowa’s first community-based drug treatment program, we had Iowa’s first youth-run business. For all of those, there was no precedent. We took a financial risk, we took a liability risk, we operated facilities without licenses because the state hadn’t caught up to us.”
That growth did not come without a lot of scrambling, and some ill feelings around town.
“In youth work, things are changing all the time,” Belitsos says. “One day one issue catches the public’s attention and there’s state and federal funding that follows it. The next day it’s not an issue and the funding moves on to something else.” The only way to keep programs alive in that climate is to replace lost government funding with community support, he says.
That hasn’t always been possible. In 1986, YSS shut down an electronic and media arts workshop it had run for 10 years. In 1997, the agency sold a bottle and can redemption business it had run as a youth employment initiative since 1983, when federal grants began to dry up and YSS saw a need to shift from job creation to job training.
YSS programs have frequently moved from one building to another, changed names, changed target clients or changed focus, often in response to funding changes. For instance, what would Belitsos do if money for transitional housing dried up and funding emergency shelters became fashionable?
“Relabel a program, give it the new title, and basically serve the same kind of kid. You repackage constantly,” says Belitsos, who wrote all the grant proposals for the agency’s first 17 years. “You go where the funding is.”
The funding is everywhere in YSS’ budget. When printed out, the agency’s budget this year stretches to 90 feet. (Business staff have broken it down into 18 five-foot-long “pages.”) It includes 353 funding sources and 45 program areas. YSS is funded by six United Way agencies, more than 50 cities, six county boards of supervisors and its own foundation. In 1994 the agency started the Youth & Shelter Services Foundation with $12,000; the endowment has grown to $1.4 million and generated $65,000 in income for fiscal 2000-01. YSS has been able to burn mortgages almost as fast as it acquires them.
With that kind of success, O’Berry (who’s been on YSS’ board since 1977) admits that the agency’s reputation among other youth-serving organizations has varied. “Earlier in our existence, among other human service agencies I think there was some jealousy,” says O’Berry, who says strained relations with other groups were felt from the early to mid-80s. “We began to get the image of a giant octopus that would swallow up any agency in its way,” or compete for funds as it expanded to other program areas. “I think there was some ill feeling about, ‘Gee, we’re struggling and YSS’ budget is getting bigger.’”
Art Fine, who ran the Iowa Runaway Services in Des Moines, says YSS was becoming the “Standard Oil” of youth agencies in Iowa when he left the state more than 10 years ago.
“There were a lot of programs that did compete for drug money or street crime money or [other funding]. Iowa is not a place where a lot of federal grants went to, and when George started getting the bulk of a lot of stuff that was out there, not everybody was thrilled with that.” Nevertheless, Fine (now executive director of Jewish Family Service of Albuquerque, N.M.) notes that Belitsos was also respected by his peers “because he turned out a good product. He was really doing well with kids.”
The One-Man Show Problem
The question that arises when an organization is so intimately shaped by one person is: What happens when he leaves? Belitsos insists that YSS could have become what it is today even if it had been led by two or three different people, “as long as they shared the same dream.” The organization hired an associate CEO in 1999, who will head the agency should Belitsos leave.
Belitsos is well-connected nationally and in Iowa, and it would be easy to imagine him tapped by the state or federal governments to work on youth policy. He’s been appointed to numerous state and national task forces and committees. YSS has been visited by two first ladies (Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton), former drug czar William Bennett and nearly every Iowa senator and governor since the agency began.
But Belitsos would have a hard time walking away from this: It’s 10 a.m., and he’s spent the morning collecting testimony from Ames residents on the effects of second-hand smoke. “Today I got a signed affidavit from a young woman who’s eight months pregnant,” he says excitedly. “Just listen to this!”
Belitsos insists that YSS could have become what it is today even if it had been led by two or three different people, “as long as they shared the same dream.”
His eyes light up as he reads the testimony. Eight local business are suing Ames (with financing by Philip Morris), thanks in large part to YSS and Belitsos, who co-chairs the Ames Tobacco Task Force. Belitsos lobbied hard for a 2001 ordinance banning smoking from just about everywhere in town before 8:30 p.m., and furious bar and restaurant owners are trying to overturn the measure. Belitsos’ excitement is palpable, but unlike community activists who love a fight, his enthusiasm seems to stem from a conviction that he’s doing right by kids.
He says he’s living out a dream. “I feel I’m one of the luckiest people to ever have entered the world of youth work. There was very little for young people in Ames and Iowa when I came here, and I’ve had every opportunity a youth worker could ever want to be creative, to initiate programs, to garner community support, to make my dreams come true.”
George Belitsos, CEO
Youth & Shelter Services
P.O. Box 1628
Ames, IA 50010
(515) 233-3141, ext. 420
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture
National Soil Tilth Laboratory
2150 Pammel Drive
Ames, IA 50011
What do 180 full-time staff and a $7.8 million budget provide? Following are selected programs operated by YSS in Ames, four rural areas (Boone, Marshall, Hamilton and Story counties) and Des Moines (where YSS operates as Iowa Homeless Youth Centers). Services vary from site to site:
• Shelter for runaways, abused and neglected youth, and youth in trouble with the law – 15 beds in Ames.
• Transitional and independent living apartments – 20 scattered sites in four counties.
• Housing for homeless young pregnant women and young mothers – four “host homes” in residential neighborhoods in four counties serve women ages 16-25 for up to two years. Seventeen slots available, plus extra spaces for children (YSS combines numbers for transitional living and host homes. In 2001, the homes served 198 youths).
• Primary and after-care treatment for chemically dependent youth – 40 beds at two sites in Ames.
• Outreach to homeless and runaway youth through a center, meal site and two outreach vans – Des Moines. The meal site served 2,685 youth last year (the total includes youths served more than once). Vans and outreach center served 411 individual youths.
• Counseling services, including individual, family and group, both outpatient and in homes.
• Foster care and adoption services – home studies to license family foster homes and adoptive homes; placement services, recruitment and retention; and support, education, and supervision of foster and adoptive youth and families.
• Parenting assistance (education, support and counseling) – Drop-in center for single young parents and their children in Ames. Most clients are served through home visits. Limited financial assistance is provided to help overcome certain obstacles. For instance, YSS might pay to repair a woman’s car so she can get to work.
• Prenatal care and education – YSS connects women to doctors and hospitals. A part-time staff nurse conducts home visits, and YSS hosts a weekly free clinic.
• Prevention and education – YSS offers a range of age-specific presentations in schools and communities on topics such as building self-esteem, alcohol awareness and decision-making. Reached 57,244 youth last year (the total includes those served more than once).
• Youth employment and training services for disadvantaged youth.
• After-school programs and mentoring – for elementary and middle-school youths in nine school districts. On-site after-school programs help children complete their homework and offer sports, games, crafts, storytelling, field trips and guest speakers. Last year, 197 students participated in the mentoring program, and 328 youths were served in the after-school programs.
• Day care for preschool-age children of homeless parents searching for housing or employment – Des Moines.