'I was sitting and talking to some of the staff and kids between groups," recalls Natalie Johnson, while touring the Spring Creek Youth Services Center. "And one kid brought up the Gazette article and was like, 'That article just made us look like monsters and animals.'"
Within the past several months, Spring Creek has drawn much scrutiny over the behavioral "issues" of youths housed in the East Las Vegas Street facility. After Colorado Springs School District 11 refused to renew an education contract with Spring Creek — with teachers reporting concerns for their own safety and that of others — state agencies investigated, including the Department of Youth Corrections and the Office of Children, Youth and Families.
Evidence of heightened gang activity and assaults on staff and teachers, and, as reported earlier this month by the Independent, a riot in the facility, have brought about deep changes. Spring Creek has recently seen: restructuring of management; the hiring of more staff; the release of up to 16 youths, either to other facilities or transitioning out of the program; and an increase in the staff-to-youth ratio, to 1:4.5. (In case you're wondering, that's a lot for an 80-bed facility.)
Yet through all the reports, one perspective is lacking — that of the young people, ages 10 to 20, housed in the facility. Legal issues concerning the kids' safety, security and privacy prevent much, or any, media contact with them. Meanwhile, the hard statistics make it easy to generalize the youngsters on the other side of those numbers, rendering them faceless and outside the mainstream. Which brings us back to Natalie Johnson.
Johnson, 38, is the executive director of the Manitou Art Center. Through Leadership Pikes Peak she took a tour of Spring Creek earlier this year and, along with one of the social workers there, devised Our Stories Thus Far ... now on display at the MAC.
In what she hopes will be an ongoing collaboration with Spring Creek, this first year's theme is for the kids to tell their own stories by way of the Native American tradition of painting their war ponies with meaningful symbols. Kids were given a printed outline of a horse and decorated them with images illustrating their own interests and experiences; the ponies vary greatly from child to child.
"From the time we pitched it to the kids, we received 54 pieces from 60-some-odd kids in two months," Johnson says. "And that's pretty good ... it exceeded what we were expecting.
"You know it's something small we're doing, just a little thing," she adds. "But if other institutions could do something small and mobilize, it could ultimately make the kids feel like they're part of something bigger."