Growing up is hard. Growing up with only one parent is harder. Growing up with only one parent who works two or more jobs is the hardest of all.
In the almost four decades since Earnest Alexander and Jeff Wenzel decided to dedicate their lives to helping fatherless boys grow up to be good men and good fathers, the organization they founded and its mission have grown.
When they started in 1986, the organization was Christian Community Services and the venue was a coffee house called The Dandelion. In 1993, the non-profit status was updated and the name changed to Youth Horizons. The mission was expanded to provide Christian mentorship to at-risk children in the community.
The organization suffered a big loss in 2007 when Jeff Wenzel died after a four-year battle with brain cancer.
After Alexander announced his plans to retire about four years ago, Robert Garner, a former USD 259 administrator with more than 25 years experience in public education, took the helm at Youth Horizons. Since then, Garner has worked to expand the duo’s dream by helping even more children reach their potential as adults.
Garner said his awareness of the impact of poverty and the struggles of single parents is something he observed as an educator and even experienced during an impactful role-playing training session.
“I participated in an exercise where I played the role of a single father and had to deal with the crises that came up. I had to think like that father and make decisions about what to do. It made a lasting impression on me.”
He said Youth Horizons now takes a three-pronged approach to helping boys and girls. It remains a Christian-based organization, working with local churches to find mentors for children in need.
It also provides regular, formal training for mentors and provides a staff of coaches who help mentors when they face challenges or have questions about how best to proceed.
The mentoring program is aimed at children from 5 to 18 years old. Most are in the custody of their parents, though many are in single parent households, often mothers going it alone.,
And more recently. Garner has expanded advocacy for youth in need to businesses and community organizations beyond churches.
“Our core support is still churches,” he said. “But we are trying to improve our resources by reaching civic organizations as well.”
Providing a Home
Early in the history of Youth Horizons, Wenzel and Alexander recognized the need for a group home for boys. Alexander dreamed of a working ranch, complete with crops and livestock, but the resources weren’t there.
In 1996, the first full-time residential group home for boys opened. It was named Martin House and had room for only a few boys in downtown Wichita.
But a decade later, thanks to a generous gift from Richard and Harriet Kinloch Price, Youth Horizons was able to buy about 75 acres of land near Valley Center, to open Kinloch Price Boys’ Ranch. Hutton Construction donated the cost of building the first home on the ranch.
Today, there are four homes on the ranch, providing full-time residential services to about 28 boys ages 10 to 18 years.
There are no cattle or horses, but Hutton said the ranch does have some chickens and there is plenty of space for outdoor activities.
Youth Horizons leadership realized that similar residential placement was also needed for girls.
They received help reaching this goal thanks to a donation of about 50 acres of land in Kechi by philanthropist Keith Penn, who wanted to establish a home for girls at risk of human trafficking. That site now has two homes with space to serve 10 girls, ages 13-18.
Brian Hutton oversees the residential programs for Youth Horizons.
He said the children in the program attend Valley Center Public Schools and can participate in all of the activities offered by USD 262, including sports teams and other competitive activities. At each of the boys and girls homes, there are two “house coaches” who offer support and supervision for the residents in a family-style setting.
He added that there are volunteers who come in to provide help with teaching extra-curricular activities including some with vocational pathways.
“A lot of the kids prefer hands-on projects,” he said. “We encourage that. The world is always going to need builders and machinery operators and repair technicians.”
Looking ahead, a primary goal is to add a transitional living program that supports boys and girls who are “aging out” of the foster care system at 18, but who still need a bridge to independent living.
“We are seeking a partnership with the state that allows us to continue support, offering a lot of goal-setting and career mentoring,” he said. “Many of these kids have trouble thinking beyond today and tomorrow and they need help to build a future-minded attitude.”
The mentoring mission
The core mission of Youth Horizons since its founding remains the same: finding mentors for children in need of one more caring, supportive adult in their lives. That leg of the stool is supported by Van Willliams, Vice-President of Strategic Communications and Mentoring.
Williams said the program has grown into about 120 children matched with mentors.
Unlike the residential program, these children live with their parents or more often a single parent. Mentors can volunteer for a school-based setting or in the community. Male mentors are matched with boys and female mentors are matched with girls.
Aside from being a faith-based model, the Youth Horizons mentoring program stands out from other models because it offers program volunteers formal mentoring and advocate training with coaches who are also available for consultation when a mentor is facing challenges.
“We have six to 10 training sessions a year,” Williams said. “We bring people into the office and provide an opportunity for them to socialize, share some food and do training.”
Williams said he remembers the men who helped him in his youth.
“I was a sports kid,” he said. “So I had coaches that were sort of mentors. But the first real, personal mentor I had was Linwood Sexton.”
He said it was Sexton who led him into his first formal mentoring venture as a co-founder of a community non-profit that provides male role models for youth.
He said many kids need just one more caring adult in their lives to reach life success and he feels fortunate to make a career of helping them find that person.
“I call this God’s work,” he said. “And the opportunity to do this for a living is pretty cool.
The voice of experience
Brian Prahm and his wife Karen lived and he worked at Kinloch Boys Ranch for three years and he remained another year as residential director a decade ago.
“We loved our time at the ranch,” Brian Prahm said. “But I would be the first to acknowledge that it is a very, very difficult job. We knew going in that it would be tough, and we felt we had the strength and the gifts to withstand the difficulty.”
Prahm said he started out in “drill sergeant mode” employing discipline in a manner similar to the original “Boys Town” model.
“My grandfather was actually one of the first residents of Boys Town,” he said. “I thought I needed to run a tight ship, make sure that house was always neat as a pin. Earnest Alexander was a great mentor. He taught me about reaching a kid’s heart. I’ve been spit on, attacked, punched. These are kids who have been through hell. Sometimes you get to them. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes, they seem to be better and they slide back.”
After leaving Youth Horizons as employees, the Prahms have stayed involved as mentors to children there and Brian says he is still in touch with some of the boys who lived there when he did.
“I’ve been to a couple of weddings and have been proud to see them become good husbands and fathers. I just had one man reach out after being released from prison and one of my young men was murdered. I wonder ‘why did he go back?’ There’s no answer. Yet, I’m grateful for having the experience. I tell people absolutely, I miss it. It was my favorite worst job ever.”