Feeling hopeless isn’t uncommon – particularly in a year rocked by a pandemic, political divides, and increasingly depressing headlines each day. Amidst all this, TreeHouse is here as a ray of light for teens in need.
Meet Kevin Ward, TreeHouse’s Vice President of Partner Network. A conversation with him makes you realize there’s a lot of good yet in the world. Read on to learn more about TreeHouse’s mission, expansion across the country, and transitioning their programs in the wake of COVID.
For those unfamiliar, what is TreeHouse all about?
TreeHouse is a faith-based non-profit based in Minnesota, and our entire mission is to end hopelessness among teens. For over 40 years, we have served teens and communities across the country through strong relationships, mentorships, retreats, and group activities. At our core, we’re about building relationships and providing hope.
This year, our mission is more relevant than ever – in the midst of a pandemic with isolation so common. Hopelessness is not foreign – for adults and teens alike. It’s so relevant, and everyone can identify with it.
What does your role at TreeHouse entail?
My job as Vice President of Partner Network is to help TreeHouse meet our mission through partnership with churches, non-profits, and schools. Right now, we’re in 10 different states and have close to 50 partners across the country.
How did you end up connected to TreeHouse?
Before TreeHouse, I ran an association management company in the Twin Cities – I worked hard for many years, but felt called to do something different. I didn’t exactly know what, so I took the time to figure out my next step. TreeHouse ended up coming up on three separate occasions from three different people – I was intrigued!
What makes a good fit for a partner?
There are a couple of things – first and foremost is having access and ability to work with teens. Many organizations are already in that space who want to join our mission of ending hopelessness in teens. Second, we are a faith-based organization and like to have alignment there. Without the knowledge of a loving God, our program wouldn’t be as impactful.
Tell me more about your typical teen – who would benefit from involvement with TreeHouse?
Hopelessness can take many forms. It looks very different depending on whether a teen is coming from an urban, suburban, or rural community. Some teens experience hopelessness for just a moment or a few days at a time, or it can be part of their everyday circumstances. It could be as simple as they don’t feel like they fit in with a friend group or struggle with something in their social life or family. We respect whatever context a teen is in and provide what they need to feel hopeful for the future.
Since the pandemic, we see consistent themes – teens are struggling with mental health, virtual schooling, and feelings of isolation. In many cases, leaving for school was a positive escape for teens dealing with dysfunctional home situations.
In what ways are you able to make an impact on teens dealing with those challenges?
The TreeHouse model always starts with relationships. Our staff and volunteers who work directly with teens are crucial to building a trusting relationship. We create programming that helps mentors build relationships with teens. For those who are open to it, we introduce kids to a faith-based relationship with a loving God and have that be a part of our approach to ending hopelessness. The Bible is clear that He is the hope. We never push that or try to come off as “too churchy” – but it is an important differentiator in what we offer to teens.
How would you describe the TreeHouse experience?
The TreeHouse experience is highly personalized. We’re really good at meeting teens where they are. Someone can come in for a lot of different reasons – and they’re all okay! We provide them with a safe environment to process their struggles, open up, and build lasting relationships.
We like to say that we “do life” with them. We have many truths that we tell all our teens – they are lovable, capable, worthwhile, worthy of being loved, and that they have a future. We tell them that, but more importantly, we back that up with the types of programming we offer to further their relationships. Post-high school, TreeHouse Next is there to help our teens prepare for whatever comes next in life – whether that’s preparing for college, applying to trade schools, pursuing a military career, or anything else they may consider.
Has COVID had a big impact on your program and how you’re connecting with teens?
It definitely made us rethink our approach. We turned to more virtual options using video tools. Ultimately, we pivoted from large group settings to smaller groups and pods – we’re finding there’s a lot deeper connection possible with small pods, given the one-on-one attention. Small groups could be something we stick with permanently, even after COVID-related restrictions lift.
We are starting to meet in-person again with our teens and developing creative ways to keep them engaged. We make sure our activities are socially distanced and try to be outside whenever possible. Sometimes we take a walk in the neighborhood or go on a bike ride to supplement the support groups and mentoring sessions that are happening virtually.
What technology helped you move operations remotely?
In many ways, we built TreeHouse for this. We were already working remotely with our partners and created a remote training plan without any requirements for co-location. On the corporate staff side, everyone adjusted pretty quickly. There will always be some work that requires certain staff to be on-site – like checking mail and processing donations. From an operations standpoint, we are in the process of implementing Salesforce to help us track participants and measure key outcomes. We’re also building an app to help us stay connected with our teens.
On the program side, we analyzed all of the different connection tools – Google, Zoom, Teams, and so on – to document features and compare them to our needs. Then we surveyed our teens to find out their preferred connecting technology, including social media platforms, gaming, and video sites – ultimately, Google Meets won out. Through our survey, we realized that technology is a privilege. Not all of our teens have access to technology.
What’s the best way for someone to support TreeHouse?
There are many ways to get involved with varying levels of commitment. First and foremost, it’s important to recognize a need in the community. From there, we have a few different ways to make an impact:
- Volunteer! We’re always looking for mentors and people who have a passion for working with teens or serving teens.
- Become an evangelist. Encourage folks to reach out to TreeHouse.
- Donate! Cha-ching, cha-ching. Funds are always helpful.
- Start a TreeHouse. If there’s a gap in the community, learn more about how to start a location.
Get to Know Kevin Ward
I have a 10-year-old son named KJ.
How did you end up in Minnesota?
No idea. I’m still trying to figure that out!
Ultimate Travel Destination:
Somewhere warm, tropical, and laid back. So...Jamaica mon!
TreeHouse has been serving teens since 1979, helping them build relationships and resiliency rooted in living hope. Based in Minnesota, TreeHouse has sites across the country. Each location hosts programs that give teens a safe space to find support and belonging. Through mentorship, retreats, and other off-site activities, teens have the opportunity to build even deeper relationships with peers and caring adults.