Respect. Kindness. Compassion. Civility. All of these important character traits are crucial for building the kind of world we strive to live in, and the future starts with educating kids. Changing society for the better is the goal of Youth Frontiers, a nonprofit organization working to inspire character in young people. In other words, following their motto, “Character Matters.”
“We plant the seeds of character in young people’s minds,” founder and CEO of Youth Frontiers Joe Cavanaugh says.
Youth Frontiers is an organization that works with school staff and students in retreats, like a Respect Retreat offered for ninth graders in high schools in Edina and Rosemount. The three key elements taught are character, civility and community. Once the three are joined together in a positive way, change happens.
Youth Frontiers began in 1987, stemming from Cavanaugh’s passion for working with students in groups such as in YMCA camps and other youth organizations.
“My passion is to work in schools by providing experiences and teaching them the importance of character. If you impact and touch a kid’s mind and heart, you will change history,” Cavanaugh says.
Cavanaugh strongly believes the societal issues we face today, such as racial injustice, sexism, violence and incivility, are issues of character.
Cavanaugh’s current role within the organization, aside from being CEO, is to set up Youth Frontiers for future generations. He is working to broaden the impact and the scope and reach by leading retreats for educators and the entire school staff, trying to extend the reach to more community leaders.
“Our society has shifted to the individual and we are about trying to balance and we can’t forget about community because you are representative of your family, school and community,” Cavanaugh says.
Donor relations manager Karen Nelson has been working with Youth Frontiers for the past four years, overseeing the fundraising that makes their retreats possible. Nelson’s efforts allow schools to pay about 55 percent of the cost while donations and philanthropy cover the remaining 45 percent.
She is working with Cavanaugh on his mission to expand the reach of Youth Frontiers and has started a planned giving program that allows people to leave money to the organization in their wills or make sure donations are made on a planned schedule.
“Youth Frontiers helps young people to shape their character and be more kind, courageous and respectful and gives them the tools to express what is in their hearts,” Nelson says.
Cavanaugh has been leading retreats since the beginning and on his first one he told the students, “We are not trying to make all of you friends, but we are going to show you, you don’t have to be enemies.”
He continues to stand by this, 30 years later. The first year they began Youth Frontiers, they did seven retreats; now they do close to 873 retreats a year, touching 125,000 students and teachers, which amounts to well over 2 million since their start.
“Character is a key part of the cure,” Cavanaugh says.