Off the starting tower, the marble quickly descended, did a quick loop-de-loop and curved into a banking curve.

The kids gathered at Youth Connections’ Quest Camp had spent hours working on the mini-roller coaster. Using foam tubing as a track, logs and folding chairs as supports and duct tape to hold the whole thing together, they calculated how steep the track needed to be to give a marble enough speed to finish, but not too much to send it careening off.

For those who worked on it, the coaster was a chance to play and build while learning about physics and math.

“We had to learn about momentum and mass, stuff like that. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in,” said Michael Wilson, an 11-year-old from Franklin.

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This is the first year for the science camp. But its overall mission speaks to 40 years of services that Youth Connections has been providing the community.

Since it was founded in 1976, Youth Connections has evolved from a shelter for at-risk children and teens to a multi-program organization entrusted with the well-being of youth in all areas of the community.

Throughout the school year, its staff helps put together mentoring sessions for students throughout the county. The agency has worked with local families to provide a safety net of emergency housing for kids in need, and helps parents and their children navigate the unfamiliar familial territory that comes with divorce.

Though each of the organization’s programs have a different focus, all are aimed at the same objective: healthier kids.

“That’s our goal — to work with youth, and make sure the at-risk youth are stable, in an environment where they’re safe, they aren’t abused, aren’t confused,” said Judy Duncan, executive director of Youth Connections. “We do that through our six programs.”

The free science camps, being conducted over four sessions this summer, are an extension of Youth Connections’ Jumpstart program. During the school year, mentors meet with children in elementary, intermediate and middle school, emphasizing science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

With school out, a camp is a perfect opportunity to keep the positive aspects of Jumpstart going, Duncan said.

Michael had been part of the Jumpstart program throughout the school year.

“I like science and STEM projects. I had done the school program, and it was fun, so I figured this would be too,” he said.

For Josie Shoup, the camp was a chance to do something different than she had in previous summers.

She and her fellow campers learned about robotics, programming and other aspects of science through challenging activities. Building the roller coaster was her favorite, though, as it forced her and her teammates to master the twists and turns in their design.

“Usually over the summer, I’d be staying at home, and I didn’t want to do that,” the 12-year-old Trafalgar resident said. “I thought this might be something fun and it actually was.”

The science camp is an indicator of how far Youth Connections has come.

The organization was founded in the mid-1970s when local officials wanted to find an alternative to placing certain youth in the county jail. Instead of serving a sentence with adult offenders, they could be rehabilitated in a specialized environment, working with counselors to correct their paths.

The Johnson County shelter house opened in 1979 and operated for 15 years before being shut down due to funding issues. Youth Connections officials, still dedicated to reaching at-risk youth, altered their approach.

They expanded their Safe Places and host home programs, already in operation to give runaway and homeless youth a place to stay.

The organization works closely with Johnson County courts on custody evaluation, a mandated assessment to determine the needs of children in divorce or separations cases, and how well each parent meets those needs.

With its children’s visitation center, Youth Connections can provide a supervised environment where parents without custody of their kids can spend short amounts of time reconnecting.

Duncan, who has been the executive director for the past six months, has worked to carry on the upward trajectory the organization has maintained for four decades.

“When there is a child in crisis, my goal is to make sure the first organization people think of to help is Youth Connections,” she said. “We’re the ones who people know we can help.”

One of its largest programs is Families in Transition, which helps parents and children going through divorce. The program was founded in 1994, and is still conducted on Saturdays at Youth Connection’s headquarters in Franklin.

“We’re trying to help parents learn how to be become healthy co-parents after divorce, to make life better for the whole family,” said Dr. John Shafer, coordinator of the program.

Shafer has been the clinical supervisor of the Families in Transition program for more than 20 years, coordinating it in addition to his role as director of counseling at Franklin College.

The program is divided into three groups: parents, teens and children. Because each segment experiences divorce differently, Shafer felt it was best to address them in separate sessions.

“Teens often struggle with divorce because they’re all about peers and appearance. There’s some shame issues associated with divorce, and they wonder why their parents are doing this to them. Often, they won’t talk,” he said. “Our goal is to get them to open up, talk with each other and talk with our facilitators.”

For the parents, it’s an opportunity to learn how they can best relate their new family situation to their kids.

Shafer works closely with 8- to 12-year-old children. Much of his curriculum is similar to the teenage version, but divorce is presented in a more age-appropriate way so that they can understand what’s happening to their families.

They learn that the divorce is not their fault — one of the most prevalent feelings among the kids that come for the session.

“I try to help the kids learn how to adapt to a very different, new kind of family,” he said. “It’s a new normal, and they don’t always have the coping skills adults do.”

Over the course of a five-hour class, it’s possible to see the transformation simply in the way the kids carry themselves, Duncan said.

When they arrived, often they’re hunched over, heads down, somber. But as the day goes, and they learn about their self-worth and that they didn’t cause this divorce to happen, that changes.

“You can see, through John, they were opening up a little more, listening to what he was saying, and you could see it click,” Duncan said. “Here was an adult saying that it wasn’t their fault, and they believed that.”

Families in Transition is designed to protect and support vulnerable children. The same is true for all of Youth Connections’ six programs. Those involved with the group understand it’s been the driving force behind the organization’s first 40 years, and will be moving forward as well.

“These children need love. They need to know there are people in their lives who love them, and embrace them,” Shafer said. “Even if for a day, it can have an impact.”

At a glance

Youth Connections

What: An agency serving at-risk youth through crisis intervention, community education and mentoring in Johnson and Morgan counties


  • Jumpstart: A structured, small-group afterschool mentoring program focusing on leadership, life skills and science, technology, engineering and math exploration.
  • Host Homes: Volunteer families who act as emergency shelter for youth in crisis. Young people ages 7 to 17 can stay at the host home for up to 21 days, until they can be reunited with family or moved to permanent housing.
  • Project Safe Place: A network of more than 100 sites that provide support and resources to youth dealing with a crisis. A Safe Place representative is available 24 hours each day.
  • Custody evaluations: Court-mandated assessments that provide a neutral evaluation based on the best interest of the child.
  • Children’s visitation center: A safe and neutral on-site location for monitored visits between children and their noncustodial parent.
  • Families in Transition: Classes for parents and their children, ages 8 to 16, that provide information on how to cope with divorce.

Information: or 317-738-3273.

Helpline: 866-738-5437. A resource staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the week by Youth Connections.

How to help: Anyone interested in serving as a board member or volunteer for Youth Connections should contact Judy Duncan at 738-3273.

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.