Fountain of Youth: CROYA Remains the Rare Place Teenagers Can Call Their Own
By David A. F. Sweet Spread across one wall of Todd Nahigian’s office is the word CROYA. Since he manages the Lake Forest organization – whose acronym stands for Committee Representing Our Young Adults – it’s no surprise that banner hangs prominently.
But look a little closer. The C is a Chicago Cubs C, and the O features baseball stitching. Nahigian is a lifelong Cubs’ fan (“my day is up and down based on how the Cubs do”). His office is packed with the team’s memorabilia.
CROYA tends to create smiles. From music jams to volunteering, to helping kids with disabilities, the organization is a safe space for teens.
Though connecting the Cubs with CROYA may seem odd, truth is it is a perfect association. That franchise – which went 108 years between World Series victories – was known for generations as lovable losers. CROYA? It started in 1980 because of a group named The Losers.
“They were disenfranchised teens who didn’t feel they were supported by the community,” said Nahigian, pointing out the gang abused drugs and alcohol and destroyed property. At the same time, suicides in town were on the rise.
The community responded, and through plenty of hard work – especially from CROYA founders Gene Hotchkiss, Margot Martino and the late Frank Farwell – the organization has been a place 7th-12th graders can call their own ever since. From music jams to volunteering, to helping kids with disabilities, to gathering to play foosball in the CROYA facility and more, the organization is a safe space for teens – whether they are troubled or not. It is one of the country’s longest-running youth organizations.
With a new school year approaching, a new class of students from Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood will be introduced to CROYA. They can take a Peer Training course to learn about how to solve problems and be more active listeners. They can join weekly youth meetings which are led by students to find out about opportunities to participate in service projects and to chat.
“We see the fall as an extremely busy and exciting time to open the doors to listening and to get the current pulse of the youth,” said Nahigian. “We like to find out what are the issues, what would you like for programming and what is important to you.
“We welcome kids of all types to feel comfortable and find ways to build self-esteem. But at the end of the day, we are building relationships so when they are dealing with issues, we figure out ways to support them.”
A crucial component to CROYA is its youth workers, who will be back in schools this fall. They meet with students and, if they seem troubled, can make referrals to professional services.
“Our youth workers are on the front lines,” explained Nahigian, who himself joined CROYA as a youth worker in 1995.
He points to the importance of teens realizing adults care about them.
"Just the other day there was a boy whose facial expression suggested something wasn’t quite right,” Nahigian noted. “I asked him if he was doing OK. An adult acknowledging that is a step in the right direction. You can’t always fix the problem, but you can show that you care.”
Caring is one of the components of one of CROYA’s most popular activities. Since 1987, the community-based youth organization has held a fall retreat (there is one in the spring as well). About 75-90 students will spend a weekend at Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside this year. Group activities build connections between the teens.
“It’s the same basic premise as 1987; don’t judge a book by its cover with these students,” Nahigian said.
During Ellie Ford’s sophomore year at Lake Forest High School, the fall retreat was her first CROYA activity. She said it changed her life.
“My eyes were opened to other people’s lives, and it taught me to always think before I act because I never truly know what is going on in someone else’s life,” said Ford, a recent LFHS graduate who ended up leading two retreats. “Some of my closest relationships have been built on CROYA retreats.”
She also enjoyed gathering warm fuzzies, a CROYA concept where sweet handwritten notes are shared during retreats.
“One of my favorite things to do is read my warm fuzzies when I’m feeling down, and I’m constantly reminded of all the CROYA love,” Ford said. “One of the things I’m most upset about with leaving high school is the fact that I can’t go on another retreat until I’m out of college as an adult leader.”
No student is allowed to bring a cellphone on the retreat, a stance Nahigian praises.
“We’re seeing less creativity because they don’t have to look as far for new activities,” he said. “We are working harder to have kids design their own activities. We will challenge them to say, ‘What can we do without our phones today?’”
One activity has been popular since CROYA was founded: playing music. Local youth bands were prominent in town during the late 1970s and 1980s, and CROYA welcomed them by featuring certain ones in the Battle of the Bands (first held in the basement of Gorton Community Center), Summer Jam (actor Vince Vaughn played at the first one) and on floats during the Lake Bluff Fourth of July and Lake Forest Day parades. A privately funded $3 million renovation to the CROYA facility in 2007 created a recording studio, rehearsal studios, a wellness studio, and a performance stage.
“Music and food are two of the most important things to teenagers,” Nahigian said. “We love to showcase the high level of music in the community.”