By David A. F. Sweet
When Margot Martino moved to Lake Forest in the early 1970s, the news about teenagers in town was grim.
"People were talking about the use of drugs among adolescents,” she said. “And I was told Lake Forest had one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country."
CROYA co-founder Margot Martino gets together with fellow co-founder Gene Hotchkiss (right) and CROYA Manager Todd Nahigian.
A few years later, a group of misfits known as The Losers stood out. They often partied in South Park, vandalized spots in town and sprayed graffiti, such as on the train bridge that hovers above Westleigh Road.
A handful of adults recognized that action needed to be taken. Along with Frank Farwell, then Mayor of Lake Forest, and Gene Hotchkiss, then President of Lake Forest College, Martino was one of the three founders of CROYA (Committee Representing Our Young Adults). She started as a volunteer for the nonprofit at the Gorton Community Center. In tandem with a social worker, the duo helped guide the youth of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
Today, CROYA is flourishing -- from music jams, to helping kids with disabilities, to a multitude of activities, including retreats and educational programs. The organization creates a safe space for teens, whether they are troubled or not; and it is recognized as one of the country's longest-running youth organizations.
But at the start, there was plenty of skepticism.
"There was an article in the high school paper that said, ‘What good is CROYA? They just set up dances,’” Martino recalled. "So I met with them and said, ‘What do you want?’ That started the basis of the way CROYA works today. You found out what the kids wanted … but then the kids also had to think about what their goal was and how it would be financed. It wasn't handed to them."
Sitting in her house off of Green Bay Road, Martino -- who served as a CROYA board chairman and as its executive director from 1985-91-- recalled the numerous stops and starts as CROYA struggled to appeal to all youth. In one instance she learned that a group of boys wanted to have a Band Jam. She helped motivate them to use the CROYA process to make the event happen. "The first summer jam, we couldn't get anyone to open their facility to let us do it," said Martino. When they were allowed to play behind Deer Path Middle School, she asked the kids how to publicize it. “They set up a sound system in my car, and I drove around town announcing it, until I was stopped by the police and told that I couldn't do that,” Martino recalled.
Once the renovated beach reopened in the 1980s, CROYA bands were invited by the City to provide entertainment during the day. Things were improving for the town's youth as suicides dropped to zero. But there were some teens who continued to have troubles. Hotchkiss suggested the importance of getting psychological assistance to those who need it. Today a critical component of CROYA is its youth workers, who will be back in the schools this fall. They are available to meet with students and make referrals for professional services where necessary.
The kids always gravitated toward Martino's warmth, especially if they were having troubles at home. "I had two girls come crying to me saying, ‘Will you be my Mom?’" Martino recalled. "I said, ‘Are you sure? I have two boys at home who aren't talking to me.’"
Even decades later, teens she mentored are still excited to see her. Actor Vince Vaughn was one of her CROYA kids. While dining at Francesca's Intimo a short while ago, she saw him. When she tapped on his shoulder, he turned around and said, "Oh my God, Mrs. M!” and gave her a hug.
Martino points out that since its beginning, CROYA has accepted all high schoolers unconditionally, and eventually 7th and 8th graders were brought into the organization. From that point forward, they all were to be treated with respect from the adults.
"If you do that, you find they are very capable." she said. "The biggest thing is to listen to them.
“My goal with CROYA was to create an environment where the kids could go to the people in the community and get them to help them. Everything was kids first. When we built the first CROYA facility, the kids were part of the planning. They even worked in tandem with the community to help raise funds.”
Martino, who also served as a Sunday School teacher at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest for many years, remains deeply proud of CROYA. Said she, "It was my life's work! I had not really intended to work, but I saw an opportunity here to help. My heart is still in it."