Congratulations to Leona Thurston, 2021 Youth Philanthropist of the Year. Leona is an intelligent, passionate and driven young woman. Her involvement in non-profit work came about during her senior year in high school when she became active in school politics, using her personal experiences to drive change. She was extremely brave in sharing her own story publicly, which ultimately led her to be the youngest speaker at the Steamboat Women’s March – an experience she calls the most impactful of her life. According to Leona, “Seeing something happening in our community and knowing something needed to be done, I wanted to be a voice in that effort. I felt that I couldn’t just say I want to do something, I felt I had to step up and be the change, initiate the change.”
After graduating, she began working with Advocates of Routt County and the school board, where she realized how having support systems within our community changes and saves lives.
Then COVID-19 swept across the country and Leona went from being an active member of her high school to being isolated at home. She found it challenging to stay connected and engaged. All of the momentum of the work she had begun came to halt. “This led me to search for a purpose in the community,” Leona recalled.
At the beginning of the summer, Advocates reached out to Leona and asked if she would be interested in being their intern for the summer. This was exactly what she needed. She wanted to be able to help people and make a difference. During the nine months she worked for Advocates, she was able to see how much of an impact Covid-19 had on issues in our community such as domestic violence, teen dating violence, and sexual assault. She was also empowered to create different programs that would make it easier for community members to get help.
Leona continues to volunteer for Advocates developing Peer Leadership, a new educational program that involves youth from all Routt County high schools, to create a curriculum of consent and healthy dating educational material. The final material will be presented to the students by the students.
After her initial internship with Advocates, Leona started working for Communities that Care through Grand Futures. Her work includes figuring out ways to educate youth on the risks of substance use and ways to prevent substance abuse. She has also been lucky enough to be a Mentor for Partners in Routt County, currently mentoring a 7th grade girl. “I help her with any issues she is having in school, home life, and with her social life. We meet for an hour every week and talk about anything that she wants me to help her with,” said Leona. That initial mentorship led to a job with Partners as an Inspire mentor in the Montessori school.
“Although the pandemic made it challenging to make connections with people my age and people in my school, I was able to stay active in our amazing community.”
Staying active in the community is an understatement. In addition to her work with Advocates, Grand Futures and Partners in Routt County, Leona has been very involved with 4-H, where she held leadership positions at the club, country and district levels. It was through 4-H that she discovered her passion for public speaking and being a leader.
She has also become very involved with Steamboat Creates, teaching summer Young at Art camps and interning, as well as helping develop the Pivot Point Task Force – incorporating art, creativity and mental health wellness targeted toward the LGBTQIA+ communities.
Leona is inspired by 4-H’s motto, “Make the best better.” She looks toward the future and finding additional ways to be a catalyst for positive change. She feels it is important to pave the path and make things easier for the people who come after her. “If I’m able to help someone who needs something, even if it’s a little scary for me or out of my comfort zone, I feel that it is my responsibility to not turn my back on that,” Leona shares.
“The work that I’ve done in our community has helped me discover what I’m passionate about. It’s given me a driving force to pursue a career path that will align with the issues that I am passionate about. I need to be doing something with purpose.”
We think you already have, and look forward to seeing what great things you will do. Congratulations, Leona!