Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Nightly news reports point to youth in crisis in this country. Recently, a 2022 Mental Health America report stated that more than 2.5 million youth in the U.S. currently suffer from severe depression, and the rate of substance use in youth – and suicidal thoughts or actions – have increased.
In 2004, in an attempt to help youth in crisis, Marcus Metcalf created HIGHTS (Helping Inspire Gifts of Hope, Trust, and Service) as a volunteer organization to work alongside Jackson County Psychological Services. The goal was to provide youth adventure programming that utilizes the area’s natural resources while at the same time provide services and mentoring opportunities. In 2008, HIGHTS officially became a nonprofit organization with Metcalf as executive director and his wife, Greta, who joined in 2018, as clinical operations director.
For the past few years, HIGHTS has been serving youth in not only Jackson County but also Macon County.
“Youth are referred to us by DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice], the area’s school system, social services, and other community partners,” said Julia Heckert, community engagement coordinator for HIGHTS. “We are continually growing to meet the crushing needs of youth, especially right now in our pandemic world.”
HIGHTS’ main focus has been connecting youth to the outdoors through such activities as hiking, rafting, caving, and more. But HIGHTS has also established a continuum of care, including clinical mental health services, a Workforce Development and Education program, free after-school and summer programs that utilize outdoor adventure, recreational therapy, art education, animal-assisted therapy, and community service/restitution to help youth develop important life and job skills, and Bee Well Mentoring, explained Heckert.
For example, one element of HIGHTS’ offerings is to help youth with schooling and employment. HIGHTS will also fund GED testing and incentives for participants to receive a diploma.
Mentoring matches are also important, and the key is to match “vulnerable” youth with someone who is able to stand by them and see that they are exposed to HIGHTS’ helpful, life-affirming resources, conveyed Heckert, adding, “Research shows that youth who thrive have at least one caring adult role model in their lives. Connection to a community has the ability to counterbalance adversity.”
HIGHTS volunteers will, if necessary, provide transportation to youth, make sure they have access to healthy meals, introduce them to skill-building or community service activities, and much more. In fact, HIGHTS mission is to “… transform youth in Western North Carolina by inspiring trust in their own abilities, connection to a caring community, and hope for a better future.”
Heckert, who is also an ordained Methodist minister, added, “HIGHTS has great faith community support. Churches provide us with office, therapy, and program space, help us meet our youths’ basic needs, and provide volunteers and mentors. I’ve also been working with local UMCs [United Methodist Churches] to help them launch community after-school programs for middle schoolers. While these are church-led programs for the wider community, HIGHTS is walking alongside them to offer support and training as they live into their desire to serve vulnerable youth.”
Besides Jackson and Macon counties, HIGHTS also currently serves youth and their families across five other Western North Carolina counties. For more information, visit www.hights.org or contact Marcus Metcalf at firstname.lastname@example.org; or, call (828)507-7231.