How Ames' Youth and Shelter Services pioneered shelter homes for at-risk youths in Iowa

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

A tragedy brought longevity to Ames-founded Youth and Shelter Services after a few years of uncertainty about whether the program would last. 

It did, and the organization celebrated 45 years of service on Thursday. YSS offers financial support, rehabilitation treatment and counseling services, among other programs to support children, youths and families.

The organization originated from Shelter House, which opened in 1972 as the first non-secure youth emergency shelter in Iowa. This emergency shelter may have saved the life of Dean Beurskens, YSS founder George P. Belitsos told the Tribune Wednesday. 

At 16 years old, Beurskens, of Marshalltown, ran away from home in 1974 and was jailed for this reason alone. Beurskens feared he'd be sent to the Eldora training school for behavior his parents suspected was the result of marijuana use but was likely better attributed to untreated mental health issues, Belitsos said. 

Arrangements were made to bring Beurskens to Ames' Shelter House but were postponed, and Marshalltown police called later that day to report Beurskens had taken his own life. 

The Tribune quoted Belitsos at the time saying Shelter House can never guarantee a suicidal teen won't take their life while in their care. 

"But at least if Beurskens had been brought here he wouldn't have been alone in a cell," the quote continued. "He would have had a supportive emotional atmosphere and immediate professional help."

With the publicity of Beurskens' death came substantial change. With a visit from Gov. Rob Ray, new state and local fundraising poured in and Belitsos traveled the country to spread the local shelter model, eventually writing a book on how to run a youth shelter.

Ray's visit led to the passage of an Iowa law ensuring no more runaways would be jailed for simply leaving home, often escaping cases of abuse.

These events led to Youth & Shelter Services' 45th-anniversary celebration, a block party event in front of its headquarters, 420 Kellogg Ave., where, while speaking to attendees, Belitsos recalled he once advocated to keep at-risk youths from a jail cell and bring them into Shelter House. 

Today, YSS has locations in six Iowa cities and offers mentorship programs, counseling and addiction rehabilitation, parenting and life skills education, family foster care and adoption, among other programs. 

The impact of YSS was seen at Thursday's anniversary event where six speakers, all former clients besides Belitsos, represented each decade the program existed in. 

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Speakers covered the program's six decades at the Youth & Shelter Services 45th anniversary event Thursday, June 11, 2021. (From left) Former clients Elmer Garcia, Nahla Atroon, now-CEO Andrew Allen, Yvonne Campbell-Anderson and Doug Robey pose with founder George Belitsos in front of the former municipal building, now YSS headquarters, where Belitsos remembered once advocating to keep troubled youths out of jail.

'We took a real risk'

Though the official founding of Youth & Shelter Services was in 1976, a few losses and community pushback preceded its inception. 

Belitsos worked for Ames-Iowa State YMCA in the early 70s and was tasked with making contact with runaways and homeless youths congregating in Campustown. 

Through his interactions and a program called the Bustopp, Belitsos saw many needed a place to stay.

The YMCA set out to purchase a youth shelter home, 825 Grand Ave., according to a July 1972 edition of the Ames Tribune, but faced strong opposition from Ames residents over fears it would "harm the atmosphere of the neighborhood."

"I tried in hearings and the interview to describe that we were really trying to help young people where many of them came from abusive homes," Belitsos said. 

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Still, the commission sided with their opposition, but Belitsos said the YMCA board decided to purchase a home on Burnett Avenue anyways. He said Shelter House was the only place in Iowa at the time to offer a place for runaways to stay the night without bars on windows. 

They operated for three months without neighbors noticing, but eventually, the YMCA's legal team advised them to pull their support for the program due to legal risk. Belitsos said if it wasn't for a group of students, Shelter House would've closed. 

"We took a real risk and started YSS as a separate organization," Belitsos said. "It was really on my shoulders. It was really hard, but I knew it was right." 

After years of uncertainty, stability came with Gov. Ray's visit. Belitsos said Beurskens' story lives with him. 

"I try to keep his name alive," he said. 

'Instead of detention, I got treatment'

Peruth Negret, 10, and Bella Brooks, 7, show off their artistic skills at the Youth & Shelter Services 45th anniversary event Thursday, June 11, 2021, in front of its headquarters, 420 Kellogg Ave. Brooks said she wrote smile "because I like to smile, and I want to make other people smile, too."

Children ran around with bubble wands and chalked up Kellogg Avenue as former and current clients, volunteers and staff celebrated the anniversary. 

Current Chief Operations Officer Andrew Allen said he pinches himself every day he leads this organization that once took him in at his lowest. Allen, a Nevada native, said he is the child of good parents but had "a bent toward delinquency."

By age 10, Allen faced his first felony charge. By 13, Allen said he was drinking on a regular basis. 

"I just headed down a path of delinquency and every successive year, things just got worse," Allen said. "I got very, very desperate and really hopeless after getting kicked out of school."

Allen's path changed in the mid-90s after he was arrested and charged as an adult, but instead of going to detention, he was sent to Youth & Shelter Services. 

"Instead of detention, I got treatment," Allen said. "There is a big issue today with kids getting punitive measures like detention when they should be getting community-based treatment."

After landing a job at Principal and working his way up through their charitable foundation, Allen decided he belonged back at YSS and signed his contract as CEO 20 years after he first became a client. 

Other former clients also sought ways to give back or enter careers helping underserved communities even years after their treatment. YSS alum Erik Timmons, who offered his musical talents at the event, earned a doctorate in cultural anthropology after finding a passion for social justice through YSS. 

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Andrew Allen was a former client of Youth & Shelter Services in the 1990s. Allen said he had a "bent toward delinquency" and received a felony charge by age 10. Now, chief executive officer of YSS, he kicked off the program's 45th-anniversary celebration Thursday, June 11, 2021, in front of its headquarters, 420 Kellogg Ave.

Nahla Atroon, a speaker at the event, said she took part in the mentorship program in elementary school to calm her energetic nature, only to be exposed to the struggles her peers were facing. 

Atroon went on to co-chair Ames' first Reggie's Sleepout, an overnight fundraiser to combat homelessness and spread awareness, and helped organize a silent auction that raised $1,100 in scholarships for young people who want to go to college. 

"I just like being involved in something that's much bigger than my own life," Atroon said. "It really didn't hit me how much they do for people my age.

"People are good. YSS is good."

Speaker Yvonne Campbell-Anderson entered a YSS program at 19 years old, struggling with alcohol addiction and adjusting to young motherhood. 

Today, she holds a bachelor's in human services and psychology and has worked with the homeless and people with severe mental illness.

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"It just opened up my eyes a lot to what was going on in the world," Campbell-Anderson said. "My purpose in life is definitely to help others that may be or have been in the same situation that I was."

After a year of increased isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic, YSS is launching a new campaign to make 1 million connections. Using metrics across the agency, YSS will track every new connection made in their communities over the next five years. 

"We’ve just come through a global pandemic and while I am happy to see so many of you today," Allen said at Thursday's event, "There are thousands right here in Iowa still suffering in silence."

For more information on YSS programs or how to help, visit

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.