Andrew Allen: Advocating for kids

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As the CEO of Iowa’s notforprofit Youth and Shelter Services organization, Andrew Allen can relate to the state’s troubled youth in a way nobody else can. Because he used to be one of them.

Charged with felony burglary and vandalism on his 10th birthday, Allen began the life of a juvenile delinquent. Despite having a loving and supportive family, Allen drank alcohol, got high, committed crimes, and nearly failed out of school. Throughout his adolescence, he made regular appearances in juvenile court.

Allen’s father was a recovering alcoholic who got sober before Andrew was born, but the genetic predisposition was there.

“I think I was afflicted with a lot of the characteristics of an alcoholic from the very start, even before I took my first drink,” Allen said. “I was always living on the edge. I always seemed to find trouble. I tended to think I was smarter than other people. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I couldn’t stand authority.”

Allen’s parents took him to a long line of counselors and therapists. At 17, Allen was arrested for drunk driving, and the courts tried him as an adult. It was at that point when Allen knew his youthful actions could have lifelong consequences. He was sent to the Seven-12 House, a residential recovery center in Ames, run by Youth and Shelter Services. For the first six weeks, Allen says, he fought treatment “tooth and nail.” But one day, at age 17 ½, after sneaking a cigarette when he knew that smoking was not allowed, Allen had an epiphany.

“Of all the things that I’d done, that was the least of my offenses,” Allen said. “But I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, like maybe I shouldn’t have done that. And while I didn’t recognize it at the time, I know today that I started to feel guilty. And I think it was not just for the cigarette that I had smoked, but all of my transgressions, all of the sin that existed in my life, and I found myself in the bathroom of the Seven-12 House six weeks into treatment, just crying like a baby. I said what was the most honest prayer of my life; I just said, ‘I can’t keep living like this anymore.’”

Allen spent three more months in the Seven-12 Recovery House, and everything changed. He learned to put one foot in front of the other every day. He followed his treatment plan. He graduated from the program and went to Des Moines Area Community College. He became involved as an active volunteer in the community. He enrolled in a business program at Iowa State and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems in 2000.

When he took a job in information technology at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, nobody knew his backstory, and he didn’t plan to tell them. Allen says that he simply created himself as a new person.

“Nobody knew that I was a juvenile delinquent or that I was a drug addict/ alcoholic or that I’d been diagnosed a sociopath. Nobody knew my history. The process through Iowa State and YSS had allowed me to recreate who I was and to present to the employment community the sober, recovering, active community member Andrew Allen. I will forever be grateful for that, for people believing in me and continuing to give me a second – or
a 25th – shot. And for not having my past weigh me down.”

But then Allen got involved in Principal’s volunteer network, and he began to help coordinate projects like volunteer week and Toys for Tots and holiday food drives. He became chair of the company’s United Way campaign and became a member of the foundation board. It was then that someone who knew about his past suggested that he share his story as part of the campaign.

At first, Allen was hesitant. But he ended up sharing his story publicly for the first time as  an adult, and the response was incredible. The company raised more money than it had ever raised for United Way, and won the Spirit of America Award, which is the highest honor United Way bestows on a corporation nationally. Allen found himself on the corporate jet. And he began a multi-year, multi-job trajectory within the organization, culminating as director of community relations for the Principal Financial Group Foundation.

“I was managing the corporate social responsibility for a Fortune 500 company, having been a juvenile delinquent/drug addict/alcoholic/diagnosed sociopath,” Allen says. He knew he had it made. But it wasn’t enough. He didn’t feel like he was fulfilling his life’s purpose. He was, he says, being called back to YSS.

The organization’s longtime leader and Allen’s mentor, George Belitsos (L)(’12 honorary), was retiring. Allen had been asked to serve on the search committee. But person after person encouraged him to apply for the position himself. He became the CEO of Youth and Shelter Services on July 1, 2015.

YSS provides education and prevention, behavioral health, and transition services to youth throughout the state of Iowa. With physical buildings in six communities, the organization has a presence statewide with youth employment and training services, outpatient addiction and mental health counseling, after-school programs, residential addiction treatment, emergency shelters, transitional living, and contracts such as Iowa Aftercare Services Network from the Iowa Department of Human Services.

“If there’s an issue that’s going to impact kids, we’re there,” Allen says. “We’re there at the city council, we’re there at the state, we’re in the community, providing awareness, and advocating on behalf of kids.”

Looking back at his own experience with Youth and Shelter Services, Allen says, “What not a lot of people understand about YSS is not only did they provide the treatment that I needed at the appropriate time, but they went beyond that and they embraced me in this philosophy of community youth development – taking young people and putting them in leadership positions, giving them a voice. That’s what George Belitsos did for me. He believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

Learn more online: www.yss.org

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