Bright News

‘I wouldn’t be the person who I am without NEO’


Sometimes getting away from the challenges of day-to-day life, developing new friendships and interests, and sharing experiences are just what teens need.

Just ask Madison, who wasn’t certain about joining NEO (New Events and Opportunities) about a decade ago. But the organization – and its numerous programs – soon became a critical piece of her fast-changing world.

Madison was in middle school when her parents divorced, creating a confusing and difficult period for the young teen.

“It came out of nowhere,” she said. “It was a lot mentally. I didn’t know what was going on. And people didn’t know what I was going through.”

Then, her best friend asked her to hang out at NEO’s Youth Center, a fun and low-key drop-in center where kids can connect, play games – from pool to video games – and even participate in performances.

“It was very welcoming,” Madison said. “I could just go and have a deep breath moment. NEO became a second home to me.”

She made many new friends and learned more about herself.

“I could just hang out with friends,” said Madison, whose parents supported her spending time at NEO. “We all have these pasts that are tough to talk about. I was able to bond with a lot of people. And we were able to make new memories together.”

Over the next several years, she participated in a very memorable scavenger hunt around town, played the ukulele and sang at the county fair, and organized a Swing Dance Social, with donations directed to NEO. The activities opened the door to new experiences and opportunities for Madison.

“It was a push in the right direction,” Madison said of the performance at the Nevada County Fair. “I never would have broken out of my shell. But I got comfortable being myself and doing what I love. A year later (after joining NEO), I’m talking in front of hundreds of people how NEO has helped me.”

NEO is best known for the Youth Center. But the organization has numerous other programs, including after-school and in-school efforts and even a summer camp.

NEO’s activities, events and get-togethers helped her connect with other teens. But the organization also allowed her to discuss issues with mentors.

“You never feel any judgment, and NEO gives you so many resources to help,” said Madison, who has developed a close relationship with NEO cofounders Halli Ellis-Edwards and Lynn Skrukrud. “They’ve always been there to help me out. They’ve always been super supportive of helping me chase my dream.”

Her dream is to become a registered nurse like her aunt, who used to work at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley. Madison, who is already a licensed EMT, enlisted for four years in the Army to gain more experience, travel a bit and save some money for nursing school.

“It’s been one of the fastest years of my life,” said Madison, a combat medic specialist who completed basic training in South Carolina before being transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Madison has accomplished much since leaving Nevada County in 2019. And NEO has played a major part in her success, from dealing with the emotions of her parents’ divorce to developing lifelong friendships to embracing new opportunities.

“You don’t realize how many cool people you meet and the resources you have with NEO,” said Madison, who was a volunteer with the organization for several years.

She has advice for those considering NEO: “Grab a couple of friends and go. Try it once. Maybe you’ll find a passion.” And finding a passion – and purpose – can change a life.

“I wouldn’t be the person who I am without NEO. It’s hard to picture my life without it.”