Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.
COLUMBIA — Working with children used to scare Erin Carrillo. Now she can't see how anyone could not love it.
Carrillo sometimes spends as many as 80 hours a week working as a recreation specialist for Columbia's Parks and Recreation Department, a residents assistant at Sol House and a vice chairwoman at the Youth Community Coalition, which is a local youth advocacy organization.
Despite the busy schedule, Carrillo loves helping children.
"This is the most rewarding position I've ever held," she said.
Before she started working with kids she was more interested in sports than academics, she said. She had jobs at places such as hotels and coffee shops.
After taking an introduction to leisure studies course at MU, she became interested in working in recreation. During her junior year she found a part-time job at Columbia Parks and Recreation, and through a friend at the Youth Community Coalition she learned about Sol House, a transitional living program.
It made her realize that she had a passion for working with children, and she decided she wanted to help make changes in the community, she said.
As a residents assistant at Sol House, Carrillo mentors homeless, couch-surfing or at-risk teens, helping them make positive choices and find their way off the street.
She does this by building self esteem and giving praise for positive things the teens do. If they make a mistake, Carrillo works with them to discuss and agree on a consequence.
She wants to give them an opportunity to talk and "be proud of themselves," she said.
Carrillo recalled one individual she helped, who is now a student at MU. Another, a former resident at Sol House, now works part time there.
"It's the success stories which make it worth it," Carrillo said. "Even if it's one out of hundreds, I think it's worth it."
Carrillo said that there is a negative view on teenagers and a stereotype that they're always "causing ruckus."
Society as a whole doesn't give them enough respect, she said.
"They have so much to give," she said. "They don't want to be looked down upon."
Carrillo has a genuine desire to see kids succeed, said Ryan Worley, Youth Community Coalition's Coordinator.
It's obvious, especially during the community events she puts together, that Carrillo cares about the teens through the way she talks to them and the way she smiles, Worley said.
"That's why kids keep coming back to those things," he said. "They are received so well when they come."
Teen Fest on April 18, a partnership with the Youth Community Coalition that showcases local talent with live bands and art projects, is among the numerous community events Carrillo organizes through Parks and Recreation.
She also helps with the annual Tons of Trucks and other family and outdoor activities. For preschool children, she has parties with themes like St. Patrick's Day or pirates anywhere from three to six times a month, she said.
Carrillo said that working with young children is the best part of her job.
"Watching a frown turn upside down into a smile makes it a lot more clear what's important in the world," she said.
Sometimes she asks herself what else she could add to an event to make it more enjoyable for everyone. "I want children to be happy," she said.
For someone interested in getting involved, Carrillo said, there are "tons of opportunities to volunteer" in both Parks and Recreation and Sol House.
Ways to get involved in various Parks and Recreation activities and events can be found on the city's volunteer website.
Sol House, through the Rainbow House volunteer website, is always looking for teen mentors or simply someone to provide food.
Carrillo said that what kids in Columbia need most is a support system, a friend or guardian either in school or in their personal lives. When they don't have this kind of support, she said, teens can fall through the cracks.
Even though it's sometimes difficult to be a teenager, no one should be be afraid to ask for help, she said.
"Sometimes everyone needs help," she said. "There are people that care."