Evolution Youth Services

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Evolution Youth Services

Denver, Colorado

65-80          Average Number of students

                    served during the school year

95%          Students from low-income families

Main funding sources

  • Grants

  • Local Government

  • 21st. Century Community Learning Centers

  • For-profit business donations

  • Fee for service from referring agencies

In the United States, involvement with the juvenile justice system can have a long-lasting negative impact on one’s life. For young people placed in detention facilities, their education, their ties to society, and their lives are disrupted. Involvement with the justice system— regardless of incarceration—can have implications for one’s future earning potential and career trajectory, limiting access one has to educational opportunities, career fields, and available supports.


Afterschool and summer learning programs can mitigate risk and support the development of protective factors that help keep young people out of the juvenile justice system. The afterschool field can also serve as alternatives to detention that keep youth from re- offending. Through programming opportunities, partnerships, and coordinated efforts, afterschool programs keep young people safe, connect them to the supports they need, and help build protective factors and positive social connections that lead to bright futures.


Evolution Youth Services is a diversion program that provides juvenile justice- involved youth with therapeutic support and mental health intervention through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Young people referred to Evolution Youth Services are required to attend at least 12 weeks of programming, where they learn emotional regulation, discipline, self-confidence, and resiliency skills through the grappling-based martial art.

A Typical Day for Students

Every class at Evolution Youth Services begins with a check-in, which may take a few minutes or the full session, often posed as a question or a discussion topic

that asks youth to explore and process the different emotions or situations taking place in their lives. Once the group’s check-in has finished, they move into warm- ups and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instruction. As Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a physical activity, like wrestling, it can often put students into uncomfortable positions. The instructors strive to help participants understand the emotions they are experiencing

and how to deal with those emotions in real time. Youth develop the ability to solve problems, develop anger management skills, and build resiliency in a cooperative-competitive environment as they work through different moves and skills and learn to spar. By combining a therapeutic approach with Brazilian JiuJitsu, Evolution Youth Services works to combat the stigma surrounding mental health services that can prevent youth from accessing the support they need. Most participants attend the program two to three times per week.

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Evolution Youth Services has been an effective method of connecting justice- involved youth referred to their program—many of whom have been charged with assault/public fighting and drug possession—with the supports they need. As one prevention social worker reflects, “This program not only plays a tremendous role in helping youth recover from trauma to reclaim power and confidence in their lives, it also helps to instill discipline and self-regulation for

youth that have been labeled ‘unreachable’ and ‘out of control.’” Additionally, the program has had a positive impact on future behavior; 71 percent of youth were offense-free in the 12 months after leaving the program.



Program characteristics

Evolution Youth Services works closely with the Denver juvenile justice system and local department agencies to provide an alternate to incarceration for Denver youth. Youth are referred to Evolution Youth Services through the Denver probation office, Department of Human Services, and the Juvenile Services Unit; in Police District 1, Northwest Denver, patrol officers and sergeants are able to provide on-site referrals to youth they come in contact with in the community, rather than issuing a ticket or citation, especially in

low-level cases.


Classes are limited to 12 students and are co-ed by design, led by one male and one female instructor who model positive peer-to-peer relationships and teamwork. Instructors serve as mentors and support systems for young people going through the program.

All instructors have training in Crisis Intervention for Youth, a law enforcement- based training where instructors learn how to respond to adolescents in crisis. Staff also complete Youth Mental First Aid, in which staff learn how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in youth to best support program participants with self-regulation,

emotional processing, and resiliency. Evolution Youth Services also works with a licensed therapist to provide youth and their families in-house counseling.

The relationships that form between participants and instructors are critical to the success of the program, as young people are able to rely on a consistent, trusted adult figure who is committed to their wellbeing. For example, staff have attended court proceedings with students at their request and attended IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings at their schools to advocate on behalf of the youth.

Program History

Dave Stokes, who holds over 12 years of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training and has worked in the mental health field since 1997, founded Evolution Youth Services in 2016 after working with adults in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and recognizing

the need for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu among the young people he encountered who lacked an outlet for their anger and aggression. The program was developed over the course of two years

as Stokes established partnerships with local mental health and juvenile justice organizations by explaining the evidence-based connection between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and supporting youth mental health.

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