By Hannah Black
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
CHEYENNE – Ronn Jeffrey isn’t interested in an award.
The Cheyenne native helped create Youth Alternatives, a youth and family counseling center still operating in Cheyenne, and became its first director 50 years ago. He has served as the city’s municipal juvenile court judge for 15 years, helping hundreds of children and their families each year.
It’s these and many other contributions that earned him the 2021 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Community Spirit Award.
But when he looks back, Jeffrey said he doesn’t feel he’s really accomplished anything. Service is so deeply embedded in who Jeffrey is, it seems, that it’s second nature.
“I grew up in a world where it’s always been about, you know, you just do things because they’re there to be done,” he said. “From the time I was a little kid, I grew up in a community of doers.”
There are so many other individuals who have made an impact on the community, living and deceased, who Jeffrey said are more deserving than he. One example was Liz Byrd, the first Black woman to serve in Wyoming’s House of Representatives, and later the first Black person to serve in the Wyoming Senate; or Mattye Brooks, a longtime Cheyenne resident who died in October at age 92. Brooks taught in Laramie County School District 1 for 17 years and held leadership positions in a variety of civic organizations.
Two of Jeffrey’s most important mentors were his mother and father. Among other invaluable lessons, they taught him that you don’t cease being human when you become a working professional.
“I just get to be the representative for them, because anything I’ve ever done, they put me on the path to do,” Jeffrey said. “This award to me is … I’m not the recipient of it, I’m just the holder of it for all of them.”
When Jeffrey returned to Cheyenne after graduating from Chadron State College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology, he intended to teach. After he was unable to find a job, he began working with the courts.
Youth Alternatives grew out of this work, he said. Jeffrey retired as director of Youth Alternatives in 2014, after 42 years of service to the organization he was instrumental in designing.
“It was all about working in the community, and using the community itself as the tool to make change,” he said.
Jeffrey was also an involved father. Molly Kruger, who nominated Jeffrey for the Community Spirit Award, met him as a child because she was friends with one of his daughters. Jeffrey later became her basketball coach.
“I just remember him being really fun and friendly to be around, and so I don’t think I understood his full value until I became an adult and really started to understand the impact he had on the community,” Kruger said. “I thought the impact he had on me was unique to me, which I think is one of the cool things about him – he made me feel really important, and as I got older, I realized that he’s that person for a lot of different people.”
Jeffrey started Youth Alternatives with two staff members and 10 volunteers, Kruger said. Since the 1980s, he’s volunteered as a mentor, a counselor, a parenting resource, a coach and a public speaker.
“Many would say that if you know Ronn, he’s put you to work as a volunteer,” Kruger wrote in her nomination form. “Ronn believes raising people is as important as raising funds.”
Kruger said she hadn’t nominated Jeffrey because she thought he’d want an award – in fact, she recognized he might not be that excited about it. But as she looked through the list of past recipients, she felt strongly that he was missing.
“He could have made many choices in his journey to not have been a part of our community, and he always chose to … see how he could make the community better, and that feels really important to me, and I think I wanted to honor that,” she said.
Indeed, Jeffrey said one reason he ultimately chose to accept the award was because, when he looked back at past winners, he didn’t see anyone who looked like him. The award, which has been given out annually since 1998, has never had a recipient of color.
“My mom always said, ‘There can’t ever be a second unless there’s a first,’ and I’ve been in that role in so many things (in Cheyenne) – not because I deserved it more than somebody else, but because it just didn’t happen (for them),” he said.
In her professional life, Kruger, who leads Climb Wyoming, said she’s learned a lot from Jeffrey about how to work with families, how to get to know people and how to form meaningful relationships.
One of Kruger’s favorite things about Jeffrey is how, on his frequent visits to local restaurants, he’ll often step into the kitchen before leaving to thank the owners or staff, addressing them by name.
“He treats everyone really genuinely with this kindness and warm heart in a way that, I think, makes him unique to our community, and I think also puts him in a position to really help us have hard conversations,” she said. “He’s really good at simplifying really difficult, complex situations.”
With his work in juvenile justice, Jeffrey is creative about how he approaches problem solving with kids, Kruger said. One of his most impactful skills is finding ways to help young people grow from their mistakes and make meaningful changes in their lives, she said.
For example, Jeffrey once assigned a local teen to write a children’s book as part of his community service following a property destruction charge. It was an opportunity for the teen, Avery Janack, to reflect on what happened and how he could have better handled the situation.
“I’m not the only one who thinks, like, ‘Oh, man, how are we going to do this? Or, how do I think about this? I’m going to call Ron’ – I think many people do that,” Kruger said. “And I think that’s part of why he’s involved in a lot of places, a lot of things throughout the community, because he has a lot to offer.”
If Jeffrey has to choose a “greatest accomplishment,” it’s his two adult daughters, and his more than 40-year marriage to his wife, Marilyn.
Outside of his family, he’s most proud of continuing to feel like everything is new. After so many years of working with children and families, he still has an endless supply of fresh ideas, he said.
And even following a lifetime of service and dedication to others, Jeffrey still feels he has a lot more to do.
“I actually feel kind of good that I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything, you know what I mean? That feels kind of good to say. Because somehow or another, if I accomplished it, then it’s done,” Jeffrey said. “And I don’t feel like anything’s done.”
Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.