Magazine Feature / People

Alumna taps creativity, media to help teens

Joy Zarra didn’t set out to help teens. In fact, after earning her master’s degree in counseling psychology in 2003 from the University of Denver, she was more focused on grade-schoolers or adults.

And when a friend told her about a job opening working with teenagers, the first question she asked herself was, “Do I really want to work 40 hours a week with teens?”

She took a few weeks to think about it and opted to give it a shot. She hasn’t looked back once.

“Now I love it and couldn’t imagine working with a different group,” says Zarra, a therapist for the juvenile diversion counseling program for the State of Colorado.

Zarra, a licensed mental health therapist, provides counseling to adolescents and their families. She designs treatment plans, which may include individual, family or group counseling, art therapy or wilderness trips, and she carries the plans through until success has been achieved.

She says she didn’t choose teens because of any bad personal experiences growing up — actually, it’s just the opposite. “I had a very pleasant childhood,” she says. “I just felt every teen deserves happiness during these years. I want them to know they’re not alone.”

As Zarra grew into her job she learned many teens did feel alone. “I was seeing a pattern of disconnect between parents, adults and teens,” Zarra says. “I began to think how to spread a positive message to help teens, parents and adults.”

She ended up turning to media to create a series of public service announcements called “Uninterrupted” that features teens talking directly into the camera and sharing what’s on their mind. One girl’s advice to parents: “Surround your kids with support.”

The announcements can be seen at

The series won a regional Emmy earlier this year. Zarra named the series “Uninterrupted” after a teen who had just been videotaped said, “It’s nice to talk to an adult without being interrupted.”

Zarra is now working to get the announcements aired in larger media markets. Last year she received a grant to buy her own film equipment. “We’ve been doing a lot of media work at our home base; it’s become a valuable therapy tool.”

Juvenile diversion Director Shelley Dodd says Zarra is “absolutely passionate” about teens and willing to take risks. “I think that’s what makes her different; plenty of people have ideas, but they don’t follow through. Joy follows through and this whole program has been wonderful.”

When asked what teens need most today, Zarra says: “Teens need attentive, caring adults. Just talk to them. Something that seems so basic can ultimately make a powerful, positive shift.”

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