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Meet Our Founder: Dr. George’s Story

Dr. George Belitsos

Sitting on his 25-acre llama farm known as Hobbit’s Hill, George Belitsos jokingly says he “flunked retirement.” After establishing YSS in 1976 and serving as its CEO for nearly four decades, Dr. George retired from the organization in 2016. Today, he and his husband, Peter, raise llamas, goats, and chickens—nearly all of them rescues. He continues to be involved in the Ames community, and his activism and volunteer service could fill a book.

“I enjoy my volunteer nonprofit work,” Dr. George says. “It’s where I get my inspiration and a sense of purpose.”

This altruism is what motivated Dr. George to begin helping troubled youth in the early 1970s. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he came to Ames at age 23 to complete his alternative service and do graduate work at Iowa State.

It was a tumultuous time in Ames. Runaway youth and drug abuse were rampant, and a riot ensued after police shot and killed a teen in Campustown. During the day, Dr. George attended classes for his Ph.D. and worked at the Ames/ISU Campus YMCA; his assignment was to get teenagers to leave Campustown and stop the arrest and detention of runaway youth. At night, he walked the streets talking to kids and listening to their problems. He quickly saw the need for a safe place for youth to get help.

In the summer of 1971, Dr. George opened “Bustopp” in the large basement of a business near downtown Ames. The drop-in center offered a place for teens to hang out, listen to music, and access counseling and drug intervention. It was staffed by volunteers, primarily Dr. George’s fellow ISU graduate students.

In the first month, more than 2,000 youth came through the doors. “Most of those kids were killing their emotional pain and family problems with drugs,” Dr. George explains. “I saw kids with abscesses up and down their arms from shooting up. There was also a lot of LSD use at that time; kids were having bad trips.”

Bustopp kept expanding its hours to serve runaway and homeless youth who didn’t have anywhere to stay at night. While the drop-in center was successful, he realized they actually needed an emergency shelter.

First Youth Emergency Shelter in Iowa

Dr. George led the effort through the YMCA to open a youth shelter, which he was surprised to learn was the first in the state. (“It opened 40 years after Iowa opened its first animal shelter,” he notes.) He paused his Ph.D. program to run the new Shelter House.

Youth came from all over the state, but the shelter operated on a shoestring budget—struggling to keep its doors open while facing some opposition from the community—until a tragic event made a big impact.

In January 1974, 16-year-old Dean Beurskens was put in the Marshalltown jail for being a runaway, which was the legal policy at the time. He was supposed to be taken to Shelter House, where he could have received counseling and support. Instead, that night he hanged himself in his jail cell.

The Des Moines Register did a front-page story, and days later, Dr. George received a phone call from Gov. Robert D. Ray. The governor and his wife, Billie, toured Shelter House, spoke with the teens, and promised to support the shelter concept—as well as a change in Iowa law to stop the use of locked facilities for runaway and homeless youth. “He gave us credibility,” Dr. George says.

Suddenly, the United Way, Ames City Council, and Story County Board of Supervisors all began to provide funding. Gov. Ray also helped Dr. George to secure a $50,000 LEAA federal grant.

However, as the shelter expanded, the YMCA grew worried about financial risk and liability, as there was no license to operate an emergency youth shelter at the time. The organization informed Dr. George it would no longer legally support the shelter. He faced a decision: “We were either going to close, or I was going to form my own nonprofit.”

Youth & Shelter Services Inc.

On June 1, 1976, Dr. George founded Youth & Shelter Services Inc. and became the nonprofit’s first CEO. He had nine board members, a positive youth development philosophy, funding sources, and a vision to meet the needs of Iowa’s troubled and hurting kids.

Dr. George worked with the Department of Human Services to draft a shelter license and helped other communities open shelters across the state. He also authorized a booklet on how to open and operate a youth shelter that the National Network for Youth published and distributed nationally. Subsequently, he was invited to serve on the Network’s board of directors and testified before a congressional committee on the growing national runaway youth problem.

In Ames, Shelter House was so successful that by 1977, YSS purchased a second location—the Budd House, where George Washington Carver had briefly lived while attending ISU in the late 1800s. This historic house became Iowa’s first community-based residential drug treatment program. A third house on Burnett Avenue was added in 1980.

From 1981 to 1985, YSS opened community-based centers in Boone, Des Moines, Marshalltown, Nevada, and Webster City. Dr. George grew the organization to meet youth’s needs, adding programs such as delinquency and drug abuse prevention, outpatient family counseling, foster family care, homeless youth services, mental health counseling, youth mentoring, after-school programs, transitional living, child abuse prevention, and services for youth aging out of the Iowa foster care system.

Advocacy and Recognition

In addition to YSS, Dr. George advocated for youth through numerous state committees, boards, and task forces. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to a four-year term on the National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He was appointed by Gov. Ray to the Iowa Crime Commission, which he served for 16 years, and later joined the Iowa Child Welfare Advisory Committee for eight years.

Through it all, Dr. George was the only out LGBTQ person in the entire Iowa human services field. “Back then, being gay and working with youth was almost unheard of,” he explains. “But I always believed in being truthful with people and telling them, ‘This is who I am. And this is only a part of me.’” In 2019, Dr. George received the LGBTQ Legacy Leader Award from One Iowa and DSM Magazine.

Four decades after coming to Ames, he finally received his Ph.D. when Iowa State University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters due to his “exceptional leadership, outstanding service, and effective advocacy for the young people of Iowa, and the nations.” Since then, YSS supporters and clients fondly call him “Dr. George.”

Among his many accolades, Dr. George received the Award for Excellence from the Iowa Behavioral Health Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Gov. Terry Branstad and his wife, Chris. He was honored as Business Person of the Year by the Ames Chamber of Commerce and as Citizen of the Year by the Story County Board of Supervisors. The Friends of Iowa Civil Rights presented Dr. George with the Iowa Outstanding Individual Contributions to Civil Rights Award, and the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University recognized him with the Adult Citizen of Character Award.

The Next Chapter

Dr. George announced his retirement and succession plan in 2010. YSS found its next CEO in Andrew Allen, a former client in YSS’s Residential Addiction Treatment program and Dr. George’s mentee. On Jan. 1, 2016, Dr. George officially stepped down.

“This became my life mission,” he says of YSS. “It was hard, all those years later, to let it go. But it was time. I fully support Andrew; he’s done a great job.”

Since retiring from YSS, Dr. George has served on the board of directors and as current chair of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery, as well as the board and executive committee of the Partnership for a Healthy Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed him to serve on the Iowa Commission for Tobacco Use Prevention and Control, and he was later elected chair of the commission.

He was also elected to the international board of directors—and served as vice-chair—of the Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery, and he is chair of the Rotary District 6000 Prevent Human Trafficking Action Team.

Additionally, Dr. George has been a member of the following local groups: Mary Greeley Medical Center Patient Safety Council, Chamber of Commerce Local Government Committee, Story County Prevention Policy Board, Ames Interfaith Refugee Alliance, board of directors for the Story County League of Women Voters, co-chair of the Ames United Church of Christ Social Justice Committee, and the board of directors for the Rotary Club of Ames. He is also a longtime member of the Ames Noon Kiwanis Club.

Today, Dr. George is content watching YSS—the organization he worked so hard to build—from afar. He attends YSS events, serves as a mentor for YSS youth, and endowed two annual YSS scholarships: the Dr. George Inspiring Hope Award and the Dr. George Founders Award. He has saved countless lives, changed laws and public policies, and became a legacy in Iowa—a state he came to by chance five decades ago.

“It was every opportunity I could have dreamt of to make a difference,” Dr. George says. “I believe we are put on earth to be of service. It’s how I find meaning in life.”

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