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Andrew’s Story: Meet Our CEO

Over the past five decades, YSS has helped thousands of youth through its programs—including Ember Recovery. After completing the treatment program, many of these youth move back to their communities, where they might attend college, start their careers, or learn a trade. They continue on their path forward, carrying with them the skills learned at Ember to stay sober and be successful.

For one of these youth, Andrew Allen, his path led him to become president and CEO of the very organization that saved his life.

Trouble From an Early Age

Despite having supportive parents—and knowing his own father was a recovering alcoholic—Andrew got into trouble at a young age.

“I said very early on that I wasn’t going to drink. But the first opportunity I got, I drank and I got drunk,” Andrew says. “I didn’t experience any consequences initially, and I think that’s the way it starts with a lot of people.”

He began using drugs and alcohol, breaking laws, and nearly failed out of school. On his 10th birthday, he was charged with felony burglary and vandalism.

Whenever his parents attempted to take him to counselors, Andrew put up a fight. But after he was arrested for drunk driving at age 17 and faced being charged as an adult, his parents knew they had to take the next step to get the help he needed.

Andrew entered Ember Recovery (then known as YSS Residential Addiction Treatment) and moved into the Youth Recovery House in Ames. However, from the start he had conflicts with staff and fought the program.

One day, he decided to sneak a cigarette. A simple offense, yet one that would change his life.

“Out of all the offenses I had committed, this was probably the most minor,” Andrew explains. “Yet I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, a sense that I shouldn’t have done that. It was the sense of guilt. It moved from my stomach to my chest, and I had a hard time breathing. I was in the bathroom on my knees, crying like a baby, saying, ‘I can’t live like this anymore.’”

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In the moment of surrender, he became willing to accept help.

Andrew made progress during the rest of his stay at Ember. He followed his treatment plan, took each day at a time, and successfully graduated from the program.

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Finding His Calling

Andrew attended Des Moines Area Community College, then Iowa State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems.

When he joined Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, no one knew his history—his juvenile delinquency, the waters he had to navigate to sobriety. Andrew made a new name for himself, and he wanted to keep it that way.

That was, until he joined the company’s volunteer network and started coordinating projects such as Toys for Tots and holiday food drives. He became chair of Principal’s United Way campaign, and someone suggested to Andrew that he share his story. He finally agreed. That year, the company raised more money and had higher participation for United Way than ever before.

“We won the ‘Spirit of America Award,’ which is given to the best United Way campaign in the country,” Andrew says.

From there, he moved from his IT role into managing the company’s charitable giving. Steadily climbing the ladder, Andrew set a goal of becoming president of the company’s foundation. However, when that moment finally came, he immediately knew it wasn’t his calling. He didn’t feel fulfilled.

At the same time, YSS was looking for a new CEO. George Belitsos had served as leader of the organization since he founded it in 1976. Finding the second-ever CEO in YSS’s history was a big decision, and Andrew—who had stayed involved with YSS and considered George his mentor—joined the search committee.

But one person after another encouraged Andrew to apply for the position himself. Knowing his history with YSS and the Ember treatment program, they knew he would be the perfect fit.

In 2015, Andrew was officially named the new president and CEO. “This is a really personal and meaningful opportunity for me,” Andrew said at the time. “I can’t even fathom the story we’ll tell as it relates to continuing George’s legacy, continuing to help youth across central Iowa, continuing to breathe life into them and give them hope.”

Turning to the Future

Since taking over the role, Andrew has continued to grow the organization, create new initiatives, and find innovative ways to help youth and families in need. Today, YSS provides education, counseling, and stability through nearly 40 programs in six locations across Iowa—all made possible by a team of 350 passionate staff and countless dedicated donors, volunteers, and partners.

But YSS’s most ambitious project is just around the corner: a new 50-acre campus located near Cambridge, Iowa, to house the Ember Recovery program.

With 70 beds, the treatment program that influenced Andrew so deeply will be expanded to help thousands of more struggling youth. He also has plans to bring together past Ember clients who can offer support and connect through their shared experiences.

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“Our vision is to create a strong network from the nearly 5,000 youth who have benefited from Ember,” Andrew says. “The opportunity to connect those alumni will be a powerful force.”

There’s no question the future of Ember Recovery at YSS is bright, and Andrew is paving the way. He knows better than anyone the importance of the organization’s programs. And you never know—the next youth who walks through Ember’s doors may grow up to become CEO.

Ember Recovery Blog