Sunday Profile: ‘Your life will be changing in a little bit’
Eloisa Duarte is leading a ceremony at the Glenwood Springs library for 62 immigrants who have finished their first year of an adult education program.
Perpetually beaming, she’s a whirlwind who introduces speakers, leads applause, doles out hugs and makes sure the lights go back up after a video.
A couple of nights before, she was a waitress, breezing among customers in a just-opened restaurant wearing one of the vivid, flowing skirts that she favors.
The next day, she would be in the classroom and on the playground at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale, her home base as the director of a parent mentor program that has grown from 14 adults to 60 in three school years.
Before all that, though, Duarte did the groundwork that underpins the graduation ceremony, the restaurant and the mentor program: She knocked on another immigrant woman’s door and urged her to become a parent mentor.
She’s visited dozens of women in the Roaring Fork Valley. They often say that they are afraid, that they don’t speak English, that they don’t know what they could contribute.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, your life will be changing in a little bit,’” Duarte says.
Three years ago, Duarte was the woman on the other side of the door. She had been in the United States four years, moving from Sonora, Mexico, to join her husband, who was working for Aspen Skiing Co. Her American life was “just inside my home taking care of my two children.”
Then, at Carbondale’s Festival las Americas in August 2012, she saw a flier seeking parent volunteers for a new effort by the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project.
Her English, she says, “was about 6 percent,” so stepping into an English-speaking school and culture would be a big leap. But she also wanted to be part of the community.
“We are so thankful, because this is paradise,” she says.
Gratitude trumped any fear, and she soon found herself at Crystal River Elementary.
“My first day, I went to the classroom of Mr. Kenny Teitler, who was teaching third grade,” she recalls. “He was so kind with me. He gave me confidence.”
Teitler’s memory is that Duarte was confident from the beginning and proved an immediate asset to his classroom. “She has such a warmth and ability to connect with people, children could immediately engage with her.”
She gleaned insights from the pupils about challenges they faced, shared the information with Teitler and responded with simple kindnesses.
“If it was a child’s birthday, she would know if their parents couldn’t come in to help celebrate, so she would be sure to do something like bring cupcakes to make the day special,” Teitler said.
As an example of how she works, Teitler now teaches for Duarte in the lifelong learning program in addition to his regular teaching job. “She hired me,” he says.
How did she get from speaking almost no English and barely leaving home to being a force of nature who has coaxed dozens of others to take on life-changing challenges?
A FAST START
The Valley Settlement Project’s parent mentor program requires volunteers to put in 10 hours a week — eight in the classroom plus additional time learning about issues including domestic violence, child abuse, how to teach and how to find a job.
From October 2012 through May 2013, Duarte completed her first school year as a mentor, finished a personal care attendant certification at Colorado Mountain College, started volunteering at River Bridge Regional Center helping Latino kids who had been abused — and, for kicks, attained a GED in English.
She had earned a college degree in communications in Mexico, but got the GED because “I wanted to prove to myself that I was able to pass it in English, just to prove to myself that it never is too late.”
At about this point, Manaus leaders asked her to become the parent mentor director. As part of that process, she had an interview with Manaus founder and philanthropist George Stranahan.
“I have to confess I wasn’t able to understand everything George said,” Duarte says. “But there is a desperation inside of me to help other women who are inside their homes doing nothing, dealing with depression.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I have to go and knock on doors and bring the ladies from the shadows to the light.’”
Reaching out to strangers, she says, is easy.
“We are offering hope.
“You can be a better mom, you can be a better wife if you will learn how to advocate for your family,” she tells the women. “You will be able to get confidence because the schools are the life of our community. The school is a mural of what’s going on in the community.”
Duarte signed up 60 women to fill 40 classroom spots for the mentor program’s second year. She recruits more volunteers than needed because some realize they can’t make the full commitment, but might get out of their homes another way, such as joining the lifelong learning program.
‘LIKE MY SISTER’
One of the women she recruited was Alejandra Magaña, who also was staying home and didn’t speak English.
In March, Magaña followed Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia in speaking, in English, to a crowd of about 75 at the Colorado Capitol when the Valley Settlement Project’s early childhood program was recognized as a model in the state’s Kids Count report on child welfare.
“I didn’t want to go to the Capitol and talk,” Magaña says. “But Eloisa always tells me, ‘If you are asked, you have to say yes if you want to be a leader.’”
Magaña now is the principal of Valley Settlement’s lifelong learning program, working for Duarte.
“Eloisa is the person who changed my life,” Magaña says. “She taught me I have opportunity here.
“She’s like my sister I can talk to about any kind of issue,” which is particularly important because, like most immigrants, Magaña had no family in Colorado other than her children and husband, Ricardo, who was the first male parent mentor.
After the second year with 40 mentors, Duarte filled 60 spots this school year, with parents volunteering in every Roaring Fork School District elementary building from Glenwood to Basalt. Next year, Valley Settlement mentors will be in nine schools, including the Two Rivers Community School in Glenwood and two Catholic schools. Duarte has 100 parents signed up to start training to fill 80 spots.
But that’s not enough for her.
COCINA DEL VALLE
In the spring of 2014, Manaus founder Stranahan says, Duarte approached him.
“Eloisa asked me to address this question with her class of mentors: Does our income come only by waiting for a job to be created by somebody else or are there jobs that we can create for ourselves?”
Stranahan, born in Toledo, Ohio, as an heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, has been a rancher, a microbrewery owner with now-Gov. John Hickenlooper, and founder of the Woody Creek Tavern, a favorite watering hole of his late neighbor and friend Hunter S. Thompson.
Meeting with Duarte’s mentors, he asked the women what they did well.
“George said, ‘What about a restaurant?’ and when we said yes, he lit up,” Duarte recalls.
The wealthy entrepreneur and the immigrant dynamo have developed rich respect and rapport.
“He told me, ‘Eloisa, you can do whatever you want,’” Duarte says. “And I told him, ‘Sure, baby, I will do it.’”
Stranahan’s meeting with Duarte and her mentors led to a catering operation first, and in late April culminated in the opening of Cocina del Valle at 305 Gold Rivers Court in Basalt, the former location of Midland Bakery and Eurasia LLC.
Cocina del Valle (Kitchen of the Valley) is managed by Duarte’s husband, Mario Alverde. Most of the servers are parent mentors — including her son, also named Mario, a senior at Roaring Fork High School who has been swept up in his mother’s passion for volunteering.
GOALS ARE LIKE OXYGEN
Duarte plans to lead the parent mentor program one more school year “and then God only knows.”
“I need goals in my life because it’s like oxygen,” she says.
“I have a deep love and passion and compassion for my community. My goal is the families now. I have been learning how important it is when some member of the family comes out and belongs to our community. I clearly know the impact of these families.”
It’s critical for immigrants to get out of their homes, she says.
“When you have isolation, then you have drug addiction. You have sexual abuse, domestic violence, you have separation, because it’s a family without goals.
“We believe that strong families make strong communities and everybody can attain big things by staying together.”
Her own family is an example of that strength.
Daughter Esmeralda, now 9 years old, “was ashamed of me the first year I was a mentor because of my accent,” said Duarte, who was at Esmeralda’s school, but in a different classroom. “Then she saw that other kids were hugging me, and she started changing. And now she is a natural leader and wants to help with everything.”
Son Mario says his mother wasn’t as involved in the community in Mexico.
“That first year, it really changed my mom,” says Mario, who helped Duarte learn English.
“She showed me the importance of education. I saw how important it was to her and just made me realize how important my education is.”
He plans to start college at CMC and wants to be a teacher. Besides being a parent mentor at Crystal River, he also volunteers for the Buddy Program.
“My little buddy, his name is Marco, he saw me wearing the green shirt for parent mentoring, and he came up to me and said, ‘Aw, Mario, you’re a parent mentor?’ He gives me a big hug and says, ‘I want to be just like you when I grow up.’”
Mario wants to be like his mom. “She’s just such a big role model for me. I want to help young people. … she’s my best friend.”
This is not to say Duarte floats through lives like a gentle wind.
“She’s always smiling,” Magaña says. “But sometimes she can shake you: ‘Please, you can do it.’”
Duarte presses her volunteers to seek personal and emotional growth, Magaña said.
“It’s hard, but she’s there with arms open to give you a hug. She always has the right thing to say. She’s like a tornado.”
Dozens of families have been swept up in her path.
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