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Conectando a la comunidad: Brianda Cervantes de las escuelas de Roaring Fork une a las familias y al distrito

La organizadora de la comunidad escolar del distrito escolar de Roaring Fork, Brianda Cervantes, habla con una preescolar en la escuela Riverview durante el recreo.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

La pasión por ayudar a las personas inculcada en Brianda Cervantes cuando era niña por su abuelo en la zona rural de Nayarit, México, la ayudó a ponerse de pie después de emigrar a los Estados Unidos cuando era una joven recién salida de la escuela de leyes.

Esa misma pasión finalmente llevó a Cervantes hacia un papel único e importante en las escuelas de Roaring Fork poco después de inscribir a su hijo, Freddy, en la escuela Riverview en Glenwood Springs.

Cervantes, ahora de 31 años, comenzó en lo que en ese momento era una posición relativamente nueva de enlace comunitario con Riverview cuando abrió la nueva escuela enfocada en dos idiomas en el otoño del 2017.

La idea era conectar mejor a las familias de los estudiantes desde el jardín de infantes hasta el octavo grado y, a través de un proceso de comunicación muy intencional, alentarlos a participar más en su educación.

Sobre la base de su inmenso éxito en Riverview, su función se ha expandido desde entonces a una posición de organizadora de la escuela y la comunidad en todo el distrito a través de una asociación con Manaus Fund, al servicio de las escuelas y sus familias en las tres comunidades del distrito.

“Mi abuelo siempre solía decir: ‘Hagas lo que hagas, lo haces mejor,’” dijo Cervantes sobre su abuelo, Domingo.

Cuando Cervantes tenía 15 años, su madre, Ana, vino a Estados Unidos y su padre, Miguel, a menudo estaba ocupado viajando como abogado en México.

“Así es que, en cierto forma, crecí con mis abuelos,” dijo.

Domingo, un simple empresario con una pequeña heladería en su pequeño pueblo de Tepic, Nayarit, debido a su activismo comunitario, tenía algunas conexiones políticas.

Cervantes cuenta una historia de cuando ella tenía quizás solo 6 años, el gobernador de Nayarit vino a Tepic y su abuelo le pidió que leyera en voz alta una carta que le había escrito al gobernador. El periódico local escribió una historia al respecto con su foto y todo. Se aferró al recorte durante años como inspiración.

“Mi abuelo tenía una gran pasión por ayudar a la comunidad y gracias a él, la pequeña comunidad donde vivíamos tenía electricidad para los servicios básicos,” dijo Cervantes. “Él nunca fue a la escuela, pero era como un gran político, y todos en la comunidad conocerían y reconocerían a mis abuelos.”

Camino de inmigrantes

El abuelo de Cervantes murió en el 2007 cuando ella todavía estaba en la escuela en México, y su abuela murió después de llegar a los Estados Unidos.

Después de dejar la escuela de derecho, debido a algunas dificultades en su vida en ese momento, Cervantes se unió a su madre en los E.U. en el 2013, ayudándola con trabajos de limpieza antes de dar a luz dos años después a su hijo, Freddy.

Se tomó unos años para criar a su hijo pequeño. Cuando él alcanzó la edad preescolar fue cuando ella puso un pie por primera vez en la escuela Riverview, justo cuando se estaba preparando para abrir.

En ese momento, ella no hablaba inglés, pero su experiencia en derecho llamó la atención de la enlace familiar de la escuela en ese momento, Janeth Niebla.

Niebla la animó a considerar solicitar un trabajo en la escuela para ayudar a implementar el programa de dos idiomas, en el que las clases se imparten tanto en inglés como en español.

Vacilante al principio, en parte debido a la barrera del idioma, a medida que Cervantes se involucró más en la escuela de su hijo, Niebla siguió presionando.

Cuando Niebla decidió dejar el puesto de enlace a finales de ese año escolar, recurrió a Cervantes como posible candidato sustituto.

Tomó un poco de persuasión, pero finalmente aceptó y recuerda vívidamente su entrevista con Niebla, el director de Riverview Adam Volek, el ex subdirector Jami Hayes y el fallecido filántropo de educación de Roaring Fork Valley, George Stranahan, fundador del Manaus Fund, Valley Settlement Project y el Charter Carbondale Community School.

“Fue difícil, porque no hablaba inglés e hice lo mejor que pude, pero no pensé que lo hice bien,” dijo. “Un par de días después, me llamaron para decirme que el puesto es tuyo si lo quieres.”

Aprendiendo el idioma

Quizás sea apropiado que Cervantes creciera en su nuevo trabajo en Riverview School de la misma manera que sus estudiantes aprenden un nuevo idioma—con mucha ayuda del personal de la oficina principal e incluso de esos mismos estudiantes.

Cervantes nunca ha tomado clases formales de inglés. En cambio, aprendió en el trabajo.

Lo que realmente ayudó, dijo, fue cuando Volek se acercó a ella para que trabajara directamente en una de las aulas de la escuela secundaria, enseñando a los estudiantes cómo ser líderes en su comunidad.

Esa interacción con los estudiantes la obligó a aprender el idioma en un entorno más de intercambio (directo de idiomas).

“Me ayudaron muchísimo,” dijo Cervantes. “Era como si pudiera ser vulnerable con ellos y decir: ‘Esta es mi historia, y esta es quien soy.’

“Creo que los niños se conectaron con eso y me estaban ayudando al mismo tiempo que yo les estaba enseñando,” dijo. “Ha sido un camino de aprendizaje para mí en el que cada día aprendo algo nuevo.”

La organizadora de la comunidad escolar del distrito escolar de Roaring Fork, Brianda Cervantes, habla con el director de la escuela Riverview, Adam Volek.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Volek reconoció que el papel de Cervantes fue crucial en el desarrollo temprano del enfoque de aprendizaje único de la escuela.

“Brianda fue una parte muy importante para ayudar a Riverview a establecer un lugar en nuestra comunidad y garantizar que la equidad estuviera a la vanguardia de nuestro trabajo como organización,” dijo.

“Su papel en la escuela ayudó a establecer vías de comunicación entre nuestra escuela y nuestras familias, apoyando conversaciones personales, dirigiendo reuniones en casa y proporcionando a nuestra escuela una dirección sobre lo que nuestra comunidad necesitaba y pedía en términos de inclusión y voz.”

Expandiendo la voz

En Riverview, Cervantes trabajó codo a codo con los padres líderes de la escuela, los líderes escolares y los maestros y fue fundamental en el establecimiento de la Organización de Voluntarios Familiares, el Comité Asesor de Padres y Comunidad, y los proyectos de liderazgo estudiantil de la escuela.

No mucho después de la apertura de Riverview, los líderes de otras escuelas del distrito comenzaron a darse cuenta.

“Hicimos una encuesta para padres y obtuvimos una puntuación muy alta en la participación familiar,” dijo Cervantes.

Otras escuelas querían tener ese mismo tipo de participación y así lo que comenzó como un intercambio de estrategias entre las escuelas del distrito se convirtió en un nuevo trabajo para Cervantes en 2019 cuando Manaus acordó expandir su rol a un puesto de organizadora escolar-comunitaria en todo el distrito a través de la Centro de Recursos Familiares del distrito.

“Mucho de esto es simplemente tratar de encontrar a las familias donde están y derribar algunas de las barreras,” dijo Cervantes. “Tiene mucho sentido que el trabajo que estaba haciendo con Riverview necesitara expandirse.”

A medida que su enfoque creció para incluir el trabajo con familias en Glenwood Springs, Carbondale y Basalt, notó que algunos de los problemas eran diferentes según la escuela o la comunidad, pero las experiencias de las personas eran muy parecidas.

“Pude conectarme con ellos de una manera en la que confiaran en mí,” dijo Cervantes.

Eso se volvió increíblemente importante cuando la pandemia de COVID-19 llegó en la primavera del 2020, cerró escuelas y envió a los estudiantes a formatos de aula en línea. Las familias latinas en particular no estaban equipadas para adaptarse al aprendizaje en línea de sus hijos al igual que otras familias.

Cervantes y los enlaces familiares de la escuela desempeñaron un papel fundamental en la comunicación con las familias individuales para identificar sus necesidades, trabajaron con el departamento de tecnología del distrito para configurarles conexiones confiables a Internet y llevaron a cabo reuniones individuales para asegurarse de que ellos y sus estudiantes continuaran participando.

Muchas familias se vieron afectadas por la pérdida de empleo y la resultante pérdida financiera, por lo que su trabajo en la asistencia para el alquiler o el acceso a la atención médica aumentó sustancialmente.

“Muchas de las comunicaciones de la escuela solo salían en inglés, así que teníamos que hacer algo al respecto,” dijo Cervantes.

Facebook se convirtió en una plataforma importante para comunicarse con las familias latinas, al igual que la radio en español, a través de Radio Tricolor y la estación de radio pública KDNK en Carbondale, dijo.

A Cervantes se le pidió que fuera una de esas voces habituales en el aire, compartiendo información y dando actualizaciones. Fue un papel que le cayó bien.

“El discurso público es una de mis pasiones, especialmente si es en español,” dijo. “Me siento muy cómoda hablando en público y creo que mi carrera me ha preparado para eso.”

En México, Cervantes asistió a escuelas públicas, pero cuando fue a la universidad dijo que muchos de sus compañeros de estudios de derecho habían estado en escuelas privadas.

“Honestamente, no sentí ninguna desventaja proveniente de una escuela pública,” dijo.

Cervantes atribuye eso a los fuertes roles de mentor que le proporcionaron su abuelo y su padre, así como a Stranahan, a quien se alegró de haber conocido antes de que muriera la primavera pasada.

“Fue mi primer entrenador,” dijo. “Él siempre hacía controles semanales conmigo y se aseguraba de que tuviera todo lo que necesitaba para hacer mi trabajo, y de que estaba feliz.”

Aunque no podría ejercer la abogacía en los Estados Unidos sin una educación de seguimiento extensa, Cervantes dijo que su experiencia en derecho es útil en su función actual en el distrito escolar.

“Estudié derecho civil y de familia, así que mucho de eso se trata de justicia social y equidad. Así que creo que hay muchas interconexiones,” dijo.

Como organizadora de la comunidad escolar y del distrito, Cervantes también forma parte del equipo de comunicación del distrito y del comité directivo de equidad, y facilita el Consejo Asesor Familiar.

“Estoy profundamente comprometida con el fortalecimiento de la justicia social y la equidad en las escuelas y las comunidades,” dijo.

Además de su trabajo con las escuelas, Cervantes también forma parte de la junta del Mountain Voices Project y aún se mantiene activa como madre en Riverview (su hijo, Freddy, ahora está en primer grado) en el Comité de Responsabilidad y Organización de Padres Voluntarios de la escuela.

Además de su trabajo con las escuelas, Cervantes también forma parte de la junta del Proyecto Mountain Voices y todavía está activa como madre de Riverview (su hijo, Freddy, ahora está en primer grado) en el Comité de Responsabilidad y Organización de Padres Voluntarios de la escuela.

También se convirtió en ciudadana oficial de los Estados Unidos el verano pasado, y prestó juramento de ciudadanía en Denver el 13 de julio.

“Te da mucho orgullo,” dijo Cervantes sobre el proceso de casi cinco años para naturalizarse como ciudadano estadounidense. “Pasar por todas las dificultades y luego sentir que has logrado algo muy importante en tu vida, significa mucho.”

Puedes contactar al Reportero Sénior/Editor en Jefe John Stroud al 970-384-9160 o jstroud@postindependent.com.

Community profile: Glenwood Springs’ city engineer designs infrastructure with recreation in mind

Glenwood Springs City Engineer Terri Partch hikes along the trail system beneath Red Mountain prior to a knee replacement surgery that she hopes will allow her to return to trail running. Ike Fredregill
Post Independent

A dedicated public servant, outdoor enthusiast and engineer, Terri Partch has developed city infrastructure throughout the West for more than 30 years, but Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have always been her home.

“As an engineer, especially in the small towns, it’s amazing to be able to make changes that benefit the public in their everyday lives,” said Partch, the Glenwood Springs city engineer.

After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1990, Partch’s first job was for the city of San Diego, California, designing drainage systems. She eventually returned to Colorado, where she met her husband at an avalanche safety course.

The couple, both engineers, grew their family as they hopped from mountain town to mountain town.

“We lived in Telluride, Vail and Silverthorne, but we ended up moving out to Port Angeles, Washington, about 60 miles west of Seattle,” she said. “After long, though, we missed the sunshine and mountains, so we came back and settled in Glenwood Springs in 2012.”

‘Sheer determination’

With a passion for her work, Partch made an impression with her determination and dedication to the projects she believed would benefit residents most.

“I first met her during the budgeting process, and she wasn’t a department head yet,” City Manager Debra Figueroa said, adding with a chuckle. “She walked into my office with her budget with $17 million in projects for a $2 million fund, looked at me and said, ‘How are we going to get this done?’”

From the get-go, Partch saw the potential within the South Bridge Project to be one of the most important achievements of her career.

“South Bridge has always been in response to the Coal Seam Fire in 2002,” Partch said. “We say that, but I didn’t think that much about it until I had to model evacuation plans for south Glenwood as part of a federal grant application. The planning process really drove home the importance of a southern evacuation route.”

During the Grand Avenue bridge replacement, Figueroa said Partch oversaw the longest sustained detour in U.S. history.

“Through sheer determination, Terri prepared the city as much as she could,” Figueroa said. “She went to meeting after meeting, working in partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation, the fire department and law enforcement, to prepare parents, ensure kids could walk to school and secure adequate parking in Rifle.”

While the bridge replacement was still a challenging project for the entire valley, Partch worked tirelessly to make sure children would be safe and the detour was as good as it could possibly be, Figueroa said.

Assistant City Engineer Jessica Bowser has worked with Partch for six years and said the experience has taught her a lot.

“Terri has always been very direct about what she wants from someone, and she has an open-door policy, making it easy to approach her about challenges on the job,” Bowser said.

An avid hiker, Partch said she approaches her job with the perspective that infrastructure should benefit everyone, not just the primary users.

“As a person and an engineer, I’ve always had a love of being outdoors and being active,” she explained. “I think that comes through in a lot of projects, because we don’t just think about how a project will look from the inside of a vehicle. It needs to benefit the bicyclists and the pedestrians, too.”

Hitting the trails

One of three women in a graduating class of about 200 engineers, Partch said she owed her career choice to her father.

“My father wanted all of his kids to study engineering, law or medicine,” Partch said.

Born and raised in Denver, Partch is the middle child of three. Her older brother pursued a law career, and her younger brother followed in her footsteps as an engineer.

“My father was happy when I graduated, but he always had high expectations of his kids, so it was more like it was to be expected,” she said.

A mother of three, Partch said she spends most of her time outside of work exploring the outdoors with her family.

“We’ve been taking our kids hiking since my youngest son was an infant,” Partch said. “One of our biggest outings is a family backpacking trip every year. We usually hike about 30 miles over the course of 4-5 days, camping along the way.”

As a teenager, Partch discovered a love for cross-country running — a passion that has followed her throughout life.

“Our coach would take us up to Breckenridge, and we would run Argentine Pass,” she said. “It was challenging and always beautiful.”

Until recently, Partch, 54, ran trails on a near daily basis, but her knees are not as young as they once were, and after two knee surgeries, Partch said she now runs only once every couple of weeks.

“My most recent surgery was Monday — a knee replacement,” she said. “I’m hopeful it will help me get back to running more often than not.”

With retirement on the horizon, Partch said her family loves Glenwood Springs and would like to stay, but with the rising cost of living, she’s not sure it’s financially viable.

Before she turns out the light in her engineering office for the last time, Partch said she has a couple of goals in mind.

“In the next five years?” she asked, mulling the question over in quiet contemplation. “I would like to complete the South Bridge and make meaningful progress toward our community evacuation plan.”

Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at ifredregill@postindependent.com.

Connecting community: Roaring Fork Schools’ Brianda Cervantes brings families, district together

Roaring Fork School District School-Community Organizer Brianda Cervantes talks with a preschooler at Riverview School during recess.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A passion for helping people instilled in Brianda Cervantes as a child by her grandfather in rural Nayarit, Mexico, helped her land on her feet after immigrating to the United States as a young woman fresh out of law school.

That same passion eventually steered Cervantes toward a unique and important role with the Roaring Fork Schools soon after she enrolled her son, Freddy, at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs.

Cervantes, now 31, started in what at the time was a fairly new position of community liaison with Riverview when the new dual-language-focused school opened in fall 2017.

The idea was to better connect families of students at the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school and, through a very intentional communication process, encourage them to engage more in their education.

Based on its immense success at Riverview, her role has since expanded into a districtwide school-community organizer position through a partnership with the Manaus Fund, serving schools and their families in all three district communities.

“My grandfather, he always used to say, ‘Whatever you do, you do the best,’” Cervantes said of her grandfather, Domingo.

When Cervantes was 15, her mother, Ana, came to the United States and her father, Miguel, was often busy traveling as a working lawyer in Mexico.

“So, in a way, I grew up with my grandparents,” she said.

A simple businessman with a small ice cream shop in their small town of Tepic, Nayarit, Domingo, because of his community activism, had some political connections.

Cervantes tells a story of when she was maybe only 6 years old, the governor of Nayarit came to Tepic, and her grandfather had her read a letter out loud that he had written to the governor. The local newspaper wrote a story about it with her picture and all. She hung onto the clipping for years as inspiration.

“My grandfather had a big passion for helping the community, and thanks to him, the little community where we lived had electricity for basic services,” Cervantes said. “He never went to school himself, but he was like a great politician, and everybody in the community would know and recognize my grandparents.”

Immigrant path

Cervantes’ grandfather died in 2007 when she was still in school in Mexico, and her grandmother died after she came to the United States.

After leaving law school, due to some difficulties in her life at the time, Cervantes joined her mother in the U.S. in 2013, helping her with housekeeping jobs before giving birth two years later to her son, Freddy.

She took a few years off to raise her infant son. When he reached preschool age was when she first set foot in Riverview School just as it was gearing up to open.

At the time, she didn’t speak English, but her law background caught the attention of the school’s family liaison at the time, Janeth Niebla.

Niebla encouraged her to consider applying for a job with the school to help implement the dual-language program, in which classes are taught in both English and Spanish.

Hesitant at first, in part because of the language barrier, as Cervantes became more involved at her son’s school, Niebla kept nudging.

When Niebla decided to leave the liaison position later that school year, she turned to Cervantes as a potential replacement candidate.

It took some persuading, but she eventually agreed and vividly remembers her interview with Niebla, Riverview Principal Adam Volek, former assistant principal Jami Hayes and the late Roaring Fork Valley education philanthropist, George Stranahan, founder of the Manaus Fund, Valley Settlement Project and the charter Carbondale Community School.

“It was hard, because I didn’t speak English, and I tried my best, but I didn’t think I did well,” she said. “A couple of days after that, they call me and say, well, that position is yours if you want it.”

Learning the language

It’s perhaps fitting that Cervantes grew into her new job with Riverview School in much the same way that its students learn a new language — with a lot of help from the front office staff, and even from those same students.

Cervantes never has taken any formal English classes. Instead, she learned on the job.

What really helped, she said, was when Volek approached her about working directly in one of the middle school classrooms, teaching students about how to be leaders in their community.

That interaction with the students forced her to learn the language in more of an intercambio (direct language exchange) setting.

“They were super helpful,” Cervantes said. “It was like I could be vulnerable with them and say, ‘This is my story, and this is who I am.’

“I think the kids connected with that, and they were helping me at the same time I was teaching them,” she said. “It’s been a learning path for me where every single day I learn something new.”

Roaring Fork School District school-community organizer Brianda Cervantes talks with a Riverview School Principal Adam Volek.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Volek acknowledged Cervantes’ role as a crucial one in the early development of the school’s unique learning approach.

“Brianda was a very important part of helping Riverview establish a place in our community and to ensure that equity was at the forefront of our work as an organization,” he said.

“Her role at the school helped in establishing avenues of communication between our school and our families, supporting one-on-one conversations, leading house meetings and providing our school with direction on what our community was needing and asking for in terms of inclusion and voice.”

Roaring Fork School District school-community organizer Brianda Cervantes plays with preschooler Kamilla Corral at Riverview School during recess.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Expanding voice

At Riverview, Cervantes worked side by side with the school’s parent leaders, school leadership and teachers and was instrumental in establishing the school’s Family Volunteer Organization, Parent and Community Advisory Committee and student leadership projects.

Not long after Riverview opened, leaders in other district schools started to take notice.

“We did a parent survey, and we scored super high on family engagement,” Cervantes said.

Other schools were looking to have that same kind of engagement, so what started as a sharing of strategies between the district’s schools grew into a new job for Cervantes in 2019 when Manaus agreed to expand her role to a districtwide school-community organizer position through the district’s Family Resource Center.

“A lot of it is just trying to meet families where they are and to break down some of the barriers,” Cervantes said. “It made complete sense that the work I was doing with Riverview needed to expand.”

As her focus grew to include working with families throughout Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, she noted that some of the issues were different depending on the school or community, but people’s experiences were much the same.

“I was able to connect with them in a way that they will trust me,” Cervantes said.

That became incredibly important when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, shutting down schools and sending students to online classroom formats. Latino families in particular were not equipped to accommodate their children’s online learning the same as other families.

Cervantes and the school-based family liaisons played a critical role in communicating with individual families to identify their needs, working with district IT to get them set up with reliable internet connections and conducting one-on-one meetings to make sure they and their students continued to engage.

Many families were impacted by loss of employment and the resulting financial loss, so their work on rental assistance or health care access increased substantially.

“A lot of the school communications were only going out in English, so we needed to do something about that,” Cervantes said.

Facebook became a major platform for communicating with Latino families, as did Spanish-language radio, via Radio Tricolor and public radio station KDNK in Carbondale, she said.

Cervantes was asked to be one of those regular voices on the air, sharing information and giving updates. It was a role she said she embraced.

“Public speech is one of my passions, especially if it’s in Spanish,” she said. “I feel very comfortable speaking in public, and I think my career has prepared me for that.”

In Mexico, Cervantes attended public schools, but when she went to university she said many of her fellow law students had been through private schools.

“Honestly, I didn’t feel any disadvantage coming from a public school,” she said.

Cervantes credits that to the strong mentor roles her grandfather and father provided, as well as Stranahan, whom she was glad she got to know before he died this past spring.

“He was my first coach,” she said. “He would always do weekly check-ins with me and make sure I had everything I needed to do my job, and that I was happy.”

Though she couldn’t practice law in the United States without extensive followup education, Cervantes said her law background is helpful in her current role with the school district.

“I studied civil and family law, so a lot of that is about social justice and equity. So I think there are a lot of interconnections with that,” she said.

As the district school-community organizer, Cervantes also serves on the district communication team and equity steering committee, and she facilitates the Family Advisory Council.

“I am deeply committed to strengthening social justice and equity in schools and communities,” she said.

In addition to her work with the schools, Cervantes also serves on the board of the Mountain Voices Project and is still active as a Riverview parent (her son, Freddy, is now in first grade) with the school Parent Volunteer Organization and Accountability Committee.

She also became an official citizen of the United States this past summer, taking her oath of citizenship in Denver on July 13.

“It does give you a lot of pride,” Cervantes said of the near five-year process to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen. “To go through all the hardships, and then to feel like you’ve accomplished something very important in your life, it means a lot.”

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.

‘El legado que dejamos atrás:’ Líderes latinos del condado de Garfield celebran el legado en Aspen Glen Club

El oficial de policía de Rifle, Carlos Cornejo, toca la guitarra y canta durante una Celebración de la Herencia Hispana en Aspen Glen Club el viernes.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

El oficial de policía de Rifle, Carlos Cornejo, estaba en su tiempo libre. Su uniforme de servicio reemplazado por traje y corbata, comenzó a tocar una canción folclórica en español justo después de que los invitados terminaran de darse un festín con tacos servidos por el chef, chocolates gourmet cubiertos con salsa y copas de vino tinto.

Era viernes por la noche y reunidos en el Aspen Glen Club estaban los líderes de la comunidad latina disfrutando jovialmente en la primera Celebración de la Herencia Hispana en el área, un evento organizado por figuras latinas locales Crystal Mariscal y Janeth Stancle.

Un frío de principios de otoño se deslizó a través de la sección del patio tenue e iluminado en amarillo de la casa club principal. Las lloviznas ligeras a veces amenazaban con invocar lluvias más fuertes, pero se apagaban justo cuando la oscuridad comenzaba a cubrir el pico nevado del monte Sopris en la distancia.

Yessenia Arreola, una conocida administradora de Roaring Fork Valley Latina y Colorado Mountain College, se sentó en una mesa dentro de una sección de comedor interior. La voz cantante de Cornejo comenzó a entrar en la habitación.

Yessenia Arreola da un discurso durante una Celebración de la Herencia Hispana en Aspen Glen Club el viernes.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“Está tocando una canción llamada ‘Mojado,’” dijo ella. De manera deliberadamente despectiva, mojado alude a los ‘espalda mojada.’ “Habla del viaje de los indocumentados y de cómo la luna atraviesa la tierra sin fronteras.”

La graduada de 2005 de Roaring Fork High School, quien emigró a los Estados Unidos a los seis años, terminaba de dar un cautivador discurso en “spanglish,” una mezcla internacional de español e inglés. Los detalles incluyeron el viaje de Arreola hacia un eventual título universitario de Regis University, y destacaron el verdadero poder de predicar con el ejemplo.

De los empresarios latinos vestidos formalmente, agentes inmobiliarios, funcionarios del gobierno y varios otros profesionales rebosantes de moda de diseñador, algunos rodearon las mesas de manteles blancos y grabaron con entusiasmo imágenes de video del discurso de Arreola en sus teléfonos inteligentes.

Este es el tipo de evento que celebra lo que significa ser hispano en el valle y una invitación a la unidad, dijo Arreola.

“No se trata de mí—se trata de todos los demás,” dijo. “Y como dije en mi discurso, se trata del legado que dejamos atrás. Creo que eso es lo que significa ser latino. No lo hacemos por nosotros, lo hacemos por todos nosotros.”

Los invitados bailan con música en vivo durante una Celebración de la Herencia Hispana en Aspen Glen Club el viernes.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Conquistando montañas

Muchos de los que se filtraron causalmente el viernes por la noche fueron acompañados por sus parejas y, por supuesto, historias personales de cómo lograron el éxito en los valles de Roaring Fork y Colorado River.

Tomemos, por ejemplo, a Ignacio Mendoza.

Originario de los Alpes de Michoacán, México, donde el supermercado más cercano estaba a tres horas de distancia, Mendoza finalmente se unió a su hermano, José Luis Mendoza, para abrir un negocio local de concreto en 1986.

“En ese momento, creo que fuimos los primeros latinos con un negocio aquí,” dijo Mendoza. “Estoy muy agradecido con toda la gente aquí. Todos fueron muy amables con nosotros. Todo el mundo nos ha tratado bien, pero no pensamos mucho en ello. Solo queríamos tener nuestro propio negocio.”

El tiempo le ha dado buena suerte a Mendoza. Desde entonces, su empresa comercial original se ha diversificado en la contratación de construcción residencial, mientras que también opera negocios en Rifle, como San José Carnicería Meat Market y Plaza Liquors.

Este éxito es lo que Mendoza quiere para el futuro de los jóvenes latinos en los valles.

“Quiero verlos progresar y dar pasos mucho más grandes que nosotros, porque todo lo que hemos hecho, lo hemos hecho con nuestras manos. Pero ellos pueden hacerlo con sus mentes,” afirmó. “Cuando llegamos, teníamos un inglés limitado y una educación limitada.”

“Somos nueve en mi familia, y yo soy el que tenía más educación, … fui a la escuela secundaria”.

El cielo es el límite

Annie Baldo ha centrado su atención en servir a la comunidad latina del valle durante los últimos 40 años, negociando bienes raíces desde Aspen hasta Rifle.

“Decidí orientarme hacia la comunidad latina solo porque sentía que usando mis habilidades lingüísticas, podía ayudar a los clientes a comprar su primera casa,” afirmó. Baldo habla fluidamente portugués y español. “Simplemente tienen un poco de miedo del proceso debido a la barrera del idioma.”

Baldo es originaria de Brasil, donde creció en una familia de agricultores, según la biografía que se encuentra en el sitio web de su empresa, Compass.com.

Pronto, Baldo se convirtió en asistente de vuelo corporativo para un servicio de jet privado. Sin embargo, después de haber viajado por el mundo, finalmente se estableció en Aspen, donde administró marcas de moda de lujo en los mercados de Aspen y Nueva York durante 20 años.

Al cambiar de profesión, Baldo no solo trabaja como intermediaria en bienes raíces, sino que también le enseña a los latinos locales las mejores prácticas para comprar sus primeras casas.

“La percepción es que no pueden pagarlo, pero en realidad pueden,” dijo Baldo. “Realmente es navegar a través de eso: ¿Pagas tus facturas a tiempo, tienes una tarjeta de crédito? Solo les está dando los pasos.”

Cuando le preguntaron qué pensaba sobre la primera Celebración de la Herencia Hispana, Baldo dijo que ayuda a poner nombres a las caras que no ha visto en mucho tiempo—una desconexión prolongada causada por COVID-19.

“Es solo una conexión,” dijo.

Lo que viene

Gloria Castillo ha vivido por temporadas entre el valle de Roaring Fork y México desde 1982.

Después de graduarse de Roaring Fork High School, Castillo tuvo varios trabajos: asistente certificada de enfermería, vendedora de joyas y lavaplatos.

En cierto punto, viviendo en Carbondale, pasó siete años trabajando días y noches en un centro de atención local, incluyendo los fines de semana.

“Trabajaba 16 horas al día, con mi hijo,” aseguró. “Fue difícil prescindir de una niñera.”

Sin embargo, un día que le cambió la vida, Castillo decidió que quería abrir su propia tienda.

“Decidí que iba a vender la casa y comencé mi propio negocio porque vendía joyas en casa y trabajaba en Heritage Park,” explicó.

Durante los últimos 21 años, Castillo ha sido propietaria y ha operado Gloria’s Boutique en Carbondale. Aunque el viaje ha sido largo, Castillo dijo que se ha tomado un tiempo libre, usando el descanso para relajarse.

Por lo que ve en su comunidad, su momento de relajarse también llegará algún día.

“Veo a mucha gente encontrando casas, mucha gente que tiene sus negocios, mucha gente que tiene sus empresas de construcción,” dijo. “Es muy bonito ver a la gente prosperar.”

 

Annie Baldo ondea la bandera brasileña durante una Celebración de la Herencia Hispana en Aspen Glen Club el viernes.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Saboreando la noche

A medida que la noche del viernes se hacía más fría, el baile comenzó a calentarse.

Cornejo, quien se ha convertido en una sensación en las redes sociales debido a su trabajo como oficial de la policía de Rifle, continuó tocando su guitarra. Cuando comenzó la melodía “La Bamba,” la mayoría de los invitados comenzaron a ondear pequeñas banderas con países de todo el continente americano: Colombia, Brasil, México, Estados Unidos…

Para Arreola, la música significa mucho para muchos. A veces es literal, a veces figurativa.

Pero siempre hay algo más, dijo.

“Podemos hacer una pausa y celebrar la herencia que traemos y contribuimos a este valle,” dijo Arreola. “Pero también creo que es un momento de reflexión. ¿Qué significa para nuestro futuro y el futuro de nuestros niños y el futuro de nuestras generaciones? Para mí hoy, usamos nuestras plataformas para enviar un mensaje positivo y, con suerte, inspirar a otros latinos a continuar saboreando la riqueza de nuestra herencia.”

Puedes contactar al reportero Ray K. Erku al 612-423-5273 o rerku@postindependent.com.

Valley Life for All column: October is Disability Employment Awareness Month

Amy Schuster and Debbie Wilde
Annie Uyehara/Courtesy

Editor’s note: the Post Independent, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles to increase awareness of the value of people of all abilities.

Amy Schuster is a whirlwind of vivacity and laughter. It’s only when she mentions she may move slower than others when she works that one notices she has two prosthetic legs and that she looks a bit different.

Schuster has Moebius syndrome, a rare congenital condition that results from underdevelopment of the facial nerves that control some of the eye movements and facial expressions. The condition can also affect the nerves responsible for speech.

She is quick to say, “My disability isn’t all of who I am.”

The demystification of what “disability” is — Schuster’s goal — is highlighted in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The focus is inclusion in the workplace.

Inclusion is what nonprofit Valley Life For All is all about. Executive Director Debbie Wilde emphasizes the need to exclude no one in the workforce. Inclusion is vocabulary that VLFA introduced in its Inclusion Campaign, which began in 2017. The campaign appears through telling local stories to attract and educate people, Wilde said. “We also came up with Redefining the Perception of Challenge — to change the language in a positive way with the stereotypes and perceptions of disability, including the connection with employment.”
 Schuster was the first person in VLFA’s inclusion campaign stories.

“What I saw in Amy was someone with confidence,” Wilde said. “It’s important that those with challenges know their skills are needed, that they’re valuable and worth getting paid at a job.”

“I was excited to jump on the wagon,” Schuster said. She began working as an intern at VLFA in 2011 and is now its secretary of the board of directors. “A friend needed someone to take her spot there. I thought, ‘this is a nonprofit for the disabled?’ This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ll be at VLFA ’til the day I die,” she grins. “The inclusion campaign is so beautiful. There’s so many different stories to tell — people with TBI, cerebral palsy, rare disorders like Turner’s sydrome — and none of these stories end on a negative note; there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”

Schuster’s employers have had various responses to her Moebius syndrome. “I’m happy to answer any questions they have. But I want to emphasize what I can do at the job. I can tell them I’ve faced more adversity in my life, I’m more inclusive and have more empathy because of that, and I’ll make sure that this workforce is inclusive.”

She currently works at a library and loves it. “There are employers who know that those who are marginalized enriches their workforce. I think it makes people gravitate towards their business.”

Learn more about Amy Schuster and VLFA on Facebook or ValleyLifeForAll.org.

Local nonprofit Valley Life For All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. More information is available at ValleyLifeForAll.org or on Facebook.

Immigrant Stories: Chinese make a life in ‘gold mountain’

Calvin Lee

Intro: Calvin Lee came to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1980 to work for the Colorado Public Defender’s Office. In 1984, he opened his own office and practiced law for another 28 years. Today, he lives in Denver and pursues his other passions: art and the great outdoors.

Lee: My parents were both born in the southern part of China. They lived 30 miles apart. They didn’t know each other. When they were 12 years old, they both came over to the United States, again not knowing each other.

At that time, the United States was known as “Gam Saan,” or gold mountain. The Chinese believed that, if you came to America, you’d pick gold off the streets, become wealthy and send money back to the family in China, and eventually also return to China. The Chinese were the first immigrants the United States government imposed a quota on. The government was afraid of the “yellow peril.” And so, only those people who had a permit could come over.

It was the 1920s, and my father’s family didn’t have a permit. So they paid a family who had one $1,500 so my father could pretend to be their son. That family’s last name was Lee. My real last name is not Lee. It’s the last name of the family my father pretended to be the son of. My real last name is Yee, Y-E-E. So my father became a “paper son” — a son on paper only, not a real son.

Before my father left for the United States, the paper family wrote a 10-page family biography in a little notebook that my father studied, so he could answer questions when he went through customs on Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco. He was held in a barracks on the island for three months, where he was questioned repeatedly by the immigration officials. He was eventually released and allowed to enter the United States.

My mother came over legally. She was 12 years old. She also was held on Angel Island and questioned. They both vividly remember being there as little kids for several months before they were allowed into San Francisco.

Instead of picking gold off the streets, my father worked in a shipyard during World War II building battleships for the Navy. My mother worked in a hardware store. When they were in their early 20s, they met, and got married, and had me and my brother.

Gallacher: Did your parents eventually become naturalized citizens?

Lee: Yes. There was a time when the government offered amnesty to immigrants who would confess that you came here illegally. My father didn’t trust the U.S. government, so he never went in to confess.

Gallacher: You grew up in Arizona. When did your family move from San Francisco?

Lee: In 1951, when I was 4 years old, I had bad allergies, bad asthma. The doctor told my parents we had to move. So I grew up in Arizona from the time I was 4 until I graduated from college in 1969.

The first year that we were there, my parents leased and ran a grocery store in the Mexican barrio of Tucson. And then they found a store to buy in the suburbs. At that time, there were only 40,000 people. There were no 7-11s, no Safeways, or King Supers. And so my father was the butcher shop and grocery store for the neighborhood. My parents did very well. They paid off the mortgage in two years and ran the store for 30 years.

They were open 365 days a year, including Christmas. We opened from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. On Christmas, we opened at 11 in the morning, so we could open Christmas gifts.

Gallacher: What are your memories of that time?

Lee: I don’t have any recollection of San Francisco. My first recollection is arriving in Tucson. My aunt had a grocery store there in the Black downtown neighborhood of Tucson. Her family had had that store since the 1920s. I remember dirt streets, pool halls and prostitutes hanging out in doors.

My aunt had several rentals behind the grocery store. My first memory, as a child, was being in that little apartment with a mud floor and mosquito netting over the bed. It was a rough neighborhood. They had a crowbar and a gun behind the counter in case someone tried to steal some Gallo sherry. Gallo was the liquor du jour of people who didn’t have a lot of money to get drunk on.

Gallacher: What did you learn from that experience?

Lee: I learned to value hard work. We lived behind the grocery store. Our living room door opened up into the grocery store. When you opened the living room door, there was the cash register and the counter where we served the customers. My parents were always around and always working. That gave my brother and me the values of hard work and stability.

Gallacher: Did you experience prejudice growing up?

Lee: Yes. I recall, in sixth grade, the entire sixth grade class was asked to this private dance studio to allow children to experience a dance class. I was the only one who was not invited. I recall riding my bike to a junior high class, and these little kids were running behind my bicycle yelling, “Ching-a-ling.”

But it was mixed. When we moved to the suburbs from the Mexican barrio, there were not a whole lot of Chinese in Tucson. There were maybe 10 families, and they were all spread out. All our neighbors were Anglo kids, and they were my best friends. All the neighbors that we had really liked my parents. We had barbecues and were pretty much accepted in the neighborhood.

I experienced some prejudice as a young man. When one of my girlfriends told her parents and grandparents that she had a Chinese boyfriend, they wouldn’t speak to her for a month. But then they warmed up to me.

Gallacher: Did your father and mother, experience prejudice when they first came?

Lee: They told me that, during World War II in San Francisco Chinatown, they had to wear yellow arm bands that identified them as Chinese, so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for Japanese and assaulted or killed. They weren’t really allowed to leave Chinatown or venture into Anglo neighborhoods like Market Street.

Gallacher: Did they miss China?

Lee: No. They didn’t miss China. What my mother really missed, when they moved to Tucson, was San Francisco, because there were virtually no Chinese in Tucson in the 1950s. They were about to go back to San Francisco after two years when my father found this grocery store that he wanted to buy. And, without really consulting with my mother, he bought it. They almost got divorced over that, because my mother was so unhappy being in Tucson.

My father tried for years to get his mother into the United States. She was in China when Mao and the communists took over. She had two houses and was considered wealthy. The communists held public trials and tortured wealthy people. When it was my grandmother’s turn to have her public trial, the poor people said that although she was rich, she was always kind to them. So she wasn’t tortured or made to crawl on her hands and knees through broken glass. But they did take away her two houses.

Three years later, they allowed her to go to Hong Kong. She lived there for 10 years in a one-room apartment with three other people. She had to stay 10 years because it took us that long to prove that she was my father’s mother because she had a different last name than my father. By the time she arrived, I was in high school. She was in her 60s, and she lived with us until she died. She never did learn English.

Gallacher: Have you been back to the villages where your parents came from?

Lee: In 1990, my brother and his family, and my parents and I, went to China and found each of the houses my parents were born and grew up in until they were 12. In fact, when we were walking around, a man rode by on a bicycle, and he and my father recognized each other as being classmates back when they were little kids. That was interesting.

Gallacher: What was it like for you to watch your parents reconnect with their pasts?

Lee: Oh, it was something. The beam on my father’s face when he saw the house that he grew up in was very special. He just lit up and had all these memories. My mother also. My mother’s house was just an empty lot. It had been destroyed. But she started telling stories about her memories of being in that village.

I had this thought as I watched a group of little kids, they were maybe 2 or 3 years old, running around this remote farming village. I thought, “What if my parents had met here in this village when they were in their 20s and never came to America? I would have been born here.” The stark contrast between being a little raggedy kid in this rural agricultural village and being a kid riding the gondola on Aspen Mountain was very stark.

About Immigrant Stories

Immigrant Stories is a transcription of radio broadcasts by Walter Gallacher, a photojournalist and independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email wjgallacher@gmail.com. To read past Immigrant Stories, visit ImmigrantColorado.blogspot.com.

Community profile: Ivan Jackson works to keep LIFT-UP in the mix to address local food insecurity

New Lift-Up Director Ivan Jackson fills a cooler with perishable food items at the Rifle Lift-Up store before it goes out for distribution.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Ivan Jackson joined LIFT-UP as its new executive director in August.

Originally from London, Jackson worked in the Boulder area prior to coming to Garfield County and brings a long history of working within communities in the nonprofit sector. His primary focus until now has been on youth athletic programs.

Jackson has resided in the United States for more than 25 years, most recently outside of Boulder.

He and his wife Kate have a blended family of six children.

LIFT-UP, which stands for Life Interfaith Team on Unemployment and Poverty, has been serving Garfield County and the greater Roaring Fork Valley region for going on 40 years.

What brought you to the United States/Colorado?

I was provided the opportunity to work for a nonprofit youth athletics program in the USA about 25 years ago.

Education background?

Business Administration degree

Family?

My wife Kate and I have a blended family of six children.

Hobbies?

Hiking with the family.

What drew you to working in the nonprofit sector?

Giving back to communities, especially after what we have been through over the past 18 months. The pandemic made me realize how lucky I am and we are as a family. The idea of helping people survive on a daily basis seemed very important and a task I wanted to undertake.

What experiences prepared you for your current role with LIFT-UP?

I have a long history of working within communities in the nonprofit sector, mainly focused on youth athletic and mentoring programs. I have been an executive director for 10 years.

What are your goals for the organization?

To build on the excellent work and reputation that the staff and board at LIFT-UP has developed for nearly 40 years to reduce food insecurity within the “valley.”

Any parallels/contrasts between poverty in the UK and here in the U.S. you can talk about?

Unfortunately food insecurity exists within the UK as well as the US, but when living in the UK I was not involved in trying to solve the problem.

Any observations during the pandemic that we can learn from in terms of providing basic needs?

During the pandemic, food insecurity increased dramatically and the response to address these needs from the community was remarkable. Continuing to work with the community and to continue to raise the awareness of food insecurity is essential if we are to help solve the ongoing problem.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.

VLFA column: Blue Star Recyclers redefines the perception of challenge

Kevin Emory of Blue Star Recyclers and lead computer dis-assembler Tanner Jadwin.
Annie Uyehara/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: the Post Independent, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles to increase awareness of the value of people of all abilities.

DisAbility isn’t a typo on Blue Star Recycler’s webpage.

“We like to exaggerate the abilities part of it,” says Kevin Emory, operations manager for Blue Star Recyclers (BSR) Mountain Recycling Operations. BSR takes electronic waste such as computers and DVRs and employs only people with disabilities, mostly those with autism. “Disability is a negative term, but these individuals just haven’t had their skill set utilized.”

BSR’s founder, Bill Morris, observed disabled people disassemble electronics so quickly that he saw an innate skill set for repetitive tasks and began a recycling warehouse in Colorado Springs in 2009 with employees on the autistic spectrum.

BSR opened a disassembly facility in Basalt this year, where Tanner Jadwin, Lead Dis-assembler, is busy taking apart laptops and computer towers. Jadwin, who holds a record of disassembling 20 laptops in a day, doesn’t consider his job a drudgery. Putting down his tools to talk, he says “My job feels like a hobby, and it turns out I’m pretty good at it.” He points to Emory, whom he’s worked with side by side since opening BSR in April. “It also helps that he’s understanding and patient, for a boss.”

Emory smiles, “Tanner’s a social butterfly.”

BSR, which received the 2012 Real Leaders award for making positive social or environmental impacts around the globe, focuses on a social return to the society.

“The biggest social return allows individuals that are discriminated against and gives them a sense of community. It’s an incredible workforce wiling to help the community and the environment,” says Emory. BSR also helps alleviates taxpayer money since the disabled earn their income instead of relying wholly on federal and state government assistance programs.

“Autistic people blow it out of the water. They hit their goals, they show up on time, and there’s low employee turnover.” Emory speaks of a “working theory” that those who are “neuro-divergent”, a.k.a., on the autistic spectrum — have a skill set that’s very task-oriented, thorough, and doesn’t mind repetitive tasks.

Jadwin, who has high functioning autism, thinks he fits into this theory. “Since I was two, I’ve taken apart electronic stuff to see how they work. When I first found out about Blue Star, I thought, this is my dream job.”

Working at BSR gives Jadwin confidence and he eventually hopes to refurbish computers. He wants people to know those with autism are similar to us all.

“It’s like the term, ‘differently able’ — there’s things we can do I’d never imagine doing.”


There will be an E-Waste drop-off event in conjunction with the Glenwood Springs Noon Rotary Club at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, until capacity is reached; CMC Parking Lot, 1402 Blake, Glenwood Springs. Contact Blue Star Recyclers at 720-415-0767 or kevink@bluestarrecyclers.com

Local nonprofit Valley Life For All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at www.valleylifeforall.org or on Facebook.

Community profile: The steel cowboy of Glenwood Springs Middle School

Glenwood Springs Middle School science teacher Mitch Spencer welcomes kids onto the bus before running an afternoon bus route after teaching at the school all day.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Some nights, a lone school bus sits idly at its post outside Glenwood Springs Middle School.

It isn’t awaiting students to pile on to go home or on a field trip. The steed of the man they call “Dead Horse,” patiently awaits its cowboy to complete his business inside to be returned to the stable.

Mitch Spencer is a humble, outgoing seventh-grade science teacher at the school. He also delivers students to and from their homes every morning and afternoon. He’ll talk your ear off about science, fire protection, outdoorsing or the city of Glenwood Springs, which he’s called home since 1963.

The offspring of legendary Glenwood Springs High School girl’s basketball coach Harlan Spencer, Mitch’s nickname comes from his affinity for conversation and his position as one of the old guards of the valley.

“There’s two stories to it,” Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway said. “One is that he’s always beating the dead horse. You can ask him one question and get three hours of answer. But I prefer to think it’s because he’s the last of the old cowboys, riding the yellow horse back and forth every day.

“On the steel horse he rides. Like Bon Jovi.”

Glenwood Springs Middle School science teacher Mitch Spencer unlocks the bus before heading out for the afternoon bus route after teaching all day.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Mitch gets up at 5 a.m. every morning, earlier if he has tests to grade. If it’s a short day, he’s back 12 hours later. He teaches his students about dinosaurs in the classroom and brightens the beginning and ending of his passengers’ days with small talk on the bus.

Even before they have a class with Mr. Spencer, some kids know him as the funny, happy bus driver who has escorted them to and from school since kindergarten.

“He’s a really funny and nice person,” said Ariana Martinez Valenzuela, who first rode Spencer’s bus as a first grader and now is a student in his social studies class. “He would always try to learn everyone’s name.”

Spencer’s biography on the school’s website describes his achievements as an alumni of Glenwood Springs Elementary School in 1974 and the Sunlight fifth grade ski program, earning the “coveted title of advanced beginner.” It concludes, “My wife and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this community, and for myself being able to follow in my father’s footsteps as a teacher at GSMS working with the wonderful students and families of Glenwood.”

But the plan wasn’t always to follow Harlan’s lead — Mitch went straight into real estate out of high school, capitalizing on the oil shale boom. That career lasted less than a month.

“My standard joke is I bought my house two weeks before Exxon pulled out,” Spencer said.

Spencer said that he paid $66,000 for the property that was supposed to send him on his way to being a mogul. He added that townhomes in that area were going for $23,000 within a year.

Glenwood Springs Middle School science teacher Mitch Spencer helps seventh graders with a project while in class on Wednesday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

He signed on as a volunteer firefighter, paying the bills by working at City Market, where he met his wife, Ann. He stayed on with the fire department for six years, which turned him onto fire science classes at Colorado Mountain College.

In his tenure, he worked “big fires,” like the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Explosion of 1985. He lost friends in the Mid-Continent Resource’s Dutch Creek No. 1 blast in 1981.

As he aged, conversations with his father steered Mitch toward education. An unrelenting optimism for the work, despite the rigorous hours, piqued his interest.

“And he was right. It’s an adventure. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an incredible enjoyment,” Mitch said.

So, off he went to school, first CMC, then to Mesa State, today known as Colorado Mesa University.

He got his degree and started teaching at 37. Next year will be his 25th year. He also took up the family tradition of coaching, leading Glenwood Middle School’s football team for about 15 years, culminating in a second-place finish at state.

In the classroom, and out, he integrated his outdoor lifestyle and experiences. In non-COVID times, he takes his class on camping trips to Dinosaur National Monument and field trips to the memorial of the Vulcan Mine in New Castle where Mike Patch, son of Ron Patch, who perished in the Dutch Creek disaster, tells about getting the call that his father wouldn’t be coming home days after the disaster.

Naturally, on all these excursions, Spencer is behind the wheel of the bus getting them there.

He didn’t take up driving until about 10 years ago, following conversations with his sister, Joycelyn, a fellow teacher as well as bus driver.

Mitch gave up coaching and needed to fill his time. He became immediately entranced with the new, different kinds of relationships he could develop with the kids than those in the classroom.

“On Monday morning when they get on the bus, you’re not trying to get them to do a math problem or something,” Spencer said. “It’s just such a special relationship. You just get to know every kid. You can tell if they’re happy or sad. It’s just a very special thing to be involved with.”

Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at rallen@postindependent.com

Community profile: From dishes to development — Roaring Fork Valley real estate broker began career in uncle’s kitchen

Mike Mercatoris inside CoVenture in downtown Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A young man working in his uncle’s pan-Asian restaurant around the turn of the millenium, Mike Mercatoris was prepping to-go orders and listening to his headphones when the kitchen’s head chef nabbed his attention.

Mercatoris pulled back his headphones, and in broken English, the chef said, “You, me, we’re going to start our own restaurant.”

“I was just like, ‘OK, man,’” Mercatoris recalled, explaining he blew it off as kitchen staff banter.

But, true to his word, Chef Ming “Henry” Zheng opened the first Zheng Asian Bistro with Mercatoris in a little El Jebel strip mall nearly a decade later.

“We had no idea if it was going to work,” Mercatoris said. “But I saw strip mall restaurants work in Florida, so I believed we had a chance.”

The strip mall wasn’t their first choice. Initially, the pair looked at a riverside location. Their real estate agent said he could probably get them the picturesque spot but not without a caveat.

“He had us stand outside the riverside building at 6 p.m. on Friday for about 10 minutes,” Mercatoris said. “Maybe three people passed by.”

The agent then took them to an available strip mall location, and repeated the experiment.

“Forty or so people passed by in 10-20 minutes,” Mercatoris remembered, his eyes lighting up as he retold the story.

“I was like, ‘We can do this.’”

Zheng Asian Bistro, which later opened a second location in Glenwood Springs, was just one stone on Mercatoris’ path to commercial real estate and entrepreneurialism, but more importantly, it was the first.

Summer job

Born in State College, Pennsylvania, Mercatoris, 49, grew up near a lake and still nurtures a love for water.

“It was my junior year of college, and I was looking forward to one last summer on the lake with the boys,” he said.

Although his uncle, Doug “Merc” Mercatoris, 71, offered Mike a job working in Snowmass Village at Merc’s pan-Asian restaurant, Mountain Dragon, Mike initially shot the idea down.

Arriving home from Mount Union University on a Wednesday, Mercatoris’ dad asked if he was ready for a great summer.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to see everybody,’” he recalled. “My dad said, ‘Great, here’s your plane ticket. You leave for Colorado on Saturday.’

Mercatoris’ mirthful laughter filled his sparsely decorated office Thursday as he conjured memories from his first summer in Colorado.

“They literally shipped me out,” he said, smiling. “They knew I was going to be all trouble that summer.”

Previously, Mercatoris had only visited his uncle’s place during the winter for family ski trips. Having never viewed the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I mean, I just fell in love with it,” Mercatoris said. “I went back to college and graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in business management, then I packed my things and came back as fast as I could.”

Leaving the nest

Even with a degree in Mercatoris’ hand, his uncle Merc wasn’t going to just hand over his business to the young upstart.

“When he came back, I realized he might be serious about pursuing a career as a restaurateur,” Merc said. “So I started him out in the kitchen, because every successful restaurateur should know their business back to front.”

It was during Mercatoris’ time in the kitchen that he struck up a friendship with Zheng, who, at 21 years old, was Merc’s head chef.

“I don’t know if it was because we were the same age or what, but we hit it off,” Mercatoris said.

For the next eight or nine years, the pair discussed plans for their own venture. Mercatoris, the charismatic businessman, would work the front, and Zheng, the ambitious chef, would work the back.

Merc and other restaurateurs from around the valley helped the two get their plans off the ground, but that’s where Merc drew the line.

“I told them I wanted to be the uncle who helped with the kids, not the uncle who helped with the bookkeeping,” Merc said.

Mercatoris and Zheng opened Zheng “One,” as Mike called it, around 2000. Business picked up, and they opened a second location in Glenwood Springs around 2007.

“We got to this point where we wanted to do more, but we had surrounded ourselves with people like us — people with their own ideas,” Mercatoris explained.

Rather than expanding Zheng into more stores, they explored partnerships with their employees, which led to creation of Grind and the revitalized Riviera Supper Club between 2014 and 2016, Mercatoris said.

Business was good, if not a little too good.

“I worked myself out of a job,” Mercatoris said, grinning as he shrugged his shoulders.

Finding his niche

With about two decades of restaurant management and entrepreneurship under his belt, Mercatoris turned to consulting.

Rather than building new restaurants from the ground up, he wanted to help others learn how. He created ZG Consulting, an ode to both the Zheng and Grind restaurants as well as a clever throwback to the license plate prefix “ZG,” which denoted a person’s local status.

During one consulting project, Mercatoris said he was approached by a friend who worked at Sotheby’s International Realty. If Mercatoris were to secure his real estate license, he would have a job with the company.

“After we sold the Riviera Supper Club in 2018, I did have time (to pursue real estate licensing),” he recalled.

Mercatoris enjoyed the work, but Sotheby’s was focused on luxury residential real estate, and Mercatoris discovered his interest centered around commercial ventures, specifically in the restaurant industry.

“There wasn’t a lot of people in brokering that knew both sides of the business,” Mercatoris said. “I had written checks for 90 employees across four restaurants, and I had that inside knowledge that I could use to help both tenants and landlords. I saw a niche that I could fill.”

In 2019, another acquaintance from the valley, Krista Klees, introduced Mercatoris to Slifer, Smith and Frampton Real Estate, and asked if he would like to head up the company’s new commercial division.

“I said yes, so long as we could re-imagine it as the commercial and entrepreneurship division,” Mike said.

Mentoring the next generation

Several people approached Mercatoris over the years with questions about how to start their own restaurants, including Altai Chuluun, who later partnered with Mike Lowe to create GlenX, a co-working space and business incubator.

Mercatoris followed Chuluun’s and Lowe’s project with interest, and after the idea was rebranded as Coventure, Mike said he convinced Slifer, Smith and Frampton to sponsor the initiative.

In a small office tucked into a back corridor on Coventure’s third floor, a sign with Mike’s name is set atop a mostly empty bookshelf.

“I work out of my backpack most of the time,” he said, throwing up his hands at the office’s lack of decoration.

Nowadays, Mercatoris handles commercial transactions across the valley, advises and mentors new entrepreneurs at Coventure and helps the next generation negotiate and understand lease terms, helping them avoid the pitfalls his uncle once pointed out to him.

“I think it is incumbent on every generation to help the next find their place in the world,” he said.

It’s been a long journey away from the lakes of his youth, but when the workday ends, he still finds his way back to the water.

“I was big into kayaking when I first got to Colorado,” he said. “But now, my wife and I own a Centurion wakesurfing boat. We spend every weekend we can out on the water with our two kids.”

Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at ifredregill@postindependent.com.