CARBONDALE — The ID badge pinned to Maria Eloisa Duarte’s jacket is an ordinary metal rectangle bearing her name above her title, “parent mentor .”
But for Duarte, it is a badge of honor. Duarte is an immigrant mother with no legal status in the United States who rarely got out of her pajamas or left her house until six months ago. This pin says that she is now a valued contributor to her community.
Her eyes well with tears when she holds a hand over it and calls it her most prized possession.
She wears the badge all the time, she says, even when she isn’t at Crystal River Elementary School helping kids with their subtraction and spelling and liberally doling out hugs. She wears it to her new volunteer work with sexually abused children, and she wears it when she knocks on doors to let others know about local services that might improve their lives. She wears it to the college photography class she is taking.
Her name tag is a potent symbol of how one innovative community program, the Valley Settlement Project, is drawing immigrants and other disenfranchised residents of the Roaring Fork Valley into the fabric of the local culture.
The seven-month-old project has completely turned around individual lives and sent a positive ripple effect throughout Carbondale and nearby communities, which are home to 18,000 immigrant residents.
It has done so through a combination of programs that include a focus on early-childhood development and adult education along with efforts to connect more parents to the schools.
Results have been quick in coming. Immigrants who had been isolated by language barriers, fear and economic challenges have been venturing out of the shadows of ramshackle trailer parks and other poor neighborhoods and becoming engaged members of society.
This year, Latino immigrants organized the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration the school has ever seen. Recently, they built a playground in three days. And they helped pass out 1,300 informational leaflets in low-income neighborhoods.
“This is making a huge difference,” said Roaring Fork School District Re-1 Superintendent Diana Sirko. “It is sending an important message to the community of acceptance and inclusion.”
Some who have come from the shadows are taking language and GED classes. Like Duarte, they are signing up for college courses. They are putting their youngsters into a mobile preschool program and borrowing books for at-home reading.
Seventeen mothers have gone through mentor training and together took the frightening step of being fingerprinted at the Carbondale Police Department — a necessary part of being school volunteers.
“Mothers who used to hang back in the corners are now running on the soccer fields. They are sitting in the sandbox playing with the kids. They aren’t quiet anymore. They are walking tall. They are walking prouder,” said Karen Olson, principal of Crystal River. “This isn’t lost on their kids.”
All this began with the Manaus Fund, which was created in 2005 by George Stranahan, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist who is better known statewide for a premium whiskey bearing his name. Stranahan had the idea that he would make investments in nonprofits that were interested in being entrepreneurial and lessening their dependence on donations.
Stranahan and other Manaus workers put their heads together to try to figure out how to better integrate immigrants into the community and into the schools where more than half the students are Latino.
Manaus Fund workers began by knocking on more than 300 doors in the valley’s 23 poorest neighborhoods and questioning residents about their needs. Manaus came up with six programs that are now part of the Valley Settlement Project. They made them a reality with help from the Denver-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which kicked in a $1.2 million grant. A dozen other foundations and entities also helped with funding.
“A key component of this is developing leadership,” said the 75-year-old Stranahan, who is an active participant in many facets of the Valley Settlement Project.
The project founders chose to focus on two generations — children and their parents — so that any changes accomplished through the program would endure.
One program offers in-home support for mothers of toddlers so they can better promote early-childhood development. Another focuses on neighborhood babysitters who take care of many of the working mothers’ kids. They are being certified in CPR and educated in ways to develop skills.
The El Busesito program took a donated public transportation bus and turned it into a mobile classroom. The bus parks in poor neighborhoods and serves as a preschool.
After-school programs are designed to enhance learning through art, physical fitness and other fun activities. Adult education is promoted through a program that makes registration easy, offers language classes and helps adults earn GEDs.
A bilingual “navigator” program sends two women into low-income neighborhoods to help spread the word about the Valley Settlement Project.
The project will be using different assessment tools to quantify results of all these efforts. But, for now, changes are easily observed.
In the Busesito, education coordinator Amanda Friend can point to a 4-year-old who cried every day for a month because she had never been away from her mother and rarely out of her home. She spoke only Spanish when she first came to the bus months ago. The other day, in perfect English, she asked Friend, “Are you going to sit next to me today?”
Third-grade teacher Kenny Teitler said he sees a new confidence in his Latino students since he has had a mentor in his classroom.
Duarte puts the change in her life like this: “It’s like I have oxygen in my life. I have freedom.”
She also has a thick binder filled with accomplishments neatly cataloged in plastic sleeves. She has a certificate showing she has completed her GED. She has another to show she is trained as a parent mentor. A newly added certificate and letter document her 16-year-old son’s acceptance into the National Honor Society. His grades shot up when his mother became involved in the school.
It is one of those ripple effects that Stranahan so hoped for when he invested in the Valley Settlement Project.