Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Riding along with the Manaus Fund
It was only a photo shoot, but for the dozens of young children who gathered around, the moment was just as exciting as the real thing: El Busesito, or The Little Bus, had pulled up to the Third Street Center in Carbondale.Painted bright white with shapes of all sorts in primary colors adorning its sides, El Busesito called out to those eager readers. They held stacks of books in their arms – in English and Spanish – and they were ready to learn, to become engaged.Just a few weeks earlier, many of their mothers were similarly ready to learn, to become engaged. Also at the Third Street Center, these women spent a full week being trained as parent mentors so they could soon work side-by-side with teachers in the local elementary schools.These scenes, say organizers of the Valley Settlement Project, speak volumes about what is possible in Roaring Fork Valley – and beyond.”Isn’t it amazing?” said Morgan Jacober, project director of the Valley Settlement Project during the photo shoot at the bus. “Just look at all these kids, families. They are so excited. And there is so much more we can do for them.”In fact, El Busesito/The Little Bus and the Parent Mentor program are just two of six initiatives being launched right now as part the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project (VSP), which was made possible by a $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.”We asked, “What would you do if …’ And their ideas of empowering people, at a grassroots level, really resonated,” said Jon-Paul Bianchi, associated program officer for the Kellogg Foundation who helped bring the two organizations together. “And at the heart of every project we support is the credibility of those behind it.”We have every bit of confidence in the Manaus Fund, in the VSP, and we are willing to hedge our bets on this.”
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The seeds for the Valley Settlement Project were planted a while back. And the project’s concept is at once simple and complex: a dual generational program focused on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement for families from Aspen to Parachute.”Our focus is those families who are living in poverty and who are not successfully settled or attached to the community in which they live,” states the VSP’s mission statement. “Through community organizing and partnerships with local nonprofits and schools, VSP works to support and empower these families.”As such, it is a logical extension of the Manaus Fund. The locally based organization, which was founded in 2005 by local entrepreneur George Stranahan, seeks to create partnership opportunities. To date, the Manaus Fund has invested more than $3 million to valley-wide project such as the Third Street Center, the Basalt Community Campus, Lift Up, Aspen Public Radio and the Western Colorado Preschool Cooperative.”The Manaus Fund isn’t about creating new programs for the sake of creating new programs. We are a community connector,” said Ellen Freedman, who recently took the helm as executive director of the Manaus Fund. “Everything the Manaus Fund has done over the years has been with this goal in mind. In many ways, it’s all been leading up to something like the Valley Settlement Project.”So when Manus Fund organizers creating the much larger Valley Settlement Project, they also set their sights on finding a financial backer. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation – the seventh largest philanthropic foundation in the United States, whose focus is on early-childhood education initiatives – fit the bill.”This is what we do,” said Bianchi, adding that the foundation first gave the Manaus Fund a smaller grant to research the possibilities of VSP and, when pleased with the results, went forward with the $1.2 million investment. “The real juice of this project is the people … just look at them. This is where ordinary magic takes place – in affecting real change in people who are in need in a sustainable fashion.”It is a challenge those at the Manaus Fund take very seriously.”It is daunting, but exciting at the same time,” said Freedman. “I believe we have done our homework – we have truly learned what the needs is and thought carefully about how to address it.”Now it’s time to get to work.”
Toward that end – of affecting the lives of those people with whom they are charged with empowering – VSP organizers are launching six different initiatives. They comprise both programs for adults and children, and ultimately they will span the valley from Aspen to Parachute (most are kicking off in the Carbondale/Glenwood Springs corridor).Among the programs are Neighborhood Navigators, Parent Mentors, Family Friends & Neighbors/Licensed Home Child Care, Adult Education, After-School Programming, and El Busesito/The Little Bus (see sidebar for details).The programs, while diverse in nature, have a few important factors in common. Namely, they grew out of and are singularly focused on community needs.For example, a survey of hundreds of families showed a need – and more important, a desire – for parents, mostly Latino, to be involved in their children’s education. Thus, the Parent Mentor program, which is based on a similar national program.”It was amazing to watch the transformation of these women in just a few days,” said Jacober, after just a few days of the week-long training workshop. “They were walking taller and ready to take control of their lives just by engaging in this training.”As such, the parent-mentor program dovetails perfectly with the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project, a dual-generation program focused on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement for families from Aspen to Parachute.This type of community connection is a cornerstone of the Valley Settlement Project and will continue throughout its establishment and growth. Organizers say this is especially important as the project moves forward, as every community is sure to have its own needs and potential partnerships.”The women who are parent mentors are empowered and they have learned how to empower others,” said Jacober. “So the parent mentors are now able to be leaders in their community. They can help themselves and others be better mothers, better wives, better neighbors.”Still, those behind the effort are quick to note the importance of tying these communities – and the VSP’s efforts therein – together.”The challenge now will be to bring all these pieces of the puzzle together,” said the Kellogg Foundation’s Bianchi. “All of these programs are building blocks toward the VSP’s ultimate goal.”It is an idea that circles back to the Manuas Fund’s mission of being a community connector, of building “the capacity of nonprofits and communities to achieve a more just society through investments and partnerships.””If we make one part of community stronger, the entire community benefits,” said Freedman. “And it is our job, and the mission of the Valley Settlement Project, to do just this.”
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Development in Basalt barely skipped a beat in 2020 despite the coronavirus. It’s expected to be busier next year.