Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s surprise gift boosts nonprofit dedicated to immigrant families

Picture books are a hit with the kids and the little bus is packed with them. The bus is designed to give kids space to share a book or curl up in a nook and read.
Valley Settlement/Courtesy photo

It sounds like a fairy tale or a feel-good movie hit. One of the planet’s richest women donates millions to a little mountain town non-profit serving immigrant families since 2011 in a variety of ways, mostly involving children.

But it just happened in the Roaring Fork Valley.

MacKenzie Scott, billionaire philanthropist, author and ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has donated $2 million to Valley Settlement, which works with over 500 households each year through programs focused on early childhood and adult education, leadership development, and maternal mental health.

One of the main efforts is the El Busesito Preschool for Latino immigrants’ children who attend classrooms tucked inside colorful buses that fan out across the region. Valley Settlement, based in Glenwood Springs, sends its fleet of cute classrooms on wheels (and other programs) to neighborhoods, in the Roaring Fork including Carbondale, Woody Creek, El Jebel, and Basalt.

In the current 2022-23 program year, Valley Settlement has worked with 178 households living in Aspen, Snowmass, Woody Creek, Basalt, and Carbondale through six programs. Most of the students are children of Aspen’s workforce.

Busesito Preschool graduation following last year’s ceremony.

Settlement spokesperson Gail Bransteitter told The Aspen Times that two-thirds of the participating families have a household member working in Aspen.

Valley Settlement Executive Director Maria Tarajano Rodman said she was thrilled with the surprise gift, which arrived as her organization was planning a new strategic expansion with programs for grandparents, fathers, and teenagers after a valleywide listening tour to hear what the community’s needs were.

And more busesitos are rolling to more neighborhoods.

“We have a graduation ceremony. Parents come from all over to attend,” she said. Then emotion filled her voice. “When you see the dads, who may be working three jobs but somehow make it there to watch their child walk across the stage to get a diploma, you can see the parents’ pride.”

Each child wears a small, crimson mortarboard hat for the graduation ceremony.

Carbondale’s white busesito is decorated with triangles, circles, and cubes in bright primary colors. It has a scenic snowcapped mountain view. Busesitos park in a safe location, and families bring the children to them.

Inside, the kids are dazzled to find picture books, cubbies for their knapsacks, paints, crayons, crafts, games, toys, and walls decked with handmade charts showing foods, animals, and colors captioned in Spanish and English.

The Carbondale preschoolers’ bus has a beautiful mountain backdrop. Parents bring their kids to El Jebel, Woody Creek, and Carbondale in the Roaring Fork Valley to meet the little classrooms on wheels.

Numerous studies have documented how preschool speeds a child’s math and reading skills, as well as boosting confidence and acquiring social skills.

Scott has donated millions to Colorado charities before. In December 2020, she donated $20 million to Denver’s Mile High United Way, the biggest gift in the entire 133 year history of the organization. Last year, she gave $2.5 million to a Colorado Springs charter school dedicated to educating children from low-income minority families.

Her donations are famous for having no strings attached. And Tarajano Rodham said that is true for Valley Settlement.

“We may use the money in the way we think best,” she said.

Preschool is often the first place children learn to socialize with other kids and learn to make friends and gain confidence.