Giving Thought: Building community with a whole-family focus

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Behind virtually every gourmet meal, landscaped garden and sparkling-clean hotel room in Aspen lie one or more workers who live somewhere downvalley and were born south of the U.S. border. As increasing numbers of immigrants have populated the Roaring Fork Valley in recent decades, various organizations have emerged to bridge cultural barriers and integrate the region’s Anglo and Latino communities.

Jon Fox-Rubin, a valley native with a diverse resume that ranges from a seat on the Basalt Town Council to running advanced technology companies, is the executive director of Valley Settlement, a dynamic and creative nonprofit that helps immigrant families become part of this community. Uniting the valley’s distinct cultures is a multi-pronged effort that involves working with both parents and children, at school and at home, on literacy, health, career development and more.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please tell us about the original concept of Valley Settlement and how it’s evolved.

Jon Fox-Rubin: Valley Settlement started as a project of the Manaus Fund in 2012, based on interviews with several hundred low-income Latino families. We learned there were multiple barriers to their settling into the community. The project was comprised of six interconnected programs, aimed at low-income families with young children between the ages of zero and 8. These children had no access to preschool, and their parents didn’t know how to engage in the elementary schools once their kids had reached that age.

Two of our launch programs included the Parent Mentor Program, which engages Latino parents as volunteers in elementary school classrooms, and El Busesito, a mobile preschool that travels to isolated neighborhoods to offer high-quality, bilingual early-childhood education. The idea was to work with families both on the preschool bus and in their homes, to support parents in their role as their child’s first and most important teacher.

Fast forward five years, we work with about 400 families a year, half of whom live below the federal poverty line. Two-thirds of the parents we work with didn’t graduate from high school. Valley Settlement has three Busesitos — one each for Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood — and a broad array of programs aimed at both early childhood and adult education, including parenting skills, Spanish literacy, GED preparation, nutritional health, wellness and career development.

ACF: Please describe a typical day at work.

JFR: On a typical Monday, nearly all of our 35 staff members, 75 percent of whom are Latina, and many of whom are alumnae of our programs, are in the office. Our program teams meet to reflect on the prior week and plan for the coming week’s programs. On other days they’re teaching on the Busesitos and at churches, mobile home parks, elementary schools, libraries and so on.

We’re different than many human service organizations because we spend so much time in the community and our main focus is education. We often act as an outreach and enrollment arm because we’ve built trusting relationships and we refer families to partners like Eagle and Pitkin County Human Services, Mountain Family Health Centers, Colorado Mountain College and the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork School District. We’re geographically focused on families living in the Roaring Fork School District, from Basalt to Glenwood Springs.

Here’s an example of one of our families. A mother was already sending her 4-year-old to our preschool bus, but came to us when she became pregnant with her second child. When she had the new child, she got engaged in our program for infants and toddlers. She’s now working toward her GED in our adult education program, and is hopeful about her future and that of her children.

ACF: Has the divisive political climate effected your organization or your clients?

JFR: Absolutely. Many of our staff members have been directly exposed to anti-immigrant sentiments, many for the first time ever, in parking lots and playgrounds. Nearly all of the families we work with know at least someone who is at risk of detention or deportation. We are supporting them to take action and plan for that potential. We are also supporting our staff around the trauma this has created in the community and we are learning about the rights of immigrants, so we can best support the families we work with.

ACF: What’s on the drawing board for the future of Valley Settlement?

JFR: We’ve recently spun off as a stand-alone nonprofit and we’re working with others, including Harvard’s Frontiers of Innovation and Aspen Institute’s Ascend Network, to help share and scale our whole-family approach in other communities. Our plan is to focus on the quality of our programs, to listen to the families we serve, and evolve with them. We don’t see any of our programs as static.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.