Interview with Veronica Felix, community organizer, Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project

Veronica Felix got her start as a community organizer during evenings spent listening to her father and United Farmworkers co-founder Cesar Chavez plan to organize the often exploited, largely Latino workers essential to California agriculture. The product of those evenings was an organization of newly self-empowered people.

The experience has served her well as the lead community organizer for the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. The south end of the valley contains some of the state’s most affluent communities in the resorts of Aspen and Snowmass.

The area to the north is different: rural, isolated and dotted with trailer park communities inhabited by Latino families often including young children and undocumented adults. Many speak little English. Annual incomes of $18,000 to $20,000 make it impossible to live in Aspen or Snowmass, but fathers in the northern valley often work in the resorts’ kitchens. Working mothers may be employed as housekeepers in more affluent homes, with day care left to neighbors. Many mothers stay at home, not out of choice but because transportation is limited.

“Parents see their kids happy and engaged, and maybe doing better than older kids who didn’t have the benefit of a Busesito.”

In seeking to empower these more vulnerable residents of the valley, Felix understood that support had to reflect the wishes of the community members themselves. But gauging the wishes of a population separated by language, culture and possible fear of the consequences of lack of documentation presented challenges.

Felix credits two factors with overcoming the challenges and contributing to the success of a nearly year-long survey of area residents’ needs and desires: interviewers were bilingual and surveys were conducted in respondents’ homes.

Surveys of more than 300 valley families revealed some ironies. Parents felt powerless, resigned to a future of limitations. Yet they also deeply desired a better future for their kids, and understood the importance of education to their future, though they were frustrated by their inability to help provide that education.

As an outgrowth of the survey findings, the Valley Settlement Project is a “dual generation program focused on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement for local families.” And among its first and most visible manifestations is El Busesito (“The Little Bus”), a fleet of two retrofitted school buses staffed with bilingual teachers, which serve as mobile preschools for the communities’ children.

Felix describes a clear transformation in many of the children who participate.

“I see kids crying because they don’t want to leave mommy,” Felix said. “But after a couple of weeks, they’re excited, they’re learning their colors and numbers, they’re learning social skills. And that gets their parents excited.”

In fact, parental engagement is an integral part of El Busesito. Twice-monthly parent conferences are held at home with bilingual teachers. With a focus on what parents can do to help their children learn, Felix notes another transformation.

“Parents see their kids happy and engaged, and maybe doing better than older kids who didn’t have the benefit of a Busesito, and that makes them want to be engaged,” Felix said.

The Valley Settlement Project is designed to build on that engagement. For example, under a parent mentoring program, specially trained parent volunteers assist in the classroom for four days a week, often helping to address cultural and language barriers. Parents move through the school system with the same group of kids for several years, becoming trusted resources both for the children and for parents who may not have as much access.

Valley parents also take advantage of the project’s adult education program, which offers community-based registration and information sessions, on-site babysitting and community-based classes in Spanish on topics like computers, English as a second language, GED preparation, health and nutrition.

Quantifiable results for El Busesito are not yet available. While all Colorado students are tested for math and reading skills in the third grade, El Busesito began in 2012, and only a single class has matriculated to kindergarten.

Yet anecdotally, the project appears to be making a difference. During the survey, organizers were told that children from the valley often entered kindergarten without the language and other skills necessary to succeed. “Kids who don’t have access (to early education) come with literally thousands of words fewer in their language,” according to Karen Olson, principal of Crystal River Elementary School. “But when you provide preschool, which is what Valley Settlement is helping to do, those kids can learn in a way that’s comparable to their higher resourced peers.”

The project is also having an impact in the larger community sense, according to Felix. “These are people who don’t believe they’re powerful until they actually get the opportunity. Then they embrace it,” she said.