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In Clifton, Years of Advocacy for New Community Gathering Places is Paying Off

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Heidi Escobedo (l.) and Elvia Chavez (r.) address the crowd at the kickoff celebration for the forthcoming new playground and community center at Rocky Mountain Elementary Park in Clifton, Colo. on May 6, 2023. Photo by Barton Glasser / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Sharon Sullivan

Eleven-year old Abel Lima of Clifton, Colo. said he doesn’t go to parks much—but when he does, an adult drives him 10-15 minutes across town to Canyon View Park on Grand Junction’s west side. He’s looking forward to a new playground at Rocky Mountain Elementary Park in Clifton, an unincorporated community of 14,000 east of Grand Junction. Lima will be able to walk to the playground.

Both Lima and his friend Carlos Flores, 10, were at Rocky Mountain Elementary Park on May 6 for a kickoff event where community leaders, various organizations and families gathered to celebrate the forthcoming new playground and other upgrades to the park. The existing playground is small, old and outdated; swings are so high that young children are unable to reach the seat, and bigger kids have to jump to hop on. Wasp nests have been known to form underneath some of the equipment.

Jose Luis Chavez was working as a community organizer for The Colorado Trust in 2019 when Clifton was identified as a community with significant health disparities. Clifton has lower wages, higher crime and more health problems than other areas of Mesa County, Chavez said. A 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment found that in Clifton, single-mother households with children earn on average $12,054 per year, which puts them well below the poverty line.

Jose Luis Chavez. Photo by Ellen Jaskol

With support from The Colorado Trust as part of its Community Partnerships strategy, which ran from 2014 to 2022, Chavez founded Clifton Community Leaders. The group surveyed community members for two years to learn what they thought could make Clifton a healthier and better place to live.

Out of 400 responses, at the top of the list two items stood out: a community center and a playground—“a safe place for their kids to go,” Chavez said. Survey questions and community meetings were bilingual, in English and Spanish.

Clifton Community Leaders knocked on doors, made phone calls, talked to people in laundromats, at PTA meetings, and at the Riverfront Trail to solicit residents’ input regarding what they wanted in a community center.

“Jose and the Clifton Community Leaders did an incredible job with outreach,” said Saira Hamidi, a Colorado Trust program manager who attended the kickoff event and spent several years working on the Community Partnerships strategy in various parts of the state. “It was so important to have authentic community involvement and direction for this project, and they definitely accomplished that and more.”

Colorado Trust Program Manager Saira Hamidi (center) and her daughter applaud during speeches at the kickoff event in Clifton on May 6. Photo by Barton Glasser / Special to The Colorado Trust

Lima and Flores are members of the Wunder Club, a youth subgroup of the Clifton Community Leaders. Wunder Club kids weighed in on what they wanted the updated playground to include. At the kickoff event, Lima and Flores pointed to a poster depicting the future playground, which includes a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round and butterfly net—features the boys said the group requested.

“It’s the only park in Mesa County that was designed by the community,” Chavez said. “The playground will be all-inclusive and intergenerational.” The new park will also include workout equipment that adults can use, plus more benches; currently, there’s just one picnic table at the park.

The Colorado Trust gave a $1 million grant towards the community center, and the Colorado Health Foundation donated $750,000 for the nearby playground. A paved sidewalk wends behind Rocky Mountain Elementary School, connecting the community center to the park, located behind school property.

“What’s compelling about this work is how the community drove the process and that health equity and social justice is at the heart and center of the work,” said Sean Dollard, program officer for Colorado Health Foundation. “Clifton Community Leaders drove every component, from the visioning to having youth involved.”

Aldo Flores, 9, plays in bubbles at the May 6 kickoff event. Photo by Barton Glasser / Special to The Colorado Trust

Mesa County wanted to honor a 40-year-old promise to establish community centers in outlying communities, Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland said. So the county donated 20 acres for the site, which will include meeting rooms, a kitchen, an afterschool tutoring program, a gym, and a licensed child care facility and training center.

One of the disparities noted in Mesa County’s Community Health Needs Assessment was a lack of local child-care options. “There are less than 100 child care slots in all of Clifton,” Rowland said. “That excludes afterschool and home care sites that take a few kids. So, parents have to drive elsewhere most of the time.”

The bulk of those child care slots are located within the school district and serve only a three-hour-a-day preschool, four days a week, said Stephanie Bivens, director of Mesa County Partnership for Children & Families. Clifton has more than 1,000 children ages 4 and under, making the child care deficit extreme, she said.

The child care facility at the new community center will have its own, separate entrance and space for 155 children, Rowland said. The county is contracting with a private provider who will accept children as young as 6 weeks old.

Joseph Rosales, 15, plays on the existing playground at Rocky Mountain Elementary Park during the kickoff event for the new iteration being built soon. Photo by Barton Glasser / Special to The Colorado Trust

A new Clifton branch of Mesa County Libraries is a separate project but will be located on the community center campus on land leased from the county. Both the library and the playground are expected to be completed in August 2023; the community center is projected to open in April 2024.

Heidi Escobedo, 16, was flipping burgers at the kickoff celebration—hot dogs and black bean patties were also being served—to help out her uncle, Andres Sanchez, a Clifton Community Leaders member and youth coordinator.

Sanchez said he trains youth like his niece to be community leaders by teaching them how to conduct research, talk to leaders, and understand how county government works. Once the community center is completed, some of that training can take place there, said Chavez.

“Our whole goal is to teach kids how to be heard—to give opportunities to grow and use their voice, gain life skills,” Sanchez said.

Lupita Perez-Chavez, 12, plays with a bubble-blowing machine at the May 6 kickoff event. Photo by Barton Glasser / Special to The Colorado Trust

As a youth ambassador, Escobedo leads twice-weekly Wunder Club meetings with Sanchez at Rocky Mountain Elementary School.

“Our goal is to make them leaders in the community and life in general,” Escobedo said. “Our kids wrote letters to [funders] explaining why a new park is important and what they wanted to see in the park.”

During the celebration, Escobedo recognized the seven Clifton Community Leaders and the youth who helped make the future community center and playground possible. Elvia Chavez interpreted her comments into Spanish. They thanked Mesa County for the land, The Colorado Trust for its support of the community center and the Colorado Health Foundation for the playground grant.

“And,” said Escobedo, “I thank our youth—I couldn’t be more thankful for your involvement.”

Heidi Escobedo. Photo by Sharon Sullivan

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.