In the San Luis Valley, a Small Town is Using Civic Engagement to Improve LivesLeer en español
By Helen Santoro
The town of Saguache lies at the northern edge of Colorado’s expansive San Luis Valley. Flanked by the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east and the San Juan and La Garita ranges on the west, Saguache spans only 13 blocks and houses around 500 people.
The small size of the Saguache community means the town is very tight-knit, said Laurie Vigil, who has resided in Saguache for four decades. However, living here can be tough; Saguache County—which encompasses just a few small towns, including Crestone and Moffat—is one of the poorest in Colorado and had a poverty rate of 25.4% as of 2019, more than twice the state’s poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To help improve the health and well-being of the community, Vigil and others created the Saguache/KV Health Equity Action Resident Team, or HEART, a diverse team of people who aim to discover the barriers that are hindering community members from thriving, and find solutions. (KV refers to KV Estates, a housing subdivision 10 miles outside of Saguache.) HEART is also part of The Colorado Trust’s Community Partnerships initiative, which supports communities across the state as they work to build power to improve lives at the local level.
After almost two years of extensive research and interviews, the team uncovered one of the core problems: disengagement within the community—something that is particularly felt by the town’s Hispanic and low-income residents.
“A lot of people were really hurt, it seemed,” said Stacey Amos Holden, a long-time Saguache resident and the administrative assistant for HEART. Historically, it’s been a lot of the same people participating in town activities and others feeling excluded, Amos Holden explained.
The HEART team discovered the Family Leadership Training Institute of Colorado, or FLTI, a community-driven collaborative focused on cultivating more inclusive communities across the state. The program specifically teaches participants the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in leadership roles.
“The team decided that this was what we needed,” said Vigil, who is HEART’s operations manager and coordinator.
In 2018, HEART started its own FLTI program to help residents of Saguache and the surrounding towns better engage with their communities. Over the past three years, graduates from this program have gone on to create numerous civic projects—from language tutoring to a community garden—resulting in positive changes across the county.
FLTI is a 20-week program designed to increase civic participation and promote more collaboration between people, families, institutions, public administrators and elected officials. The first 10 weeks focus on finding the leader inside of each participant, followed by 10 weeks in which people have the opportunity to explore and develop a plan for civic engagement and become a leader within the community.
“It’s not just learning about how to use your voice,” said Amos Holden. “It’s how to use your voice in a way that people will listen.”
Meghan Branstetter, a recent FLTI graduate, couldn’t grasp the impact this program would have on her life when she first started. During the pandemic, Branstetter moved from Denver to Crestone, a town of just over 100 people about 40 minutes east of Saguache at the base of the Sangre de Cristos. After she arrived, her husband—a Vietnamese refugee who has been living in the United States since 1978—was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Branstetter didn’t know who to turn to for help.
“I was fighting the system to have my husband released and I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
She heard about FLTI through the Saguache County Department of Social Services and, soon after, she reached out to Miracle Cale, HEART’s initiatives organizer, and enrolled in the program.
With the support and connections of the FLTI program, she was able to get in touch with Ty Coleman, the mayor of Alamosa, and the office of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. As a result of this outreach and the pressure elected officials applied, Branstetter’s husband was released after 135 days in ICE detention.
This experience made Branstetter recognize the importance of communication with local officials.
“I didn’t know how to approach these people,” she said. “I didn’t actually think FLTI would get the mayor on the phone so I could have three minutes to talk to him.”
It also showed her the importance of English fluency for people who are fighting for their rights.
“My husband and I are so lucky that we speak English,” Branstetter said. “Who is teaching people like the migrant farmers English so that they can fight these battles?”
After graduating from FLTI, Branstetter received her Teach English as a Foreign Language certificate and is currently tutoring students in Chile (over Zoom, at the moment). She is also planning on teaching local people who want to learn English, and hopes to open a language school in the San Luis Valley. It’s a lofty goal, but Branstetter has already spoken with community members and school administrators, including those at the Migrant Education Program at Adams State University in Alamosa, all of whom think a school like this is a necessity.
“There are so many things I learned from FLTI,” said Branstetter. “The community is the heart and soul of any political decision. Our voices are what they want to hear, and our participation is so important.”
Branstetter isn’t the only FLTI graduate making a difference in her community. Michelle Loddy created a community garden at the KV Estates subdivision. Since its creation in 2019, the garden has expanded dramatically and now includes a 40-foot greenhouse and a food pantry, thanks to a grant from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. Carla Quintana, a graduate from the first FLTI cohort, has since become president of the Saguache Chamber of Commerce.
Graduate Cristalray Dominguez created Cooking Away with Momma Ray, a program that teaches young people how to cook simple meals with the food they have in the house. Dominguez’s husband, Jamie, developed a mentorship and support project for people of color as well as youth involved with the justice system. Both Cristalray and Jamie Dominguez have become accredited FLTI facilitators and recently received a grant to bring FLTI to Alamosa, a town south of Saguache in the valley, where they are long-time residents. To help build this program, they also hired Branstetter as a site coordinator.
“My training has taught me that I have the capability to change policy, implement programs that do matter to people from my minority population,” Jamie Dominguez said. “Before, I didn’t think I could sit at the table. I didn’t think my ideas were any good because I didn’t have a degree in psychology or mental, emotional behavioral fields.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the FLTI team to put their in-person classes on hold. Adjusting to virtual meetings during the last cohort was a struggle, as some participants didn’t have the proper equipment or technological savvy to attend the classes over Zoom, Cale explained. But that hasn’t stopped members from continuing their vital work: Starting Oct. 20, the new FLTI cohort will be meeting virtually over Zoom again, and this time around, the participants will receive Zoom training and a laptop.
“We’re looking for people who are going to bring their real-life experience to the table,” said Amos Holden, who is excited about the ideas that will come out of this next cohort. “It’s a really small community. One person can make a difference.”