Rock stars to those who know them well, a handful of people who live and work here quietly get unusual things done, almost always under the radar of media and the mighty.
They find homes or bikes for those who don’t have or can’t afford them. They are the voice of people shocked or bewildered in court. They are the muscle behind the exhausting work of survival for endless immigrants. They’re key bureaucrats who make it look like everything happens on purpose.
Meet nine Aurora people you probably don’t know, but whom probably affect your lives or those of someone you know.
The guy with all the answers
If a question about a city ordinance, budget or vote goes unanswered for more than 15 seconds during a city meeting, Aurora elected officials start surveying the room for Jason Batchelor, one of three deputy city managers.
It’s a rare moment when Batchelor doesn’t have an answer, or at least a partial one. He’ll appear, seemingly out of nowhere, hands in pockets with a concise explanation that leaves council members satisfied until the next inquiry.
“Having a decade or more is very helpful to have that institutional knowledge,” he said. “I’m also blessed to have a really good memory. I’m able to recall things, and that’s helpful.”
The now-deputy city manager has gotten to know city finances well along with a whole bevy of city operations. He applied for the job of the city budget officer 11 years ago. At the time, he was doing the same job in Austin, Texas, but he and his wife, who aren’t native Texans, “were sort of dying in the Texas summer heat,” he said.
Batchelor graduated from West Point, then went on to serve in the Army as a tanker for five years. The southern Maryland native was deployed to Kuwait and Bosnia before taking on the world of municipal finance.
“I figured governmental budgeting was the closest thing to being a tanker,” he said with a laugh. For him, the two jobs carry the importance of service to country.
“Your job as a leader is to take care of your soldiers, making sure that you’re going to come home safe,” he said. “(City government) is about service, making sure our employees are taken care of.”
His Army experience also contributed to his high threshold for stressful situations.
“That (experience) certainly helps,” he said.
Aurora has been the change Batchelor said he and his family were looking for, and they have plans to stay. His two kids, ages 9 and 13, keep Batchelor busy on the weekends, he said. There’s always a soccer game or extra curricular activity keeping him on the go. In between traipsing around town with his kids and his time at city hall — Batchelor is a fixture at council meetings, even the ones that last well into the night and sometimes the next morning — he’s looking for a trail to hike or a slope to ski.
“We’re big skiers,” he said.
When he got the budget officer job, it was a no-brainer. Soon, he was chosen to be the city’s finance director and just a little over three years ago he was tapped to be a deputy city manager when then-city manager Skip Noe created an additional position. When Noe announced his retirement in late 2017, Batchelor seemed like a natural fit, as he was filling in Noe’s spot while the nation-wide search for his replacement took place.
Batchelor didn’t apply. He said people around city hall shouldn’t read too much into it. It just wasn’t the right time to consider a career move like that. With his kids still young, he wanted to have more time with them.
— KARA MASON, Staff Writer
She walks the walk
When Lizeth Chacon walked to school in Chihuahua, Mexico, she’d hike down a cliff and ford a river. The water was sometimes high and dangerous. Once, she and her mother were swept away. But they found their footing and got to the river bank, and then back to their village of just 12 houses.
She repeated the journey every day for years.
When she was 12, she found herself searching for another school and once again walking for miles through sweltering heat. But this time, she was a fresh immigrant to Thornton.
Chacon, now 30, knows firsthand all the barriers she says immigrants and low-income families have to hurdle in the U.S.
Since 2014, Chacon has led the Colorado People’s Alliance as its executive director. Under her leadership, the Aurora- and Denver-based advocacy group has won a statewide minimum wage boost, banned high-interest payday loans and shed light on drinking water pollution in Commerce City.
“I started doing this work because of my story, but also my family,” she said.
Chacon says her advocacy most benefits low-income workers, immigrants and people of color. She’s a big figure for immigrant communities here.
In 2013, Chacon won a “Woman in Leadership” award from the City of Aurora. The next year, she worked with Aurora Public Schools and the city to launch the Aurora Welcome Center. That resource for refugees and immigrants later became the Village Exchange Center, an important hub for residents from all over the world.
Chacon has led many successful political campaigns to get more money in the pockets of workers. In 2016, she co-chaired the campaign that raised Colorado’s minimum wage step-by-step to $12 an hour next year, up from $8.31 that year.
That’s a big win, she said.
But Chacon is firmly rooted in her conviction that more needs to be done so that low-income workers — hard workers, she says — cannot just survive, but thrive.
Her aging father, for instance, has worked in a meatpacking plant for almost 20 years, she said. He can’t afford to retire.
And when her mother had an emergency health crisis, her family was so saddled with medical bills that she worked ceaselessly at fast food joints to pay them off.
“I’m still seeing my family struggle,” she said.
Chacon’s intimate knowledge of parents struggling to make ends meet drives her conviction that entire segments of the Denver metro also struggle desperately, she said. Colorado People’s Alliance is also largely staffed by immigrants.
“To us, it’s such a personal work,” she said of the group. “We set out to help and make the lives better of folks, but also, we’re doing it for our families and ourselves.”
The hardship is a tough reality at odds with the prospect of opportunity that lured her family and other immigrants to the U.S.
When Chacon was growing up in Chihuahua — a large northern Mexican state, just two and a half hours from the Texas border — her father was gone more often than not. He’d work all over the U.S. and send money home to the family. For some time he was undocumented, too. Chacon remembers hearing him describe walking through endless deserts and hopping on trains to cross the border and see the family. Then, he’d return to roof houses in Houston.
Meanwhile, Chacon and her family waited 11 years to legally enter the U.S.
When they finally settled in Thornton, Chacon was terrified.
First, her family couldn’t find the neighborhood school. They walked for hours in the heat, she said.
When she finally enrolled, the problem then became her lack of English. Then, she was called a “wetback” and told to go back to Mexico. But she put all of her energy into studying. Her grades were impressive, she said.
In 2010, she graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver with two majors, criminology and political science.
Since then, she’s been putting her heart and soul into improving the lives of immigrants and working people.
Before she began leading Colorado People’s Alliance, she spent her days as an organizer for the group. She could be found walking the city, knocking on doors or hanging out at bus stops, listening to people’s problems.
The group’s latest win is a successful 2018 ballot initiative campaign to limit sky-high interest rates at payday loan shops, which, Chacon argued, profited by keeping poor people in a cycle of debt. Voters agreed in November 2018 and approved the ballot initiative.
But Chacon has her sites set on more policies to help low-income people.
She said there may be talks after forthcoming Aurora City Council elections to raise the minimum wage even more in the city. She’s preparing for lobbying during the next legislative session.
Colorado People’s Alliance will also endorse city council candidates this week. In the group’s office, near East Second Avenue and Sable Boulevard, big maps of city wards clutter the walls.
Chacon sees big challenges ahead for Aurora.
In fact, she thinks lower-income Aurorans will continue to move out without public policies to put — and keep — more money in their pockets.
“It’s a beautiful city,” Chacon said. “That’s who makes it beautiful: the people that live here and work here.”
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer
A growing passion
Some of the best dishes in Denver’s poshest restaurants have roots in Aurora.
And socialites in the Queen City of the Plains largely have Frank Anello to thank for that.
Anello, 45, is the executive director and co-founder of Project Worthmore, a refugee service organization based on Havana Street in north Aurora. The organization provides a bevy of services to thousands of immigrants from across the metroplex, including a farm staffed by five refugees at Aurora’s Delaney Community Farm. The group sells some 17,000 pounds of produce — about 140 varieties of vegetables — to several Denver joints that are likely familiar to many area foodies, including City, O’ City, Beast + Bottle, Coperta and Annette at Stanley Marketplace.
Though only a portion of what Project Worthmore provides local refugees, the organization’s community farm partnerships are largely the fruit of Anello’s dozen-year career in the restaurant industry.
About a year after moving from Tennessee to Colorado with his wife, Carolyn, in 2000, Anello got a job as a server at an Outback Steakhouse in Centennial — as a vegan.
Working alongside his wife, who also worked at Outback, Anello spent five years learning the ins and outs of restaurant management before getting a gig at Watercourse Foods in Denver. He eventually got a similar role at Il Posto while taking prerequisite classes at the Community College of Denver to pursue a degree in nursing. His wife was working as a dental hygienist, and the long-term goal was to parlay their skills into an international medical unit, Anello said.
“We always thought we could combine nursing and dental and go oversees and help people there,” he said. “But after living in Park Hill for nearly eight years and realizing that three miles down the street from us there was a huge, diverse community of refugees, I quit going to classes and started helping the community.”
It was around that time that Anello became involved with Lutheran Family Services through an Arvada church, and began sponsoring a local Burmese family, helping them find their footing in the U.S.
A couple of years and volunteer-of-the-year awards later, the Anellos formally established Project Worthmore as a nonprofit organization.
The organization now employs more than 30 people, roughly half of whom are refugees themselves, and offers six different programs to some 4,000 clients a year from 26 countries: English language classes, community navigators, family partners, the Delaney Community Farm, a dental clinic and a regular food share.
Anello has worked at the organization full-time since 2013, when a pair of donors he met while he was an assistant cross country coach at Valor Christian High School provided the group with a donation to cover his salary.
Nowadays, the Tampa native can be seen literally running to or from his Park Hill haunt and 1609 Havana St. in Aurora. Anello said he regularly runs the 3.5 miles to and from work in his Brooks Cascadias, sometimes zigzagging in and out of Stapleton to pad his weekly mileage.
“I need to get out,” he said of his ritualistic runs. “It’s my peace.”
Anello also regularly heads to Westcliffe to spend time with his wife, two daughters, ages 14 and 10, and their two German short-haired pointers, Winston and Wyatt. He’s currently preparing for a 100-mile race there next month.
That masochistic pursuit — vying to traverse 100 miles with some 20,000 feet of elevation gain — speaks to his general personality, Anello said.
“I’m an all or nothing guy,” he said.
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
He’s boldly going
According to his law partner, Qusair Mohamedbhai’s most notable claim to fame is a retweet from Captain Kirk.
Mohamedbhai, 41, admitted with a smirk that was indeed a proud feather in his cap.
“It was a William Shatner tweet,” Mohamedbhai said. “I’m really such a nerd.”
But there’s far more to the Denver-based civil rights attorney than a recycled missive from the skipper of the Starship Enterprise.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Mohamedbhai has represented clients in several of Aurora’s testiest legal entanglements in recent years. There were the Cherry Creek School District students who were sexually assaulted by a Prairie Middle School teacher. That netted an $11.5 million settlement last year. There was Naeschylus Carter-
Vinzant, who was shot and killed by an Aurora police officer in 2015. That resulted in a $2.85 million payout to the family. And then there was Gary Black, who was shot and killed by an Aurora police officer in his north Aurora home last summer. Mohamedbhai is still negotiating the outcome of that case.
“He’s been excellent,” Jeanette Black, Gary’s widow, said of Mohamedbhai’s representation.
The holder of a bachelor’s degree in cellular biology from the University of Alberta, Mohamedbhai said he didn’t grow up with a desire to be a lawyer. He said he barely knew what lawyers exactly did until he entered law school.
“I had never even met a lawyer,” he said.
But Mohamedbhai’s path shifted following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which occurred during his first year at the University of Wyoming College of Law.
“That changed everything,” he said. “It dramatically changed the relationship of disenfranchised minorities in federal, state and local government and it quickly became a calling to try to preserve the civil rights of our community.”
And Mohamedbhai’s community is big. Though he works and lives in Denver — albeit by just one block — Mohamedbhai said he spends the bulk of his time in Aurora, often perusing the aisles of Arash International Market on South Parker Road, or shuttling his two sons, ages 8 and 9, to the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Center on South Havana Street.
Mohamedbhai is also a familiar face at the mosque on South Parker Road, where he attends services and represents the Colorado Muslim Society on a pro bono basis.
Last October, Mohamedbhai spoke on behalf of the state’s some 75,000 Muslims at an emotional ceremony at Temple Emmanuel in Denver following a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Months later, he coordinated with Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz and Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown to organize security at another vigil following the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Despite commending many of Metz’s community engagement practices and speaking highly of his character, Mohamedbhai said he sees no issue in lauding Metz while simultaneously litigating against his department.
“To me, it’s not inconsistent to honor and respect and appreciate the role of law enforcement in our communities … and the good they’re trying to do, but putting their feet to the fire when they infringe on the constitutional rights of the community,” he said. “… I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the Aurora Police Department.”
Make that the whole state. Mohamedbhai said his firm’s 10 civil rights attorneys field some 20 calls a day regarding alleged abuses from across the state.
One of those attorneys is Mohamedbhai’s wife, Andrea, who is also a founding partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. The pair met at a Colorado grocery store in the mid-2000s.
“It was just the old, ‘I went up and talked to her,’” he said with a chuckle. “I know it sounds so traditional and so old-fashioned.”
Between the two of them, the couple speaks a veritable gaggle of languages: She speaks Spanish and Portuguese, and he speaks Urdu and Gujarati. Qusair also reads and write Arabic, and, being from central Canada, was at one time nearly fluent in French.
Raised by Tanzanian immigrants, Mohamedbhai’s first language was Gujarati, which is primarily spoken in the east Indian state of Gujarat.
The son of a secretary and a university facilities manager, Mohamedbhai’s parents may have him beat in the claim-to-fame category: His mother grew up three houses down from Freddy Mercury on the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.
“They described him as very kind and helpful,” Mohamedbhaid said of late Queen frontman. “I’ve been told many times that Freddy was very helpful with people’s groceries and such, and no one really knew that he was this world-famous rock star.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
Making home runs
In the first six months of working with AIDS patients in Denver, Shelley McKittrick lost 100 clients to the disease. She did that work for 15 more years.
Today, she’s the city of Aurora’s first-ever homelessness program director, a position that was created out of need and funded by the tax revenue from local marijuana sales. She made the jump into homelessness services because she wanted to refresh her skill set.
Prior to working in Aurora, McKittrick worked in Santa Cruz, California, where she also led a homeless services provider. That was a big help in the work she does today, she said.
None of her days look exactly the same. In the winter, she says her job “literally becomes a life-saving mission,” as temperatures drop below 20 degrees and threaten to put Aurora’s homeless in danger. But this time of year, when it’s warmer, McKittrick is working with service provider partners across the Denver metro region to “march toward solutions,” as she puts it.
For McKittrick, there is an ultimate solution for homelessness. It’s just going to require “not giving up until we do it.”
That’s meant providing homes — the city has helped house 900 people through the House Aurora Partnership — and creating and offering resources for them, too.
“Healing comes with housing for most people, which is why we like to house people first then wrap them up with the services after,” she said, describing the work she and the assistant she was able to hire last year do.
McKittrick originally had plans for work in cultural anthropology. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in the subject, but stopped short of a doctorate degree when she became frustrated with the academic world.
“I really wanted to get out there and do it,” she said.
So she did. Working with HIV patients came because she’d taken a class on the topic during her undergraduate schooling and found it interesting.
McKittrick started working with HIV patients in a Denver clinic. That’s where she met her husband, Al, and fell in what she describes as head-over-heels love. They have two teenaged daughters now.
Their kids, McKittrick’s 96-year-old father who lives with them, two dogs and five cats keep the remaining time in McKittrick’s busy life filled up. She admits, though, that she and Al find time to escape to a concert or comedy show.
In city meetings, when McKittrick is giving city council members updates about her work, it’s all optimism. But the work is hard, she said, and it can get discouraging. That is until she interacts with the people the city’s resources have helped.
Recently she went along with a HAP client, who had been forced out of the Kings Inn on East Colfax Avenue two years ago, to sign a new lease at an apartment.
“I got to watch her open the door with her key and I was good to go for another six months,” she said. “It’s the most stable she’s ever been.”
— KARA MASON, Staff Writer
You gotta have art
Satya Wimbish popped a Tootsie Roll into her mouth. She’d just walked into her office on a whirlwind Tuesday afternoon.
“First thing I’ve eaten all day,” she said — not counting a McCafe Frappucino.
She’d been up since 6:30 a.m. Her day started by shuttling her two nieces to daycare. From 8:15 a.m. on, she sat in meetings, scheming on building up Aurora’s arts scene.
Wimbish is a well-known artist in Aurora. She has turned heads by dumpster diving and repurposing trash into art pieces, but mostly, she directs her energy to making sure Aurora’s art scene becomes more well known.
Wimbish is the President of the Aurora Cultural Arts District, an organization promoting art on East Colfax Avenue more or less between Chester Street and Geneva Street.
That chunk of Aurora encompasses a thriving scene of galleries and theaters, including Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, the People’s Building and the Vintage Theatre.
It’s a key piece of Aurora’s ambitions to grow as a city. And Wimbish is smack in the middle, leading the charge.
Wimbish, 38, has seen the area become more and more busy over the last few years.
But she said she’s seen a “tipping point” in the last few months: Not only are artists and collaborators from outside of Aurora returning her calls and taking her seriously, she said, but they’re even calling her and looking for opportunities to create art and cultural events.
“They’re calling me!” she said. “Before, I was calling them, and they would say, ‘ehhh’. But they’re getting in their vehicles, they are coming here. And they see that there is potential here.”
“All the work that everyone is doing has been worth it,” she added.
And if Wimbish’s Tuesday is any indication, it’s been a lot of work.
She said she can become frazzled between all of her hats: Paying the bills with web design, taking care of her nieces, writing, volunteering, running the Arts District and creating her own art.
“I scream, I cry, I punch the walls, I pray and then I get back to work,” she said. “I just have something inside of me that says, ‘keep going,’ and to build the community. I have a vision of where the community needs to be, and we are not there yet, but we are moving in that direction.”
Wimbish has dedicated herself to lifting up Aurora’s culture. But she recently scored a big win for herself.
Her first out-of-state visual art exhibition is debuting in Massachusetts, her birthplace, this fall. She hopes to tour the selection even outside of the U.S.
She’s also written a TV show pilot, “Kids on Adventure,” about non-white kids exploring the outdoors. She’s looking for funding, but says that not enough kids of color are represented hiking and camping on TV. The show would change that.
Beyond her hard work, Wimbish approaches life with a whimsical attitude.
She’s into whitewater rafting, hiking “fourteeners,” going to the park and simply enjoying life. That’s something that adults can lose, she said: The ability to play.
Wimbish has big plans in the works for the Arts District that are too early to disclose, she said. But in her free time, she plans to teach her nieces how to skateboard. She said she doesn’t feel 38.
“So thank God for that. I’m happy.”
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer
Making the Far East so much nearer
College isn’t typically front-of-mind for most 14-year-old boys.
But for Harry Budisidharta, it was just part of moving to the United States.
In eighth grade, Budisidharta did so well on an advanced placement exam, administrators determined he could skip a grade. Well, actually four grades.
At 14, he went from middle school to college — skipping all of high school. He graduated from California State University, Los Angeles with a degree in political science when he was 19.
“It was a bit of a culture shock as a young immigrant kid still learning the culture,” according to Budisidharta, who said he spoke some English upon moving to the U.S., but didn’t master the language until he was about 15. “And suddenly you have to skip four years ahead.”
He and his older brother had moved to southern California from Semarang, Central Java in Indonesia just two years before. Though technically not refugees, the brothers left their parents to live with an aunt in Los Angeles to flee the collapse of the Indonesian dictatorship in the late 1990s.
After taking a year off after college to work as a court clerk in L.A., Budisidharta headed to Colorado to get his law degree. He graduated from the University of Colorado Law School at the age of 23 in 2007.
He chuckled while recalling how his law school classmates, the majority of whom were several years older than him, looked out for him on his 21st birthday.
“It was good to do with a group of older adults,” he said. “They made sure I did not die.”
From CU, Budisidharta went on to work in the Adams County Public Defender’s Office in Brighton before moving into private practice. Then in 2009, he got a call from the Asian Pacific Development Center to help with a case involving a young Burmese refugee. The boy had brought a knife to school, was caught playing with the weapon, and a teacher reported the incident to police. Budisidharta helped find the boy a court interpreter who understood his native Karen language, and got the crime reduced to a petty offense.
That case slowly mushroomed into a decade of involvement with the Asian Pacific Development Center for Budisidharta, who shortly thereafter began volunteering as an adult counselor at the north Aurora facility.
“As an immigrant myself, I understand how hard it is for a lot of immigrant and refugee kids to straddle that line between two different cultures,” he said.
Budisidharta moved from volunteer to board member to full-time policy director in 2015. He took the reins as the organization’s executive director two years ago.
Founded more than 30 years ago to serve an influx of refugees coming to the metro area from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the center now provides behavioral and medical healthcare, translation services, adult education classes, youth programming, victim assistance, and health policy advocacy services to local immigrants from all over the world — not just southeast Asia.
The center’s clients speak more than 40 languages and APDC staffers are fluent in about 20 tongues, Budisidharta said.
When he’s not at the center on Alton Street, Budisidharta, now 35, can often be found running the roads around his Aurora office or his Glendale home, he said. He’s run a handful of local marathons and half-marathons, and often takes advantage of the state’s hiking and snowshoeing trails, too.
In the immediate future, he’s paring down his day-to-day obligations — he recently stepped down from Aurora’s Public Defender Commission — to, along with his wife, prepare for the birth of the couple’s first son in November.
“I’m looking forward to the sleepless nights,” he said with a chuckle.
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
The mobility king
While surveying the 3,000 square-foot room, jam-packed with bikes of all sizes and shapes, Ernie Clark couldn’t stop beaming.
Hundreds of bikes packed the shop in neat rows.
Frames were hung seemingly everywhere from hooks.
And behind those? There were more bikes in rows, several men tinkering with tubes and chains, and a warehouse virtually overflowing with old tires, seats, nuts and bolts and any other part of a bicycle you could think of. They stack 10 feet high, overflowing from boxes and crates.
Then, behind the shop, there was a fenced-in plot filled with — more bikes.
The sheer number of bikes and parts, and the relatively tiny space, make it unlike any bicycle shop you’ve ever seen.
Clark, 63, built this.
He’s the longtime proprietor of Second Chance Bicycle Shop, a nonprofit source of amazement. For about 20 years, he’s given thousands of bikes away for free each year to kids, homeless folks and veterans who need them.
Last year alone, Clark says he gave away 2,500 bikes for free to Aurora Public Schools students alone.
Clark showed off the gargantuan collection with genuine joy, like a proud kid with a room full of toys and knick-knacks.
“And over here: More bikes!” he proclaimed last week as he walked into the warehouse.
Clark is a serial smiler. He’s a big guy with a bushy mustache, wild eyebrows, and a pot-belly. His mission in life seems to be getting free wheels for everyone in Aurora who needs them, and he revels in it.
Beaming ear-to-ear, he recalled stories of giving kids free bikes. In one, local cops brought three kids to the shop who’d had their bikes stolen. Clark turned them loose on the store to pick any bike they’d want, free of charge.
“Damn, that feels good,” he remembered thinking.
He’s donated bikes to Native American reservations, youth groups in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood and beyond.
Clark also gives opportunities to people doing community service for petty crimes. That includes people cited for stealing bikes, he said. Or, struggling and homeless adults and veterans can come work at the store to earn a bike.
Poor kids need the bikes to get to school on time, he says, and many struggling adults can’t afford a car or gas. Bikes are the perfect solution to navigating the vast Denver metro area on the cheap.
Clark revels in showing people his shop and describing his myriad relationships with Denver metro government agencies, nonprofits and bike shops. He has a steady supply of bikes from the police impounds in Aurora and Parker, and from folding bike shops around Denver.
Running the shop is a herculean feat, he said. He’s constantly transporting dozens of bikes to the shop. He once stacked 55 bikes methodically into his rusty truckbed, he proudly showed in a photo.
If there’s anything in this world that makes Clark happier than his shop, it’s probably his longtime wife, Faith, 68.
She’s done the shop’s paperwork since its earliest days. And, she doesn’t feel like Clark hogs the limelight and local hero status. Faith matches Ernie’s good-natured chatter with gruff, matter-of-fact quips.
But just beneath their contagious happiness, some serious hardship is brewing.
Faith is suffering from an “incurable” cancer, she said. The couple lives on disability payments, and they say they put every penny earned back into the shop.
That leaves them with little else.
They also note that they’re on the hook for the nonprofit’s space and everything in it, from keeping the lights on to insurance. On a recent hot afternoon, only a lone, tiny fan buzzed near the cluttered front desk.
Ernie said he has to turn off his phone each evening. Otherwise, he’d be bombarded with calls, day and night, he said.
He’s a well-known philanthropist of sorts in Aurora, but he’s invested deeply in the city for someone who isn’t from here and doesn’t live here anymore.
The Clarks currently live in Arvada and commute through the Denver metro to get to the shop.
Originally, Ernie was a cop in New Jersey. He didn’t like the gig and quickly fell in love with Colorado’s mountains 45 years ago. That, and Faith, he said with a chuckle. They’re still happy together.
If her cancer is heart-wrenching for Ernie, he doesn’t let on. He said with a customary smile that they’ll keep on keeping on.
But they also have another reliable source of stress: a location.
The nonprofit is periodically punted from other locations and has struggled to find a steady home. Ernie said they rent their current space month-to-month. The prospect of moving those thousands of bikes alone makes him want to throw in the towel once and for all, if he has to.
“Honestly, I would just give it up,” he said.
Still, Ernie kept smiling while detailing the shop’s woes. Faith clamored for more funding from city government to find a forever home.
But Ernie is upping the ante.
He aims this year to give APS kids 3,000 bikes for free.
“We’ll keep on going,” he said. “Just keep on going.”
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer
Heart and Seoul
More than a typical, drab, gray-suit-wearing health insurance broker, Peter Lee is more the quintessential American dream.
He wears Speedo brand slides with his black suit, abiding by the tradition of taking one’s shoes off inside.
Under his black frame glasses, his eyes narrow in seriousness as he talks in a thick accent about how immigration makes America a better country.
“There’s a lot of growing pains, but it’s a necessity,” Lee said.
He came to Colorado in 1988 from South Korea following two and a half years of compulsory military service. He was stationed in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea on sentry duty, standing guard at the border. Some of his fellow soldiers were killed by still-active land mines or enemy spies.
“It’s a very humbling experience, it gives you real discipline,” Lee said. “I was very fortunate enough to truly go through that and then come out in one piece.”
That discipline stuck with him when he followed his parents and younger sister to the United States as a 25-year-old. Lee worked full time at Colorado National Bank, now U.S. Bank, and attended classes at Community College of Denver at night. He became a citizen in 1993, which he said was an easy process for him thanks to the political science and English classes he was taking.
Lee worked in banking and small loan sales until the recession in 2008. Underneath the usual career path, he worked his unusual charisma to make big moves for the Asian community in Aurora. He’s worked on Asian and Pacific Islander outreach as both a volunteer and a paid employee for the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
Now he’s back at it this year preparing for the 2020 census as a volunteer again, having helped form the Asian Pacific Islander Census Complete Count Committee. The group is aiming to increase participation from the demographic, however small it may be. Asians only represent about 6 percent of Aurora’s population, and there is little cohesion within the group. Peter said there are about 27 distinct ethnicities that fall under the umbrella term of Asian.
The work the count committee is doing to increase the response rate is crucial, Lee said. With the possibility of a citizenship question, he said it could create even more distrust of the government.
“Some Asians have a fear of government interference and violation of private information,” Lee said. “All of that can contribute to them not being responsive.”
If Lee can find more hours in the day, he’s put them to use advocating at organizations like Asian/Pacific Community Partnership where he serves as co-chair. He has also been on the boards for numerous organizations, from the Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families to the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.
Lee has grabbed hold of many projects.
He has worked to make a Korea Town along Havana and a memorial dedicated to those who fought in the Korean War. He’s received pretty wide support for both. The city contract for the memorial is expected to close in the coming months and planning will start soon after. The city has awarded a plot of land at General Park estimated at half a million dollars for the project. It will feature busts of soldiers from the 16 countries of the United Nations Forces.
“Sixteen countries besides Korea came to the peninsula almost 70 years ago to fight for a democratic society,” Lee said. “All those 16 countries have representatives living in Aurora.”
Lee has worked with these groups in the area because he wants to see minorities succeed. In 2008, he volunteered for former President Barack Obama’s first campaign. He was excited to see history made when the first non-white person won a major party nomination, and even more so when he was elected President. For Lee, 2008 wasn’t about policy or party, it was about busting down the doors for people of color who want to be politicians.
“If my son, or my daughter, or my grandkids someday were trying to run for office and their skin color prevented them from being a politician, that would be a shame,” Lee said.
After Obamacare passed in 2014, Peter made the jump from banking to the health insurance industry. He mostly works with the ethnic and immigrant communities of the city, enrolling them in private policies or public healthcare.
Lee has achieved what most would consider the American dream, and he’s helping others achieve it too.
“I really think that this country is still the land of opportunity. Despite a lot of bad things happening here and there,” Lee said. “How you make it is up to you.”
— MADISON LAUTERBACH, For the Sentinel