A household name among those who regularly work with these Aurora area paragons, these are a few of the people who modestly get things done, all without the usual noise from the media and the mighty.
They find doctors for the desperate, and often provide a voice for those who can’t find theirs or when no one listens. They honor people most of us ignore or walk away from. They follow endless often boring details to the end, and reap progress.
Meet nine Aurora people you probably don’t know, but who probably affect your lives or those of someone you know.
MATEOS ALVAREZ | Getting workers working and paid
Anyone who has found themselves on the ribbon of Dayton Street between East Colfax Avenue and East 16th Avenue has likely crossed paths with Mateos Alvarez.
For the past four years, the czar of the Aurora Economic Opportunity Coalition has spent his weekdays coordinating the daily frenzy that erupts from the parking lot on the west side of Dayton, magnetizing the contractors who need hands to dig ditches and splash paint and the workers who oblige them for a day’s pay.
Alvarez and his three-person team have helped mold the city’s day laborer program, which was met with frequent political opposition in the early 2010s until city council agreed to buy the lot that now houses Alvarez’s office space for $400,000 in 2016.
Now, the city’s economic opportunity coalition, which technically oversees the day laborer program, helps connect some 400 regular laborers with homeowners or contractors looking to scoop up willing hands via phone and Facebook, according to Alvarez.
“We had to create its own Facebook separate from AEOC because we get so many people asking for work,” he said. “Especially with stimulus checks going out, so many people are doing that new fence, or putting in that new drywall, or those types of things. The nice thing is, a lot of people are working.”
The machine Alvarez has created in north Aurora — which takes no commission and ensures all wages remain with local laborers — has slowly helped buoy the neighborhood with more lighting, less trash and fewer people defecating and urinating wherever they so choose, he said.
“Where we were at — prior to this place opening and where we’re at now — it’s night and day,” Alvarez said. “With the lights, I can see all the way from Colfax to 16th and into the park, and I think it deters folks from vandalizing, spray painting and using the restroom in the alley behind our building. I don’t think it’ll ever go away, but for our space here, it’s gotten a lot better.”
More than acting as a human job board for the 50 some workers who come to Alvarez’s haunt on any given weekday, he’s turned his nonprofit group into a de facto community health clinic during the pandemic, working with state and county officials to get vaccines into the arms of some of the region’s most vulnerable populations. He helped secure several hundred vaccines for the day laborers as of early February, he said.
“Miraculously, I don’t even know how this happened, they said, ‘You got your vaccines, and we’re going to use your location as a vaccine center,’” he said.
All told, Alvarez’s group has played a hand in vaccinating some 500 people in the Colfax corridor in recent months, including about 100 at a recent vaccine pop-up sponsored by the state in his parking lot. And outside of such organized efforts, his workers have driven enquiring people to nearby Mango House or the Village Exchange Center to get the shot.
He said he believes the work has slowly helped change the minds of those who were initially skeptical of the vaccine.
“People see that others in the community are doing it, and that’s persuaded a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t have otherwise gotten vaccinated,” he said. “Seeing others go before them just helped.”
When he’s not orchestrating the daily dance on Dayton, Alvarez, 46, said he’s often hiking near his native Fort Collins, or teaching his 17-year-old daughter how to drive.
And for the next few months, he’s helping coordinate a new “first Friday” event in his parking lot featuring a bevy of local food trucks. The event dovetails with other first Friday goings-on at the nearby People’s Building and various restaurants on Colfax.
The first iteration of the festivities took place earlier this month to rave reviews, Alvarez said.
“There were 250 people that came through — we expected 10,” he said with a chuckle. “So the food truck vendors were so excited and so happy.”
He’s pledged to be out there on the first Friday of the month through November — barring any freak, early-season snowstorms — with plans to return in March.
“We have a lot of folks here in north Aurora who really want to make north Aurora the best community it can be,” he said.
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Sentinel Staff Writer
RICK CRANDALL | A hero’s hero
Rick Crandall’s alarm clock is going off a bit later these days.
After 30 years of 2 a.m. wakeup calls to man the station and microphone at the KEZW studio in the Denver tech center, Crandall, whose steady croon served as the soundtrack for generations of residents’ morning rituals, is now rising in the relatively pedestrian hour just before sunrise.
“I’m at least sleeping until 5 a.m. now,” he said with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “I’m calling that a win at this point.”
The stalwart Aurora resident left his post attached to the 1430 AM dial in January after his longtime vocational home changed hands and switched from playing big band tunes to focusing on the mushrooming world of online sports betting. And though he wasn’t able to celebrate his official 30-year anniversary at the station — that would have been June 17 — he said he doesn’t fault the recent media transition and lauded his “Breakfast Club” program for sticking around as long as it did.
“I know for a fact we were the last top 20 market radio station playing Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller,” he said. “ … It was part of what was so unique at KEZW.”
But the 64-year-old is far from dropping the needle on his swan song.
He’s still the president of the Colorado Freedom Memorial Foundation, a group that raises funds to maintain and improve the glass-paned structure on Telluride Street that features the names of some 6,200 Coloradans slain in military conflicts spanning more than 100 years.
He’s currently in the midst of unveiling a capital campaign intended to erect a new visitor and learning center across the street from the commemorative structure. When completed, Crandall said it will fill out the increasingly popular locale that earlier this year magnetized more than 1,000 people for the 2021 Memorial Day commemoration.
Crandall fundraised for more than a decade to stand up the shrine to the fallen before an anonymous donor brought the project across the budgetary finish line in 2012. The monument officially opened to the public on Memorial Day 2013.
“If that’s my life legacy, I’m good with that,” Crandall said of the work conceptualized by Denver designer Kristoffer Kenton. “Every county in Colorado is represented on that memorial. With almost 4,000 of the names, their remains never came home, and these families had no place to grieve other than at their own homes. So there’s at least a place to sit and see that name and know they haven’t been forgotten.”
When he’s not fielding calls related to the memorial from an ad hoc office based out of his south Aurora home, Crandall is perpetually serving as a city cheerleader while emceeing live events and serving as chairman of the board for Visit Aurora, the city’s tourism arm.
“Here I am still this little kid from Aurora who hasn’t left and still calls Aurora his hometown at times when it’s not been popular to say that,” he said. “But I’ve never shied from it and never will.”
Technically born on a military installation in Oxnard, California, Crandall spent his childhood bouncing around various bases across the world — including stops in Germany and Libya — before his father retired from the Air Force following a final stop at Lowry in the late 1960s. He met his now wife, Diane, by participating in a local theater production at Aurora Central High School, and the two married a year later.
They had their first date at their senior prom, which was held at the Beck Recreation Center — located just a few hundred feet from where the Freedom Memorial now stands. Their Aurora Central drama teacher, Dick Moosmann, was Crandall’s best man at their wedding.
Notwithstanding a short stint in Guam spurred by Crandall’s own career in the Air Force — wherein he served in various radio roles for the American Forces Network — the couple hasn’t veered far from what is now the state’s third-largest city. They now have three grandchildren working through Smoky Hill High School.
And despite plans to travel with friends in 2022, the Crandalls are all but assuredly here to stay, tending to their lawn and checking their backyard weather station, a mechanism Rick adores but admits doesn’t capture the grandeur of the sunrise photos he used to regularly post to Twitter from his 11th story studio office.
“This little corner of the world, this little dot on the map called Aurora — it’s kind of captured my family and held onto us,” he said. “And anytime we’ve thought about moving Diane has made it pretty clear that’s never going to happen. Or, she’ll say you can do that with your next wife.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Sentinel Staff Writer
AARON VEGA | Bringing you the best of NYC without the worst
Aurora residents would be hard-pressed to find Aaron Vega adorned with the typical protective equipment of a goaltender.
The curator of the People’s Building on East Colfax Avenue doesn’t tend to keep any shoulder pads, helmets or padded gloves handy inside the former furniture emporium on the corner of Florence Street.
But Vega, who moved to the area several years ago after a nearly decade-long stint in New York City as an actor, fancies himself the protector of the neighborhood’s proverbial artistic net nonetheless.
“It’s my job to sort of play goalie,” he said in a recent phone interview he gave while helping members of the Filipino American Community of Colorado record a video in the space. “… I’m not beholden to the almighty dollar. I get a whole bunch of things thrown at me, and I get to deflect balls or project pitches that I don’t think necessarily represent where we are right now.”
For the past three years, Vega has helmed one of the city’s newest cultural assets, quietly and slowly solidifying it as both a community hub and bastion of artistic expression in a historically tumultuous time for the creative industry.
“The marching orders were: ‘art stuff,’ and I said ‘OK,’” he said of the original scope of work crafted by the city.
At any given moment, Vega — a staff of one — serves as the art gallery curator, lighting designer, bartender, social media manager and general cheerleader for 9995 E. Colfax Ave.
A former musical theater student and up-scale caterer, Vega said he didn’t want The People’s Building to mimic what he became so accustomed to seeing in his time in Manhattan: Artistic spaces that gobbled up gobs of artistic budgets via exorbitant rents.
“We’re not requiring more money to rent a place for you to perform than it costs you to pay your performers,” he said. “In New York, that was the big thing, and it meant that budget didn’t make its way to the hands of the artists who were actually making the work. And that frustrated me … We’re not The Ritz, we’re not the Denver Center, the building is not even the Aurora Fox, but we are maybe a little step above a brewery or bar art by giving folks access to some lighting and some technical things that they wouldn’t normally have.”
And when the COVID-19 pandemic meant indefinite curtains for in-performances last year, Vega used that same ethos to transform the space into an economic life raft that allowed local groups to record performances, sell virtual tickets and cling to some sense of sustenance.
“It allowed people at a lower cost to create a high-quality, live product online, which allowed some groups to stay alive,” he said.
Despite the tumult that 2020 injected into society, The People’s Building still managed to host 165 events — most of which were virtual — with about 40 different clients, Vega said. That’s on par with the some 200 events and 56 groups the space played host to in 2019.
Metrics through the first eight months of this year indicate the artistic hub will far surpass those prior numbers, Vega hinted, as in-person gatherings slowly begin to again appear on local marquees. The building recently hosted its first large theater production in more than a year with a three-week run of the musical “The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes.” The docket for the coming weeks shows more gallery showing, standup comedy and an upcoming mural festival.
Between the endless string of mixing drinks and tinkering with lighting gels, Vega, 38, said he endeavors to fly fish with his partner and their hound dog, Monty, as much as possible, though the frequency isn’t quite to his liking.
“I don’t fish as much as I would like, but I think anybody who fishes says that,” he said. “I love it, but I’m garbage at it.”
That could change in the coming months, however, thanks to longer contract agreements that may allow the veritable Swiss Army knife of East Colfax to untether, albeit slightly, from the space.
“We’re starting to do more sit-downs as opposed to a new event every day,” he said. “Now it’s groups interested in renting the space for three weeks or a month, so now I get to take a nap every once in a while … Hopefully I don’t have to bartend and run sound forever, but it’s all fun. It never gets boring.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Sentinel Staff Writer
MAYTHAM ALSHADOOD | The politics of taking care of people
On the surface, it might not seem like an organ transplant nurse and a deputy chief of staff and district director for a congressional office have anything in common with each other, but for Maytham Alshadood, both careers stem from resettling in the U.S.
“I tell people I’m an immigrant with refugee experience,” said Alshadood, who arrived in the U.S. in 2008 on a special immigrant visa after assisting U.S. troops in Iraq as a combat translator for three years.
He went by the name “Sami,” an alias meant to protect him from extremist groups, while experiencing the realities of war — like snipers, IEDs and months stationed on a military base — alongside his American counterparts. But when he arrived in the U.S. his experience was much like anybody else who would flee his home country.
Through advocacy, Alshadood was connected with a law student and Iraq war veteran, named Travis Weiner, who asked him what he would change about his transition into American life.
“I said, you know, the law that says we have to pay out-of-state tuition,” Alshadood remembers telling the law student. Alshadood started working with immigrant rights policy advocates like Jennifer Wilson at the International Rescue Committee in Denver.
Together, the trio was able to change Colorado law in 2018. Now, refugees and Special Immigration Visa recipients can attend state schools and pay in-state tuition. Prior to that, Alshadood said people would assume he qualified for the GI Bill or some program through the VA since he essentially served the U.S. military.
“I’d say ‘no, I don’t get any of it. Actually they want me to pay out of state tuition,’” he said.
Alshadood received a degree in nursing from the University of Colorado, an achievement inspired by a friend who’d also served as a combat interpreter and come to the U.S. from Iraq and was in need of a liver transplant after a botched procedure in India.
“I was with his brother, taking care of him, living with them. And there were nights where past midnight, I was just coming back from working, and he’d say ‘I got to go.’ And we’d put him in the car, go to the ER and spend the night with him,” he said.
Alshadood said he spent many nights at University Hospital waiting for his friend, and it inspired his career.
“He eventually was able to get on the transplant list and got a liver, and all that happened on the sixth floor,” he said. “I saw the great care and attention that the nurses not only gave the patient, but also the family. That’s when it was very apparent. It was very clear to me. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s where I want to work. So I ended up getting a job there as a nursing student on that same floor.”
Alshadood graduated in 2016 and worked as a nurse on that same floor for a few years before political and advocacy work started to take over.
“It was really tough for me to leave,” he said. “I loved the people I worked with and I loved the people I took care of.”
The 2018 law was Alshadood’s first foray into politics, which eventually led him to his current role as deputy chief of staff and district director in Rep. Jason Crow’s Aurora office, which sees dozens of resident requests for help on a bevvy of bureaucratic systems.
Occasionally, though, he’s able to practice nursing. Over the last year Alshadood has helped at vaccine clinics and COVID-19 testing sites, most notably at the state Capitol the day his wife Rep. Iman Joden, Colorado’s first Muslim lawmaker, was sworn into office.
“It was 5:30 a.m. and I’m in scrubs and then at 10 I had to change into a suit to go support my wife,” he said. “That’s just the way it works.”
— KARA MASON, Sentinel Staff Writer
JASON MCBRIDE | Saving kids too often thrown away
Jason McBride may have a different title than he did in 1996, but a piece of him will always be “Denver’s nighttime superman”
It’s been nearly more than a quarter century since the former DJ and radio producer was playing the tunes of R. Kelly, Naughty by Nature and Tupac Shakur on Denver’s KRDO, where listeners knew him by that heroic, nocturnal moniker.
McBride, now 50, has lived a series of lives since that foray into the realm of broadcast, going on to produce local radio personalities like Jon Caldara and Desi Cortes before taking a gig as an associate producer at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. For more than a decade, he lived in the cities and towns surrounding the network’s New England campus while working on the flagship program Sportscenter, as well as shows tethered to notable personalities like Tony Kornheiser and Dan Patrick.
After a dozen years on the East Coast, McBride moved back to his longtime home in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood to be closer to his children, who, after graduating from McBride’s own alma mater, Hinkley High School, have gone on to careers in the engineering and medical fields.
It was his return to the metroplex in 2010 that thrust McBride into the world of community building, advocacy and organizing that he’s thoroughly inhabited for the past decade. A former worker with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver, McBride is now a secondary violence prevention specialist with the Struggle of Love Foundation in Montebello, leading education programs in local school districts and endeavoring to sort through details and cool tempers following violent encounters between teens.
The work is close to McBride, who was involved in gangs himself in the late 80s and early 90s, when he was an accomplished football safety in high school and college. His involvement culminated in getting shot in the eye by some rival members when he was coming home from a party on Christmas Eve 1994. He drove himself to the hospital and was discharged the next day to celebrate Christmas, though he permanently lost vision in his right eye. No criminal charges were ever brought forward as a result of the shooting, though McBride said he knew the perpetrators.
Experiences like that fuel his work today, which includes involvement with Aurora’s police community task force, the office of the independent monitor in Denver and a new restorative justice program organized by Denver District Attorney Beth McCann.
“I was one of those kids, and I feel like everybody deserves a chance — a second chance, a third chance, whatever,” he said. “We just throw these kids away. They get lost in the judicial system or even worse, locked up, and once that happens it’s over. It’s just important for me to try to do anything I can.”
In 2018, he started his own nonprofit, McBride Impact, in honor of his late father, John, who was a longtime community organizer in Denver and worked closely with former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.
“We’re set up for the equity and empowerment of young men and young people of color,” he said. “And we’re stood up on what we call the four E’s: equity, equality, education and employment.”
And though McBride can often be found in his Montebello office or organizing an event somewhere in the region along the Denver-Aurora border, he’s called Aurora his home for the past five years. He moved to the neighborhood near Overland High School about five years ago to catch a breath from nearly a lifetime in Park Hill.
“I just wanted to get out of the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s gentrifying, so it was less ideal for us. But it’s a regret because you leave and you come back and things are not how they used to be. And the regret is that we have too many people leaving the community, and that’s why the community is in the shape it’s in.”
McBride, however, remains sanguine for the future of the metroplex, including in his current city of Aurora.
“I think Aurora has a unique opportunity to be what this nation was set up on … something that this nation hasn’t lived up to,” he said. “ … It can really be a city that we look at and say, ‘this is what America is supposed to be.’”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Sentinel Staff Writer
JORDYN POULTER | Colorado’s gold standard
Without question, Jordyn Poulter likes to share.
It’s the reason why she has developed into one of the world’s best as a volleyball setter, whose job it is to distribute the ball to hitters in the right places on the court.
And it’s also why she is such an inspiration to Colorado and the Aurora community, where she has been sharing her Olympic gold medal with anybody and everybody who wants to take a look at the shiny piece of hardware she brought back from Tokyo a few months ago.
The 24-year-old former Eaglecrest High School star feels it is the least she can do to give people in the community a small share of her triumph.
“I think the Olympics in general is something that Americans rally behind, somebody like Michael Phelps that has success that when they win, we all win,” Poulter said. “But to not only have that American pride, but the pride that somebody from their community and somebody that helped shape me as an athlete did it is something they can take a little bit of ownership of.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without the help and support of this community. I’ve felt it my entire life, so I hope people can take a piece of this and cherish it. I’ve been happy to pass it (the gold medal) around and see people’s faces light up. Most of them say ‘this is heavier than I thought,’ and it’s awesome to be able to share that with them.”
The odds of even making the U.S. Olympic team in a sport like women’s volleyball — much less winning a gold medal, something the Americans had never done in indoor play before — are astronomical, but the signs were there from an early age that Poulter was an extraordinary talent.
It was after just one season of high school volleyball at Eaglecrest under former coach Tanya Bond — and before her 15th birthday — that Poulter (who’s father, Bob, was a coach at Front Range Volleyball Club) gave her verbal commitment to play at University of Illinois, a program near and dear to her heart because she was born in Illinois and has lots of family ties there.
She couldn’t even operate a vehicle legally, but she had already sewed up her future with one of the NCAA’s powerhouse programs. Poulter went on to play four varsity seasons and earned first team all-conference honors in the loaded Centennial League in each season, while three times she made the All-Colorado team that recognized the best talent from across the state. She very nearly helped the
Raptors to a Class 5A state championship, but they lost in the semifinals in 2013.
It was during that time that she began her career in international play, becoming a globetrotter of sorts with U.S. youth national teams that won gold medals in the Dominican Republic, Croatia and Guatemala, while also winning silver in Thailand.
In her time at Illinois, Poulter also helped her
team make it to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament and she exited her collegiate career as an All-American.
Poulter turned pro when she graduated and has played overseas, which helped her progress to the point where she made the Olympic team.
She overcame an ankle injury midway through the tournament to help the U.S. team make history with its gold medal victory, which allowed her to join the ranks of Aurora-area athletes with gold medals that most recently included swimmers Missy Franklin and Clark Smith.
“Making the roster and finding out I was one of the 12 chosen to go compete in Tokyo was a big ‘oh wow’ moment,” she recalled. “Then I think the next one was our first and only practice at the competition venue, seeing the grandeur and size and the Olympic rings on the court and the ball. Then being in our locker room before the gold medal match and just standing in a circle with all 11 of my teammates and looking around at all the people and all the time and work we put into our craft to put ourselves in that position.
“My final ‘oh wow’ moment was being on the podium with the medal when they were playing the national anthem. That might be the most special moment of my life, even though nobody was in the stands. To stand there with my teammates and really feel the weight of what we had accomplished was amazing.”
It also brought her to thinking about what was happening thousands of miles away in Aurora, where a watch party gathered for the big event, full of those same people that helped her get to where she was.
“The love from the community, I’ve really felt it the entire way, and I’m just tremendously thankful,” she said.
Poulter paid it back by visiting Eaglecrest for a pep rally and making appearances at practices and gatherings around the community, where the gold medal got plenty of shine, so to speak.
With the hubbub mostly behind her, Poulter also took some down time in Colorado and planned to travel a bit more in the states — including watching her sister, Lorrin (another former Eaglecrest star) and the University of Denver women’s volleyball team play in California — before she headed back overseas to play with her professional team, Busto Artisito, in Italy’s top league.
No matter where she goes, Poulter is Aurora’s current Golden Girl, but she’s glad to share.
— COURTNEY OAKES, Sentinel Staff Writer
REV. REID HETTICH | Making opportunity knock
Go to a community event in north Aurora — or anywhere in Aurora, really — and the odds are good that you’ll run into Pastor Reid Hettich. The pastor has hung onto some of his Midwestern accent, but he’s been an Aurora institution for more than three decades now.
Hettich felt called to be a pastor from a young age. He had ministry jobs in North and South Dakota, and in 1985 moved to Aurora with his family to start a church in the southeast part of town. That’s where he stayed for more than 25 years. Then about 15 years ago, Hettich said he started to feel drawn to the parts of Aurora beyond the largely white, suburban area he had lived in for so long.
“I started really understanding, and I should have figured this out earlier, that there was this whole different community here,” Hettich said.
He felt increasingly led to spend time in the city center, and in 2012 left the church he’d founded to start Mosaic Church, a multiethnic congregation targeted to the area surrounding the MLK Library. An offshoot of the Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church, Mosaic defines itself by the motto “from broken to beautiful.” In its early days it met in the cafeteria at West Middle School, and was already launching community service projects while searching for a permanent home.
In 2014, Hettich partnered with the Fields Foundation to purchase a building on Dayton Street in 2014, which hosts the church and the Dayton Street Opportunity Center.
“We named the building the opportunity center because we realized that there is not equal opportunity in different communities,” Hettich said. “We’ve always been passionate in saying we want to provide opportunities to the people in this community to really flourish.”
The Opportunity Center is run by Mosaic and the Fields Foundation, and provides a long list of services to people in need, including job training and educational programs. In partnership with CU Anschutz it also operates the Dawn Clinic, which provides free medical care to uninsured Aurorans. Since the pandemic started, the center has added a food bank and vaccine clinics to its offerings.
Mosaic has also expanded in the almost-decade since Hettich first started working on it, and it now has congregations in Korean, Spanish and Burmese. Its connections with people in the international community have led to service work in Mexico and Myanmar, and when the pandemic forced the church to move to online worship, Hettich said that also helped it expand its reach.
Right as Hettich was beginning to transition into his new role was when the Aurora theater shooting took place, which rattled the city.
“The quick, easy answers elude us,” Hettich told the congregation at Cherry Hills Wesleyan in a sermon a week after the shooting. “It seems the best we can do is seek and pursue the God who loves us.”
It would not be the last time the city was thrust into the national spotlight.
As a multiethnic church, Hettich said Mosaic had been discussing and grappling with issues of racism since long before the shooting death of Elijah McClain in 2019 and the sweeping protests against police brutality in 2020.
“Those conversations got deepened and sometimes there was more emotion to them, but it was a part of who we were prior,” he said.
In the 36 years he’s lived in Aurora, Hettich has seen the city change dramatically, especially in the last 10 years.
“In the last decade or so you see Aurora stumbling into becoming a big city,” Hettich said. “It’s not a small town, it’s not a suburb, it’s not the little sister of Denver, it is a major city in its own right. And there have been some growing pains in trying to figure that out.”
Along with his work on Dayton Street, Hettich enjoys watching the Broncos and the Rockies and spending time with his children and grandchildren, who live in Parker and Aurora. He’s also been involved with a number of different city partnerships and organizations over the years, including the Aurora Community of Faith and the Youth Violence Prevention Program. He even had an unsuccessful run for city council in 2017.
Hettich said he didn’t originally set out to be involved in so many different things outside the church. They just kept happening.
One program he’s particularly proud of sprung from a forum Aurora Public Schools hosted at the Dayton Center. At the event, APS Superintendent Rico Munn said that he was worried about a group of about 120 Aurora Central students who were struggling to complete all the credits they would need to graduate on time. Munn had data showing that if students were paired with adults in the community who could help serve as their mentors, they had a much higher chance of succeeding.
Hettich jumped at the opportunity to help, and worked with the district to round up mentors from the community. At the end of the school year, 80% of the students ended up graduating on time.
“The reason I love that story is it was a hands-on way for the community to engage with a challenge,” he said. “I love those kinds of projects where you bring the community together to do what they really want to do — to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
— CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
BETSY LAY | Brewing success for others
Back in 2010, Betsy Lay was serving in AmeriCorps in Denver along with her friends Jen Cuesta and Kate Power. It wasn’t long after the recession, and their work doing fundraising for nonprofits was difficult and slow-going.
Even though they were only making $10,000 a year, the trio would frequently go out after work to commiserate over a beer. The packed bars felt a world apart from their dismal fundraising efforts, and they started to wonder if there was a way “to take our beer money and funnel it into nonprofits,” Lay said.
After AmeriCorps, Power and Cuesta left Denver to go to law school but their idea stayed with them. Once they returned to Denver in 2014, they got to work creating Lady Justice, a brewery that donated all of its profits to nonprofits supporting women and girls.
Since its official launch in 2016, Lady Justice has donated $31,000 in profits to charity along with an estimated $15,000 in in-kind donations.
After operating on a subscription model for its first several years, Lady Justice moved into a taproom on Colfax Avenue in Aurora in 2020, at which point Lay took over full ownership of the business (Power and Cuesta work full-time as attorneys).
“I don’t think I ever would have told you that I was going to be a brewer or a business owner before we started Lady J,” Lay told the Sentinel. “There’s been a lot of stuff to learn.”
All three founders were home brewers before forming Lady Justice, but there was a steep learning curve in figuring out how to scale that up and how to run a business. Lady Justice is a philanthropic enterprise — not exactly a nonprofit but not a for-profit company either — and there aren’t a lot of companies that do what they do.
That means “sometimes it’s up to us to figure it out on our own,” Lay said.
Since the taproom opened, they’ve been getting more business and have been able to donate more money. The space on East Colfax in the Aurora Cultural Arts District was formerly home to Mu Brewery and Peak to Peak Brewing, and it already had much of the equipment needed to get started.
“We felt at home there instantly,” Lay said. She said the arts district was a perfect fit for Lady Justice.
“Being in a space that really values diversity was really important for us,” she said. “Being in the arts district allows us to have a wider audience than we would if we moved to really any other part of the city.”
The timing, however, wasn’t ideal. Lay signed the lease on the building in March 2020, three days before indoor dining and drinking was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The taproom first opened in April selling beer out of a garage door window before indoor drinking was allowed to resume. Since it has been on a to-go model only for years before opening a physical location, that gave it a leg up in the strange new world of pandemic dining.
Lay actually credited the delay in helping the crew to ease into a taproom model and work out all the kinks, but ultimately, “we survived in that space because people showed up and supported us,” she said.
So far this year Lady Justice has donated $4,000 each to Rangeview High School for scholarships for girls and to Frontline Farming, a nonprofit that provides sustainably grown affordable food to people in the Denver area.
During the pandemic, the business is trying to support hyperlocal nonprofits that have been affected by COVID but might not be getting as much attention as larger organizations, Lay said.
The community has responded well to Lady Justice’s unique mission.
“It’s not hard to find a brewery that gives back to its community, but we’re one of the only ones that exist solely to do that,” Lay said. “To be able to help your community simply by going in and buying a beer from us is a really easy thing to do that people enjoy a lot.”
Recently, Lady Justice has also facilitated local conversations about how to confront sexism in the brewing industry, which became a national topic this year after women came forward on social media to share their experiences facing misogynistic treatment from customers and co-workers alike.
As a women and LGBTQ-owned company that had always made striving for inclusion part of its mission, Lay said it felt like a natural part of Lady Justice’s work to get involved. The taproom hosted a meeting earlier this year to address racism and sexism in the local beer industry, and a leadership team is currently working on action items including improving HR functions and mental health resources for employees.
Lay said it can be frustrating for Lady Justice’s team to deal with people who think that women can’t run a business or brew beer, but it’s balanced by the number of people who are excited by their mission.
“The most rewarding thing is having people tell us they drove three hours to come to our brewery just to try our beer and see what it was about,” Lay said. “It’s been really fun to see the community we’ve been able to build out of this little taproom.”
— CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
Annie Guo VanDan | Colorado, meet an Asian American
Annie Guo VanDan says the pandemic has brought more than just change to her, her family and the thousands of Asian Americans living in Colorado.
“I feel there’s this sense of urgency,” Annie said last week, juggling the interview and work details during a rare break in her bustling daily life. If multi-tasking was a sport, Annie would be an Olympic contender. “More than ever I feel like I want to make sure I’m showing up in my community right now.”
Her “community” is greater Aurora and Denver, in some areas rich with cultural and racial diversity, anchoring a relatively progressive state where people of color become as rare as hills as the plains spill out in all directions.
Annie’s urgent need to see and be seen in the community became urgent after President Donald Trump and others branded the spread of the new coronavirus early last year.
“Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on, coronavirus, kung flu,” Trump told student Republicans at a rally in June 2020. He’d been disparaging Chinese Americans for months with the monikers. The crowd of young Trump fans roared in appreciation. “Some people call it the Chinese flu, the China flu, they call it the China.”
Those and similar remarks are blamed for a new wave of hate for Asian Americans that has since washed over the nation.
For generations Annie and other Asian American activists have worked to raise awareness about who she, and they, are and aren’t, pushing against tropes that only become galvanized by Asian Americans who simply shrug their shoulders or look the other way.
Trump’s contagious erroneous branding of the pandemic as an Asian curse only served to heat up long-simmering anti-Asian sentiment.
“We’re still all foreigners here,” Annie said. No matter how many generations long an Asian-American family is, one or many, Asian-Americans are too often branded as outsiders their entire lives. “And other times, I really feel like I’m invisible.”
It wasn’t much of a surprise to Annie when instances of “COVID hate crimes” began spilling out across the country and even in the Aurora area.
The nation was ripe for a wave of violence in the midst of the persistent pandemic when on March 16 of this year, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting spree that focused on massage spas in suburban Atlanta, killing eight people, six of them Asian-American women.
Asian-hate crimes began making headlines here and across the nation.
They’ve been headlining in the daily lives of Asian-Americans for generations, Annie said, becoming critical since the pandemic.
“People are afraid to even leave their homes,” Annie said, especially elderly Asian Americans.
Poised to act, Annie has spent her entire life training for this.
She’s an immigrant herself. She and her family immigrated from Taiwan when she was 2. Her mother was a journalist. Not proficient in written English at the time, she worked in retail. That would change after Annie grew up here in the metro area.
Going to school here made a big impact on Annie.
“I never really saw anyone who looked like me,” Annie said. She didn’t know any other Asian-Americans other than her family and family friends.
She lived in one culture at home and another in school.
“I was embarrassed about my culture,” she said. She was afraid other kids would laugh at the food she brought for lunch or draw attention to her Chinese appearance. As an adolescent, being different is not good.
She overcompensated by excelling at everything.
A lot changed when she went to the Columbia School of Journalism in Missouri and joined an Asian-American student group.
She learned she wasn’t alone in struggling in an awkward world of dual cultures, one blurred among dozens of languages, races, histories and geographies, and another that is often cold, intolerant and uninformed.
She set her life’s work to change that.
Now, she works to change what people in Colorado know about Asian cultures and the people who’ve brought them here. She’s the president of Asian Avenues Magazine, a glossy project she rolls out each month with her mother.
She received her masters degree from CU Denver in health administration. Annie is an exec for Change Matrix, focusing on creating successful national and statewide efforts that improve social-equity systems, especially those that provide health care and mental health services. And she’s the founder and executive director of the Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network, pressing to educate everyone about the rich cultures of so many Asian-American people and find ways to improve their lives.
And in her spare time, she and her husband, who hails from Vietnamese roots, raise their two little girls.
It’s a whirlwind life she has seemingly endless passion for.
“There’s so much work to be done, and it needs to be done now,” she said.
She realized that the foundational problem for so many issues affecting Asian Americans is their relative rarity, diversity and frequent modesty.
“Most people in Colorado have never met an Asian American,” she said. They might have seen them in public, but they don’t actually know them.
That sets the stage for misperceptions and perpetual tropes. And, she says, it’s easier to ignore or mistreat people who don’t push back.
So she’s pushing back. First, by raising awareness of the problem of Asian hate.
“It’s very real,” she said. The subtle references to “you people” or outright confrontations, spitting and violence are increasing, even here she said.
And it’s too easy for other Americans to just shrug it all off, not knowing what the wide variety of Asian cultures are even like.
She’s pushing for expansion of existing programs and networks, but she says the Aurora region needs a large, well-funded Asian-American cultural center that brings the community together to learn about each other. Such a center, however, would celebrate rich cultures and histories that for too long have been kept quiet as a strategy to assimilate and just get along.
She was having a conversation recently with a white woman who asked about her past. When she told her that she and her family immigrated from Taiwan, the woman remarked that “she loved Thai food.”
Seeing Asian Americans as a singular, mishmash of races and cultures is common, Annie said.
There are more than 30 Asian American cultures, nationalities and races represented in Colorado, she said. “It’s anything but homogenous.”
Along political lines, the community splits, too. She said many Chinese Americans, who, as a group tend to do relatively well financially in the region, don’t want the government to bring in more affirmative action programs to increase employment of Asian Americans. Many in the region’s Hmong community, however, do, she said. As a group, many Hmong immigrants are struggling financially, pressing for more assistance and intervention.
She said many Asian Americans see the need for education about who they are and what life is like
for them, but they’re exhausted by the seemingly endless chore.
“They don’t want to have to explain themselves all the time,” she said. “Everyday life is hard enough without adding on this responsibility to every Asian American.”
And even within the community, fault lines signal a need to focus inward while trying to move an entire generation and a multitude of cultures and races forward.
The need for mental health services for Asian Americans is critical, Annie said, yet another focus of her efforts.
She points to increasing suicide and depression among a community that not only doesn’t value mental health services, but can’t get them if they do.
Psychiatric services depend on nuanced communications, made virtually impossible when a therapist doesn’t speak a patient’s first language.
“The language barrier for many Asian Americans is critical,” she said. Then there’s the access problem, which has become a critical issue for all Americans. Even if they can find a provider who’s a good fit, it often turns out to be unaffordable.
Again, the culture of many Asian Americans is part of the problem. She said many families steer their children away from careers in mental health services, seeing the career path as less than what “real doctors” offer outside of psychiatry.
She said there are just too few Asian American mental health providers, and those who choose the field can easily fill a practice with non-Asian patients.
The solution for now? Money.
Annie said the pandemic has brought disaster to so many Americans, but it’s also brought new awareness and even cash.
Foundations have new enthusiasm for programs she works on, creating grant opportunities to actually move the needle in making more non-Asian Americans aware of growing problems and provide needed services to Asian Americans struggling with a variety of issues.
Of course it’s not enough. It never is. So Annie’s plan is to just keep doing more.
“It’s so overwhelming,” she said. “But I really feel like we’re doing something. Something is changing.”
And change is good.
— DAVE PERRY, Sentinel Staff Writer