Becoming the Helpers

In Trying Times, Valley Settlement's New Director Calls on the Community to Unite

As many of us learned from our history classes in school, this country and this very valley were built by immigrants. The reason our towns and cities are here today can be traced back to some tenacious, hardworking people who crossed Independence Pass in search of silver and opportunity. We call them settlers. And for 140 years, each wave of new people into the valley has settled it in their own way. 

Newcomers bring new life to communities, deepening the culture, strengthening economies, and expanding our potential. Every generation of immigrants makes this valley a bit better. 

More recent arrivals, like my family, who settled here some 30 years ago, chose this beautiful place to call home. We came in search of jobs, opportunities, and a new community. We are not afraid to work hard to contribute and continue to make this valley a great place to raise a family. We make sacrifices so that subsequent generations may thrive. I will always be grateful for the sacrifices my parents made so that I could be the first in my family to graduate from college. 

Over the years, both settled communities and new generations of newcomers to this valley have had to make the choice to either be inclusive and work together to build an even stronger valley, or to harbor fear and division, resisting the changes that come with time and migration. I hope that we all continue to opt for inclusion. 

When I was growing up in El Jebel, the valley did not have a nonprofit that was intentionally working with Latinas and Latinos to build community. There was no Valley Settlement. Our name is inspired by the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth century, started around the same time this valley’s first immigrants struck silver. Settlement houses were built by immigrants and allies to break the cycle of poverty and to create opportunities for members of the community to thrive in all segments of society. 

The work that nonprofits do is more important now than ever. Organizations that rely on the kindness of others by and large spread that kindness throughout their communities. In times like these, the work of nonprofits like Valley Settlement is critical to the future viability of this valley. Our north star has to be creating a community where everyone can thrive. A community not just where newcomers feel welcomed and have opportunities, but where we elevate the voices of those not often heard from and push people to be their own advocates. 

We want a community where families can chart their own course, and raise the next generations of leaders in our valley. It is going to take all of us, working together, with intentionality and courage, to lift up everyone in the valley and make that brighter future for our community. 

I recall a time in our past where our community came together and rose up out of a place of darkness. On the night of July 3, 2001, a man shot and killed four people at the City Market and a neighboring mobile home park in Rifle. Three more were wounded. All seven victims were Latino. Those of us who lived through that time here in the valley intimately understand the fear and pain that comes when hate turns into violence. 

Over the many years that I have lived in and out of the Roaring Fork Valley, I have never seen our community come together as we did after that shooting in Rifle. I was in college at the time, and I drove home to be with my family in the wake of the tragedy. I joined with 2,000 of my neighbors in a vigil that filled the streets of Rifle. I saw my community lock arms and stand up for the dignity of all human life. Civic leaders, leaders of faith, elected officials, oil workers, service workers, professionals, young families, black, brown, white, all came together in a moment of grief and collective humanity. 

Today, we are faced with more division and fear – at the national level yes, but even here in our own valley. We must recognize that some members of our community are afraid of being confronted on the street or in the grocery store because of the color of their skin or the language they speak. But we have the power to stand up for our neighbors, to quell the fear of the other and loudly declare that all of our community members are valued and belong.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to tap into our most basic human instincts to connect with each other and be part of a larger whole. Everyone in this community wants to feel like they belong. All of us have a duty and a responsibility to treat each other with dignity and kindness. We cannot allow hatred and fear to penetrate our communities. When we see signs of bigotry and racism surface, we must speak up. It will take all of us, Latinos, whites, longtime residents, and newcomers working together to foster a community of inclusion and mutual respect. 

When we were children, Mr. Rogers reminded us that in times of tragedy or danger, when we are feeling scared, we should “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

It is only when we grow up that we realize the helpers are us. 

Alex Sánchez is the new executive director of Valley Settlement, a Carbondale-based non-profit that has been working with the Latino and immigrant community throughout the Roaring Fork Valley since 2011.

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