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Summer club sponsored by JTHO and others teach skills and life lessons

By Cliff Foster

Youngsters in the La Alma Jaguar Club, sponsored in part by the University's Journey Through Our Heritage program, sit in a "talking circle" at the La Alma Recreation Center. Seated lower right is MSU Denver student Rachel Summers, Jaguar Club lead coordinator. In the center of the "talking circle" is JTOH high school team member Dylan Anstine, a volunteer for the summer youth leadership program.
The kids who live in Denver’s low-income La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood missed out on a rite of summer last year. The city’s nearly century-old outdoor swimming pool at Lincoln Park was closed as crews worked on building a replacement.

But some of those kids enjoyed a new rite of summer: a program that mixed activities like swimming and painting and field trips with lessons in leadership, kindness, civic pride and more.

The La Alma Summer Journey Through Our Heritage (JTOH) YouthLeadership Program—La Alma Jaguar Club for short—is in its second year, sponsored in part by MSU Denver’s JTOH, a multicultural educational program of the Department of Chicana/Chicano Studies. Serving as a JTOH sponsor was one of the recommendations of the University’s Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Task Force.

Renee Fajardo, coordinator of Journey Through Our Heritage, program was contacted by the office of Denver City Council member Judy Montero and others last year, saying: “The kids in the neighborhood have nothing to do for the summer because there’s no pool. We’d like you to put together a summer program.”

The result was the La Alma Jaguar Club, a free, five-week program for youngsters to teenagers from the neighborhood. The 2012 session wraps up next week after a celebration Wednesday, July 18, 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at La Alma Recreation Center, 1325 W. 11th Ave., that includes a club art show, performances, pizza and swimming in the new pools that replaced the Lincoln Park pool.

“The purpose is … to engage and enlighten students from the community about their indigenous heritage and stewardship of the Earth and community,” Fajardo says of the club, which serves 34 students this year. But there’s another purpose as well: “to get them familiar and comfortable and bonded with the Auraria Campus,” she says. Once a week the club members visit the campus for tours and performances.

All the club activities, promotional materials, recruitment, programming etc. are carried out by four MSU Denver students, who are paid and earn credit for their work. Seven other MSU Denver students are volunteers along with seven high school students. Also helping out is Christina Sigala, an affiliate faculty member in the Chicana/Chicano Studies Department.

Seven community artists are instructors. Activities include yoga, drawing, crafts, swimming and gardening. But woven through it all is a message, one that speaks to values like honor, respect, generosity, kindness, accountability, says Fajardo. Whatever value is picked for the day is worked on throughout the morning and afternoon. So, if someone pushes a club mate—these are youngsters, after all—he or she might be asked how that relates to honoring their neighbor.

“What we want is to have this generation of kids...say, ‘the hood is my home and I have every right to expect it to be a safe place, a place where we do good things; I have every right to expect that I can grow up and go to college and take care of my family and my people,’ ” Fajardo says. “The long goal is to tie everyone into this concept: that you’re part of this whole big picture, you little kids, and we know you can do this. You don’t have to be taggers or gang bangers or high school dropouts because we care about you and expect good things from you.”

So, how does Fajardo know if any of this is working?

For one thing, eight parents from the neighborhood have pitched in to help—something naysayers predicted would never happen. The folks at Chatfield Reservoir, where the club went on a fishing trip, said the Jaguars were the best-behaved group “they had ever seen,” according to Fajardo. And, older Jaguars watch out for younger ones, holding their hands while crossing the street or helping them water the club garden.

“I know what we’re doing works,” she says. “We know that we’re ahead of the game because of the way our students are reacting and our parents are engaging.”

Because of this success, Fajardo plans for the La Alma Jaguar Club to meet every summer, even though the Lincoln Park pool is complete.


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