In Lake County, there are so many resources available to build a healthy community.
—Katie Baldassar, executive director, Lake County
Build a Generation
2019 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
A Community Moves Beyond the Boom and Bust
There are no bad views in Lake County, Colo., nestled among the highest peaks in the state.
The beauty and bounty of the mountains color everything here. But this is also a place of long winters and changing fortunes. Since the 1800s, dozens of mines have dotted its Rocky Mountain landscape. When the mines closed down, in a story familiar to mining towns across the country, once-vibrant settlements disappeared.
Starting in 1915, thousands of people in the county worked hard for the Climax mine, where they extracted and processed molybdenum, an element used to strengthen steel.
“Climax was the best moly mine in the world,” says Howard Tritz, an 83-year-old former employee. But by the 1980s, the mine was struggling. People were let go periodically, and some of them were forced to walk away from their homes.
When the mine shut down in 1995—not to reopen until 2012—as many as 3,000 people had lost their jobs in Climax’s slow but devastating demise.
As the population declined, the county’s reduced tax revenue strained the budget, making it difficult to maintain parks, roads, and recreation facilities. The quality of the public schools sagged, as did community pride. But in the past five to 10 years, people here say things have really started to look up. Today, Lake County is neither booming nor busting, but rather learning and striving together toward consistently better health for all.
A turning point came in 2010 when the county wrestled with poor health outcomes for children and teens, as measured by an annual statewide survey of middle schoolers and high schoolers.
For two years, county government, local nonprofits, and youth worked to create a plan of action for improving young people’s well-being and futures. Released in 2013, it set goals for boosting academic achievement and post-secondary training, reducing substance abuse and teen pregnancy, improving access to parks and volunteer opportunities, and strengthening economic opportunity.
In Lake County, there are so many resources available to build a healthy community.
—Katie Baldassar, executive director, Lake County
Build a Generation
Today, the efforts set in motion by that plan are paying off. Teen birth rates have dropped. The percentage of teens who report being physically active and eating breakfast every day have increased. More high schoolers are taking classes for college credit.
“In Lake County, there are so many resources available to build a healthy community,” says Katie Baldassar, executive director of Lake County Build a Generation, which coordinates the county’s health equity efforts. “But because of systemic inequities, those resources aren’t equally available to everyone.”
Recognizing the health equity challenge, the community has diligently worked to build a stronger relationship between grassroots activists in the Latinx community—a third of the county’s population—and “grasstops” nonprofits and government agencies. No matter the population or issue, the county uses a tried-and-true, ubiquitous formula: review data, engage many voices, make a plan, act on it together, measure success.
Winning the Culture of Health Prize, Baldassar says, offers even more validation for Lake County partners in their certainty that “the people of our community are entirely capable of figuring out what’s working and what needs to change to make Lake County a place where all community members—regardless of neighborhood, ethnicity, or income—can live our healthiest life.”
Leadership and community activism run in Brayhan Reveles’ family.
The 19-year-old Lake County resident’s mother, Cristina, took him to parent association meetings as a preschooler. When he was about 10, she joined a parent-led effort to create safe pedestrian routes to school, and Brayhan began to understand the importance of her involvement.
“She walked me through the process of what she was doing and why,” says the Colorado Mountain College student and Healthy Eating/Active Living coordinator at Lake County Build a Generation. “She told me, ‘This is impacting us, but we’re not the only ones. A lot of families don’t feel comfortable voicing their concerns. We’re doing this for them, so their kids can get safely to school.’”
A few years later, Reveles followed in his mother’s footsteps. They played key roles in the 16-month research and planning process for Get Outdoors Leadville!, or GOL!, an initiative launched in 2017 to promote equitable access to outdoor education and recreation in Lake County.
The Reveles’ enthusiasm for making the county a healthier place for all illustrates a value shared by many here: the idea that investing in people and equipping them with the tools to lead is the best way to build a culture of health.
In particular, many Lake County residents say, groups historically left out of public conversations—such as youth, recent immigrants, and people of all ages who do not speak English as their primary language—have found opportunities to lead in the past five to 10 years.
Youth leadership and involvement has become the norm on a host of issues—among them Lake County’s 2013 Youth Master Plan, GOL!, and substance abuse and tobacco use prevention.
“Part of the pipeline to leadership is professionalizing [youths’] strengths and their contributions,” says Erin Allaman, associate professor of teacher education at Colorado Mountain College, who has been deeply involved in engaging young people in the county’s health efforts. That means youth who take part in these efforts aren’t tokens; they are paid and trained to do community research and analyze data.
The community is also making formal space for youth in important institutions such as the board of education, which has included two student representatives for the past five years and restructured its meeting format to make them more relevant to youth.
Lake County High School senior Michaela Sanchez is just starting the second year of a two-year term. Last year, she and a fellow student representative organized two summits that brought together students in the fourth through 12th grades to talk about changes they’d like to see in schools.
Sanchez told the board that participants craved more one-on-one time with teachers. The board listened and teachers agreed. Now the Lake County Intermediate School has changed to self-contained classrooms—where students remain with one teacher for all core subjects—to create better relationships with teachers and students.
Cristina Reveles says many of the area’s immigrant families have wanted to advocate for change over the years, “but they didn’t know how or where to go. Now they do.”
The change was accelerated five years ago when Full Circle, a youth- and family-serving nonprofit, and Lake County Build a Generation launched the Family Leadership Training Institute to give residents the know-how to organize for better health and safety. During the 20-week civic engagement program, residents plan and carry out projects to improve their neighborhoods, with advice and support from staff of local nonprofits and government agencies.
While taking the course, Rosa Lopez, Ana Dominguez, and Alma Macias, who live in the county’s Mountain View manufactured housing park, spoke to their neighbors and heard concerns about fire safety. In response, participants worked with Lake County’s fire department to bring its free program for installing fire and carbon monoxide detectors to people’s homes.
Now, they’re raising community support to build a playground at the manufactured housing community, as well as advocating for a crosswalk and reduced speed on a busy state-owned highway that runs through the neighborhood.
For Karla Alder, Full Circle’s family programs coordinator, the training institute is emblematic of how leadership is slowly changing in Lake County. She grew up here in an undocumented family and graduated from Lake County High School in 2000.
“I always felt I had no voice, I had no choice because of my legal status,” says Alder, now a U.S. citizen. “This program gives power to the people to address their own concerns.”
The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.
Part of the pipeline to leadership is professionalizing [youths’] strengths and their contributions.
—Erin Allaman, associate professor of teacher education, Colorado Mountain College
In 2013, two of Lake County's schools were nearing the end of Colorado’s five-year “turnaround clock.” Soon, they would be asked to take drastic measures to change their schools. But members of the board of education felt the strategies proposed by the state weren’t right for their small rural county.
One suggestion to improve educational outcomes was to fire all teachers and start a rehiring process from scratch. Board members contemplated a Lake County principal having to fire her husband or sister-in-law or neighbor, the impact the loss of jobs would have on their rural economy, and the value of teachers who know their students and community. They knew that strategy just wouldn’t fly.
To save their schools and ensure a better future for students, they decided to tap into Lake County’s homegrown values: grit, determination, hard work, and resourcefulness.
“We started to chart our own course from there,” says then-board member and current president Amy Frykholm. Their alternative was a “partnership model.” Rather than simply following outside advice, the schools worked closely with organizations outside and inside the county to create a plan that they believed was right for their children. Using a tailored mix of evidence-based practices, the plan aimed for better school culture, investments in teacher training and development, improved academic achievement, and clearer career pathways for students.
Not only was the schools’ turnaround successful, it created a roadmap for how the community bands together. Partnership “is everywhere, in everything” Lake County does now, Frykholm says. The community is making shared inroads—on its own terms—on health equity, housing, community safety, substance abuse prevention, trauma-informed care, equitable food access, and a host of other issues.
Among the county’s collaborative efforts to promote health and well-being:
“Once all these organizations are able to improve the way they structure their physical space and the processes people need to navigate to getservices,” says Noah Sosin, who manages the project for Lake County Build a Generation, “everybody who needs services will be able to comfortably and regularly access them.”
The nonprofit Lake County Build a Generation, which coordinates many of the health equity efforts in the county, plays a pivotal role in encouraging the collaborative approach. It connects the dots between programs and initiatives, collects data, and provides a structure for accountability. But the spirit of partnership is something everyone values and takes seriously.
“We establish shared objectives that fit each of our organizational missions,” says Beth Helmke, GOL!’s implementation director. “We really come together with the goal of what matters to us as a broader group.”
We really come together with the goal of what matters to us as a broader group.
—Beth Helmke, implementation director, Get Outdoors Leadville!
When Keith Moffett was growing up, just about every dad he knew, including his own, worked at the Climax mine. It so dominated Lake County’s economy up until its closure in the mid-1980s that losing the jobs there “devastated” the community, Moffett says.
Thousands of out-of-work people left with their families. Unemployment soared and the county’s tax base sank, leaving little money for education, safe roads and sidewalks, and recreation facilities.
Decades later, Lake County hasn’t forgotten the pain of that loss. It has committed itself to the challenging work of building an economy that provides stability and a chance for all residents to thrive and be healthy.
“A huge part of building a culture of health for us has been economic diversification,” says Katie Baldassar, executive director of Lake County Build a Generation, which promotes health efforts across the county.
No longer dependent on mining for its prosperity, Lake County has transformed into a bedroom community known for its relatively low cost of living. Nearly 75 percent of workers who live here commute across mountain passes to neighboring counties, where bustling ski resorts offer higher-paying jobs. Tourism in Lake County also has become an important, though not dominant, source of revenue. The Leadville Race Series, a summer-long series of extreme biking and running events, attracts thousands of adventure-seeking athletes, crewmembers, and onlookers each year.
After a decade-plus absence, the Climax mine reopened in 2012 under new management, employing 450 people. Residents welcomed them back, but with a caveat: They insisted that Climax’s new owner, Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan, help establish the Leadville Lake County Economic Development Corporation to nurture other businesses.
“We were thankful they were coming back, but there were a lot of us saying we don’t want to repeat what we went through again,” says Moffett, president of the Lake County branch of Community Banks of Colorado and of the economic development corporation.
Based on conversations with dozens of businesses, the economic development corporation went to work creating a series of training workshops geared toward local businesses’ needs, such as business planning, marketing, financing, and employee retention. The organization also offers mentoring and one-on-one coaching.
Saul Aguilar came to Lake County 15 years ago and spent some time working at a Mexican restaurant on Leadville’s historic main street. Two years ago, he opened the Latin market El Mercadito a few doors down, with two business partners and a microloan from the economic development corporation.
“Now that we’ve been through the process, other potential [Latinx] businessowners can come and we can share our experience,” Aguilar says.
In addition to incubating new businesses, Lake County is working to prepare young people for jobs. The school district and Colorado Mountain College offer dual enrollment classes so students can simultaneously—and at no cost to them—earn college and high school credit.
In 2019, seven Lake County High School seniors received associate degrees the week before their high school graduation. Students can also receive welding or culinary arts certificates and other credentials that prepare them for the workforce.
In this diverse, working-class city, the community believes social and economic factors strongly impact the ability of people to maintain and support healthy lives.
“I find [dual enrollment] a great opportunity,” says Lake County High School senior Monica Euceda, who plans to graduate with a childcare certificate next year.
The community can’t thrive economically or socially if diverse residents can’t afford to live there. So Lake County is also addressing the growing cost, aging stock, and tight supply of housing. Home prices have risen by $30,000 a year since 2015, and more than a quarter of the county’s housing units are second homes, left vacant most of the year.
The Lake County Housing Coalition is exploring the possibility of inclusionary zoning, which requires new developments to include homes or apartments for people with low incomes, and a low-income housing tax credit development to create rental units for community members making less than 80 percent of the area median income.
The group has also assessed and is negotiating the possible donation of parcels of land where a developer could build mixed-income housing.
“If you’re spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing, you start to have to make choices about the rest of your spending: health care, food, car payments,” says Amy Tait, a real estate broker and member of the coalition. “Building in the mountains is extremely expensive, so we do need public-private partnerships to get people into housing.”
In Lake County, it’s this type of all-hands-on-board collaboration that is moving the community from a place strained by challenges to one thriving amid equitable solutions.
Building in the mountains is extremely expensive, so we do need public-private partnerships to get people into housing.
—Amy Tait, real estate broker and member, Lake County Housing Coalition