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The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: You've had a long, dedicated history to serving communities in need. As you reflect on your experience, how do you describe yourself and your profession?
GERIE: First and foremost, I describe myself as a mother of two, grandmother of 16, great grandmother of nine, who has been married 47 years. I come from a family of seven, and I’m very much a product of my family. It’s in my DNA to give back, because that's what my parents always did and it’s how we were raised. My father was active in the Air Force 22 years and retired, and served 20 years as a civilian at Lowry Air Force base/Fitzsimons. My mother was a full time, stay at home mom raising seven children including myself, five sisters, and one brother.
We were all born in Colorado, except for the two youngest, who were born in Panama and CA, with my dad’s military travels.
My background has led me to a profession where I can focus on children and youth and community – it’s what I love. It keeps me connected to community, which is the central driving force in my life. I’ve spent the last 36 years at Hope Center, the last 12 years at the helm as President and CEO. Hope Center serves Park Hill and East Denver and surrounding communities, supporting family, children and youth. Every year between our two facilities, we serve 250 children including gifted children 2 ½ - 5 and 30 adults with developmental disabilities. Many of those we serve are labeled ‘at risk’ by the State definition. It’s a label I believe we should abandon because every child comes with strengths first, and then areas to work on. Hope Center grounds me in helping find the best opportunities and choices for all children to have equity, equality and live their life to the fullest.
I’ve also spent the last 45 years volunteering to support organizations like the Falcon Youth Organization a franchise to the Police Activities League serving children 4 – 13 in sports activities.
QUESTION: As a native-born Coloradoan, who is deeply committed to your local community, how has this state and the community influenced you?
GERIE: Colorado has already been at the forefront of many issues dear to my heart. Our state’s governors and mayors, together with community leaders, have been willing to take on the tough issues. When it came to funding preschool in Denver for four-year olds, the effort failed a couple times, but we got it through. And now we're seeing the return on that investment -- the data shows four-year olds who have access to high quality preschool achieve at a higher level. We didn't have that research at the beginning, which made funding hard. When Hickenlooper was Mayor he believed it would work out that way, and it’s a position he’s maintains as Governor. Colorado Shines– the state’s quality rating system for early learning programs, is an excellent example of what’s possible when we work together in early childhood education.
For me, our state has been willing to step up and work on inclusivity We do a lot of outreach to get the community involved, rather than create solutions behind closed doors. I believe our State is more driven to succeed for all our citizens. There’s a broader perspective and desire to make this state a beautiful place to live, and a belief that all people deserve opportunity. We are community-minded, and neighborhood-minded. I find that collectively many of us believe that we will fail if we don't embrace those who need help.
I do worry today about our booming growth and the risk of losing that focus. A lot of people are being displaced specifically people of color by new developments right now. We need to remain vigilant.
QUESTION: Can you share a couple of examples of those you've worked with that have influenced you the most and made a lasting impact in your life?
GERIE: First up are the families we’ve served over many generations, and the adults coming back who attended Hope Center as children. They’ll say, “Do you remember me, I'm bringing back my preschooler.” Not only, do we remember them, but we have several of the same teachers with us today. It’s a joy for the parents to see familiar faces. Our average teacher tenure is 15 years.
One mother stands out. She was homeless with six kids, and it took her three separate buses each day to get her kids to the Center. I believe we were her rock, no matter what she was going through on the streets, from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm she knew her children were safe and fed. Where others might judge her as a bad mother, we just saw her as a struggling mother who loved her children. No matter the weather, she got them to the Center. One day, the buses were running very late on a bad snow day, and she called with fear in her voice, worried we’d call social services. I told her “It’s no problem at all, you are putting in an incredible effort for your kids’ well-being. I will wait.” Even though we would still need to address the lateness.
Another parent, Ronnie Turner had one special needs child and three gifted children, which presents unique parenting challenges. Today, her kids are grown and doing great. Even though they have long since graduated, Ronnie stays closely connected to Hope Center. She is a huge advocate. It’s an incredible compliment to us that we were able to support her by being a strong parent advocate. She’s now working with other parents to help them do the same.
QUESTION: Describe your passion about helping others, especially the moms and dads.
GERIE: We have many special mothers and fathers in our community, and special programs for them. My favorite is a literacy boot camp where African American fathers to work with their sons to help them with reading. We do this in partnership with the Black Child Development Institute- Denver Affiliate and Project Fatherhood that developed the program. It’s a summertime program today, given current funding, and between 70 and 100 families show up for three weeks. We have all African American men as our presenters, as well as, young men and teenagers. We’ve brought in a comic book writer, which has been a great draw for the sons to get them engaged.
The best impact comes when we act in partnership with parents, and build trust so they return and refer others. In addition to our solid curriculum, the parents often talk about our culture of trust; that we embrace everyone and work in a flexible environment free from any judgement. Too often, they might feel like others are judging them as ‘criminally’ negligent because they don't have all the resources needed for their families. The cultural/diversity is a major component and priority.
QUESTION: Describe one or two pivotal moments that defined your approach to life.
GERIE: My life has been largely defined by the era I grew up in. My exposure to racism in schools at a young age left its mark. Just like many other black children at that time, I was harassed on the bus, and called names when I entered the classroom - by both teachers and students. It was more than a hostile environment it was dangerous. I acutely understand the importance of making sure education remains open and encouraging to every child regardless of race or ethnicity.
My parents would always say if I have an opportunity to speak out, I should take it. You can't change anything if you are not willing to be involved. They said complaining doesn't make change - pick your passion and go. All my siblings are involved in community activities at some level. One of my grandkids made me smile when he said, "That's how we roll!” as he was receiving an award for his volunteerism.
The eight years I spent working at the City and County of Denver, part in affirmative action, gave me a valuable political experience and taught me the importance of making contacts to affect change. You need to know how to communicate, who to communicate with and how to build influence if you want to have an impact.
I kept volunteering, which is how I migrated over to the nonprofit world. At first, my dad said, “You're going into field of no money, stick with the city.” Soon, he realized I needed to go with my passion. The former director of Hope Center, George Brantley, taught me so much about early childhood development and management, and I went to school for a master’s in nonprofit management, even though I started in a MBA program. Non-profits was where I wanted to be.
QUESTION: What women inspire you and why?
GERIE: Number one was my mom, and all my sisters - have lifted me up through life’s struggles and accomplishments. In addition, some others are Gloria Tanner, first African American woman State Senator when I was first becoming involved in political activities. I have admiration for her and others, who are so passionate that they don’t let anything stand in their way. Wilma Webb also has that integrity and willingness and was committed to equal rights for African-
Americans. I remember the march when Webb was fighting for the MLK holiday. I was in that march and remember being spit on at one point. Wilma Webb remained vigilant and stayed focused, even though there was backlash, and hate letters and who knows what else. What these women continue to accomplish and the battles they fought and continue to fight, inspire me and keep my own struggles in perspective.
QUESTION: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
GERIE: I think it’s still around racism, especially as it’s more subtle and harder to identify sometimes today. There’s also still the struggle to get everyone to believe – starting in early childhood - that girls and women can achieve anything they want. We have a woman engineer, who comes in to teach STEM, and the girls are able to do experiments and it’s encouraging to see the light bulbs go off as they realize a bigger potential in themselves, as do the little boys.
The younger generation has to continue the conversation and look at ways to address the issues that remain. I tell my grandchild who is turning 30, and sees the struggle, ‘Don't carry a chip on your shoulder, but rather know the reality is there and carry your purpose in whatever environment you are in. Whether you hear an off-color joke, or whatever, speak up. It's not funny, and people need to be called out in the moment.’
QUESTION: Is there a message you want to make sure we are sharing with others?
GERIE: Sometimes we react a little slow - Like with our educational system that is failing children of color. We’re headed in the right direction, but it’s quite a long drawn-out battle right now for people to do the right thing.
Number one is community – it’s so great to be honored. But, I do the work because that's who I am, I’m an activist at heart. I'm a black woman trying to play my part and address the injustices that we've unfortunately built our country on. We can't deny we have real issues on race. We must build a culture of competency for all. I hold regular meetings on this topic. You’ve got to experience people and recognize our own biases. You can't learn everything by reading about people just in a book you have to engage.
It’s a message I deliver regularly out in the community. My hope is that people will walk away being more receptive to hearing the message and then reflect upon whether they are willing to change now. Even if they disagree, just opening a door to listening and dialogue is a powerful beginning.
We have the same conversation with the Hope Center staff, which is very diverse. We talk about own biases, and how important the little things are when building connections with the parents and the community. Knowing the small things, like where the nearest church helps reinforce you are part of their children's culture.
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.