Virginia Visconti is always looking for ways to advance community-campus partnerships.
As the community practice specialist for the Center for Public Health Practice, Colorado School of Public Health, Visconti, PhD, identified an important collaboration to engage students and faculty, from both CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
And Denver Meadows residents lived right next door.
A mobile home and RV park just east of CU Anschutz, Denver Meadows houses 120 families on 20 acres. Last year, its owner sought to rezone the park for transit-oriented development, which would allow the land to be used for high-rise apartments, retail, hotels and office space.
Residents likely would have to move if the Aurora City Council approves the request. The city council tabled the proposal last July, asking the owner to secure a developer and work with the residents to come up with a plan for them before it took up the issue again. To date, there has been no council vote.
Visconti’s concern for Denver Meadows residents prompted her to reach out to the community with the assistance of Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, a 9to5 Colorado community organizer, who has been working with the residents. Together, they identified community-driven efforts that would also engage students and faculty. Visconti then shared the opportunities with campus colleagues. The College of Nursing and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications Department joined the partnership that began in November 2016 and continues today.
“I felt from the get-go we had a golden opportunity to demonstrate that CU is a good neighbor—that we care about what’s going on in people’s lives, we know we have a lot of resources and we’re eager to serve,” Visconti says. “I think that’s what we conveyed to the Denver Meadows residents. This big looming campus cares about them and paid attention to what they had to say.”
Ninety-two percent of Denver Meadows families own their own homes or are paying down loans. Many of the residents have lived more than 20 years in the park and would have no place to go if they had to leave. Aurora currently has no lot vacancies.
Chiriboga-Flor, of 9to5 Colorado, says the CU involvement will help raise awareness of housing issues affecting Aurora residents, particularly those who live at Denver Meadows.
“Having an ally and partner like the university saying we care and support this neighborhood really helps us a lot,” she says. “It’s powerful for the residents to know that there is such an interest in what’s happening to them.”
Identifing Community Concerns
For Scott Harpin, PhD, MPH, director of community engagement and an assistant professor at CU Anschutz’s College of Nursing, the request to conduct a community needs assessment was the perfect opportunity to give his students field experience.
“It was a great collaboration—we knew right away that mental health promotion was one of the main outcomes of our needs assessment,” he says. “Our students took both a microscopic and telescopic look at the community to confirm that end.”
Denver Meadows residents were “grateful to have students come down and listen to their case,” says Harpin, adding that the final assessment was delivered to the residents and proved to be an important learning experience for the nursing students.
“That’s the whole point of us being good neighbors,” he says. “While CU has so many great partnerships across the Front Range, the ones we have within the four-mile radius of our campus should be our priority.”
Service learning is an important educational tool because it helps students understand the real world—even if it’s just outside the campus, Harpin says.
He added, “It transcends educating nurses—it’s making them good citizens going forward, long after graduation.”
The goal of the community needs assessment was to give residents the opportunity to share with students the strengths of their community and help identify areas that could be improved, says nursing student Sibelle Barbosa. Students interviewed the residents and discovered a tight-knit group who looked out for each other. But questions about their housing status led residents to experience anxiety, depression and other health issues.
“We looked at the whole context,” she says. “We learned that the environment and what’s going on in their lives did affect their health and we were grateful they were open to discuss their problems.”
Barbosa, who graduates this month, says she’ll remember the Denver Meadows experience long after she leaves campus and gets a nursing job.
“I will be a better nurse because of this experience,” she says. “It helped me understand how important it is to look at the whole person, not just their diagnosis.”
Telling the Denver Meadows Story with the Residents
When Suzanne Stromberg, MA, a lecturer at CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications Department, heard about Denver Meadows, she felt a video project documenting the stories of Denver Meadows residents would be valuable to both Denver Meadows and the students in her Theories of Leadership class.
“We had to talk about the fact that they were there to capture a story, not engineer it,” says Stromberg. “My students developed relationships with the families and were incredibly gracious and dedicated.”
Stromberg says she was struck by the willingness of faculty from both CU Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus to collaborate on the project.
CU Denver communications student Valeria Moran wanted to work with the Denver Meadows community because she grew up in a trailer park in Edwards, Colo. Her parents, who worked in the service industry in the affluent mountain community, had trouble finding affordable housing for Moran and her three siblings.
“Having grown up in a trailer park, I knew what it was like to worry about finding someplace else to live,” says Moran. “First they (Denver Meadows residents) had their guard up, but after we spent time with them, they made us feel at home anytime we came to visit.”
Moran hopes the completed video will be a powerful advocacy tool for the Denver Meadows community.
“They were brave to get on camera and tell their stories, so I really hope our work is beneficial and helps them,” she adds.
Brenda Gutierrez, a Denver Meadows resident for three years, participated in both the video and community assessment survey. She says she wants to do everything she can to save her double-wide trailer, home for her and her four children, ages three, eight, 12 and 13.
A single mother, Gutierrez still owes $12,000 on the trailer and works double shifts as a cashier at Taco Mex on Colfax Avenue, just four miles from CU Anschutz.
“It’s very stressful—I work both shifts to make extra money to pay down the trailer,” says Gutierrez, adding that she’s had panic attacks when she thinks about having to move from Denver Meadows.
She says the nursing students helped the residents with ideas on how to improve their health and manage their stress. And the communications students gave them an ability to proudly tell their stories about their homes, families, history and community.
“It was really helpful because it gave us strength that we felt we had lost,” she says. “It made us feel we could still have stable homes and keep our dreams alive.”