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Colorado Uplift: Teaching kids ‘To be like Mike’ and transmit values to their juniors

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When Mike Riley (left) was Colorado Uplift’s first employee 32 years ago, one of his first clients was 15-year-old Victor Vellum. Today Vellum (right) is an area director for the program. Photo: Rob Waters

By Rob Waters

It’s a windy January afternoon in Denver and 35 students are piling into vans outside East High School, preparing for their weekly trip to elementary school. Inside the vehicles, R&B music mixes with teenage conversation.

The vans pull up at Hallett Fundamental Academy and the students, all juniors and seniors, spill out and cluster on the sidewalk. Teacher/mentor Cory Wilson offers some last-minute instructions. “Remember, when you’re reading to the kids, if you mess up, that’s OK—just start over again,” Cory says. “Show them it’s OK to make a mistake and move forward.”

He stops and flashes a withering look at two young men chatting audibly at the back of the cluster. “Really?” he says. “That’s cold.” He pauses for another moment and then exhorts the group to “rock it.”

They march upstairs and enter the 4th grade classrooms in groups of four or five. The young mentors of Little Lift—a flagship program of Colorado Uplift, a 34-year-old youth development agency—have arrived.

In classroom 214, teacher Sarah Myers steps to the back, relinquishing control to the high school students. After a few words of introduction, one of them begins reading aloud from a children’s book, Rock, Brock, and the Savings Shock, a tale about twin brothers with different spending habits that conveys a message on the importance of saving money.

The class breaks into small groups and one of them gathers in a circle around 17-year-old Taylor Whitmore. She asks her group what they’d buy if they saved some money and a girl named Precious raises her hand. She says she’d like to save for a computer and might earn money by selling lemonade.

For Whitmore, a senior, it’s her second year in the Little Lift program. Its goal is to foster relationships and deliver lessons about character and values—part of Colorado Uplift’s broader effort to provide community and support to Denver youth at risk of being derailed by trauma, violence and poverty.

For the 4th graders, the lessons go over especially well coming from a group they look up to: teenagers. “My kids look forward to Wednesdays—they remind me of it first thing in the morning,” says teacher Myers. “The high-schoolers relate really well to my kids. With the same group every week, they build relationships. Even kids with behavior problems—they’re awesome in here because the high-schoolers are patient and understanding.”

Still, it’s hard to say who gets the most out of the program. Whitmore and her peers enjoy the adulation and respect that come their way—and with their ability to act as guides and mentors. Whitmore says she’s been thrilled to run into “my Little Lift kids” at Walmart and have them proudly introduce her to their parents. She’s especially connected to Precious.

“When I first had Precious last year, she was quiet and sad all the time, she didn’t talk to anyone,” Whitmore says. “But she loved the activities, the skits and games we played. This year, she’s loud, laughing, a completely different girl. I love seeing that and I feel like I helped in some way.”

For Whitmore, enrolling in the class gave her a sense of family she’d been missing. Three years ago, she kicked her father, an abusive alcoholic, out of the home where she lives with her mother and sister. “It wasn’t a healthy thing for me” to live with him, she says. She spent much of the next year drinking, cutting herself, and battling depression. She credits Colorado Uplift with helping her turn her life around.

“When I entered, I met these people who actually cared,” Whitmore says. “I clicked with them really quick, like big brothers and sisters I never had. I made a whole new family—and once you’re in the family, you’re never out.” Next year, she’ll share a room with one of those sisters when she starts at Colorado State University—the first member of her family to go to college.

Back outside, Whitmore climbs into a van with Inacia DaCunha-Neto, an Uplift supervisor better known as Egi. “I love the vans,” Whitmore says. “The van is the place to have conversation. Whenever I’m feeling like I need to break down and let it all out, I can just call Egi and we ride around for 15 minutes while I cry. And she’ll just sit there and listen.”

DaCunha-Neto knows that feeling from both ends. Born in Namibia in Southern Africa, her family migrated to Denver when she was 3. Now 29, she’s been on the staff for six years and involved with the program since she attended an Uplift summer camp at the age of 10. Colorado Uplift has helped her through traumas that could have crushed her: the abandonment of the family by her father, the death of two siblings, the suicide of her mother.

Through all of that, Uplift staff members, especially Victor Nellum and his wife Q, have been rocks of support. Q was the person who first found out when DaCunha-Neto was awarded a full college scholarship and the person DaCunha-Neto called when she discovered her mother’s body in their home. Victor, a pastor and longtime Uplift executive, performed her mother’s funeral service.

“I consider Vic a father figure, the only father I’ve really known,” DaCunha-Neto says. “I call Q my big sister. I owe a lot of who I am to Uplift; my life definitely could have been different. I look at some old friends and say, ‘That could have been me: doing nothing, having kids and not taking care of them.’”

The circle of relationship that leads from Taylor Whitmore to Inacia DaCunha-Neto to Victor and Q Nellum stretches back to Mike Riley, Colorado Uplift’s first employee and now its senior ambassador. A graduate of seminary school, Riley moved to Denver from Missouri and got involved with civil rights work and youth development. In 1982, he helped start Colorado Uplift, which then focused on job training.

Riley began working with high schools and forging relationships with young people. He helped prepare them for job interviews, dressed low-income black teenagers in suits and took them to auto dealerships to show them how it felt to be treated with respect.

One of those teenagers was 15-year-old Victor Nellum. Nellum grew up in a tough family in a violence-plagued section of Denver. His mother struggled with addiction, his uncles were in and out of jail, and his father wasn’t around. He was raised largely by his grandmother, who sometimes hid him under her bed when gunfire erupted outside.

Nellum met Riley at Uplift’s job-training program at his high school and then began seeing him in his neighborhood. Riley would drive by in his van and take him and other kids on outings and meals. “His job was to build a relationship with us, to be a positive role model in our life,” Nellum recalls. “I just knew he was the Uplift dude in the ugly two-tone van. We’d say, ‘Here comes our boy; here comes Big Mike.’ He’d take us skiing, take us to the mountains. A lot of us had never been outside the city limits.”

For a while, Nellum felt torn: Sell marijuana and hang with his friends or spend time with Big Mike? One night, Riley invited him on an outing when his friends were going to a party. He decided to do both and went with Riley, planning to go late to the party. When Riley dropped him off two hours later, police cars and an ambulance lined the street. A friend ran up and said, “Man, where you been? You missed it. You missed the action.”

For Nellum, that was a turning point. “People I knew got killed at that party. For my friend, that was where the action was. But I thought, ‘No, I shouldn’t have been there. What I missed was getting shot or killed.’ That was when my life changed, when I started spending more time with Mike than my friends.”

Nellum began volunteering. He enjoyed the satisfaction of helping other young people and realized it could become his life’s work. “Mike’s job was to mentor kids and steer them in a positive direction. I thought that was a cool job, like being part of a family business. I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to be like Mike.”

Thirty-three years later, Colorado Uplift has grown and now has a staff of more than 50. Mike Riley and Victor Nellum are still inspiring younger leaders. And Taylor Whitmore wants to be like Vic and Q. She has a goal, she says, after she finishes college: “I want to work for Uplift.”

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