Rob Andrews could have celebrated a significant victory this week for the area of Colorado Springs that has been his home since childhood.
Andrews could have boasted about helping convince the Southeast YMCA to reinstate a program for Sierra High School kids who need positive options. He could have used that situation to enhance his own political hopes.
Instead, the 25-year-old Andrews focused on another issue — trying to develop a multi-family community garden for that part of the city.
"We've got the money," Andrews says of the plan for 10 families to cultivate food for themselves and perhaps others. "We just don't have a place to do it. We've checked out several possibilities, but nothing has worked out. It's too bad, because we have families ready to go, and we're getting close to the end [of planting season]. Hopefully somebody can help us make it happen."
It's an admirable quest, creating a community garden for an area brimming with low-income and military families. But nothing comes easily on that end of town, basically everything south of Airport Road and east of Circle Drive.
Andrews knows, better than most. His family moved there in 1992 when he was a grade-school kid. He saw others make bad choices and take wrong turns. He stayed on track, all the way through Sierra, then as a student-athlete at Hastings College in Nebraska. His prowess took him to the Canadian Football League, and he might have gone higher except for a broken ankle as a college senior.
He ended up back here last year as a key local staffer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. But it wasn't just about politics. It was about making his home neighborhood a better place, and awakening people who felt ignored.
"I did see a difference, after the election was over," Andrews says. "It was like a voice being heard, a new sense of pride, like our views were finally shared with everyone."
Andrews felt inspired to build on that. He began campaigning for the Colorado Springs City Council, to join the District 4 race against Bernie Herpin and Tony Carpenter. Then came the February deadline to qualify for the ballot, and Andrews didn't have enough valid petition signatures. His quest ended, and Andrews knew he had let people down.
"I learned a lesson that I can't do everything myself," Andrews says. "I had just come from being an Obama organizer, doing it all myself. But I learned that when you're the candidate, you can't do it all. You need help."
He has noticed something else since then: "The excitement has died down a little bit. People have started to become complacent again."
Andrews isn't waiting for the next election. When he sees a chance to help others, he's there. Like at the Southeast Y, which shut down an after-school program because five of the 105 participants got in trouble for fighting. Andrews and others met with Y staff, who soon promised to revive the program.
"We had 100 kids who never did anything wrong," Andrews says, adding that parents had paid $25 per child — and for most, $25 was huge. Those are the families, and kids, Andrews wants to have a better life. That's why, during his City Council effort, he started a group called One Voice Coalition, which now has about 50 volunteers.
"We're doing projects to get the community engaged and give people a reason to take pride," he says. "I still want to do all [the] things that need to be done."
Like that community garden. Andrews doesn't mind giving out his cell number (433-3345) if anyone has an idea or a piece of land that might be available.
Beyond the garden, he has more plans.
"I see the city at a tipping point for intolerance," he says. "People are tired of just talking about problems. They're looking for answers.
"We're trying to unite people from different backgrounds. We don't have a minority coalition here, and we need one. For instance, the school dropout rates in District 2 and District 11 speak for themselves. It's about time we address those issues together — and we have some people on board now that weren't before. And because I grew up here, this is something personal."
It's also how real community leaders are born.