If you don't have children, or they're already out on their own, you're not off the hook. It's still vitally important to invest in the young people of this community. They will be your neighbors; they will be our leaders.
Dr. H. Dalton Conner, a periodontist, and Steven Mullens, an attorney, knew this. In 1998, they began guaranteeing college scholarships to sixth-graders with good grades and positive behavior.
That program grew into Peak Education, which now focuses on the students who fit those criteria in Harrison School District 2's Carmel Middle School. Currently, 115 students are part of the program, ranging from those still at Carmel to those now working through college. And the nonprofit reports that based on its numbers so far, there's a 93 percent chance that the former will turn into the latter.
Peak Education is built on four components, starting with college and career readiness. Staff members and volunteers help kids maintain good grades, feel confident about their goals, navigate application processes, develop accountability, and network with their peers.
"The students need to have people in their lives that they know are going to show up and will always support them and encourage them and believe in them," says Vennita Browning, program director.
The second component is leadership development, for which students and parents attend leadership camps at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and formulate their visions of success.
"They share with their parents about their goals and dreams and the support system they know is in place, and where they think their parents fit into that system," says Dee Beaudette, chief executive officer. "They make a huge commitment to their parents that they will do their best."
The camps' lessons are reinforced with meetings in Carmel's Peak Education Center.
"Peak Education's goals dovetail greatly with what we are already doing, with what we want to do," principal Ted Knight says. "I think the relationship helps each of us move forward. We keep collaborating, coming up with new ideas, new partnerships."
Those partnerships include one with MasterDrive, which teaches teens to be good citizens by driving safely; BiggsKofford accounting firm, which supplies mentors; and Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, which provides field trips and works with Carmel's pioneering physics department, among other projects.
The third component is family engagement. Staffers learn about the families' needs and develop relationships through visits to homes or wherever families feel comfortable.
"We're not social workers, we're not checking to see if they have food in their refrigerators," Browning explains. "We just see whether we're impacting the family the way we'd planned on, if we're supporting the family like we say we are."
If staffers find issues that may impede the students' progress, they'll recommend helpful resources.
The last component is community outreach. Students mentor younger students through volunteering, whether that's holding rescued puppies or cleaning trails at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
Over the past six years, Beaudette has witnessed how volunteering changes students' mindsets.
"They have been raised and trained through generational poverty to put their hands out for help," Beaudette says. "When they start volunteering, then suddenly the 'hands out' come from a place of 'I have value, I have something to give, I am important, I am a part of this community.'"
Example A of the above: Matt London. His single mother, Clara, was born with rheumatoid arthritis and can't work. College seemed a hopeless dream for Matt and his three siblings.
But Rick Price, then Carmel's principal, recognized 12-year-old Matt's potential.
"He was always saying, 'I've got something good coming up for you, but I can't tell you right now,'" London, 25, says today. "Then, one day he brought me in and they told me about Peak Education."
London graduated from UCCS with a computer science degree. He spoke at Peak Education's annual gala, where he met local FedEx executives. Long, happy story short: he's been working for FedEx since June and just moved into his brand-new house.
"I got a lot of opportunities with Peak Education, a lot of things I probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise," he says. "That exposure probably shaped me into the person I am today."
Says Browning: "He has inspired his entire family, from the teeniest person to his mother and brothers and sister. He's an inspiration to me too. I'm so darn proud of him."
He's also inspiring Francina Costa, 13, and Jessie Limary, 12. The seventh-graders are Peak Education students; both have single mothers, and both are already feeling more positive about their lives.
"I'm more determined to go to college, and I'm more sure that I'm going to get there. And I know how to get there," says Francina, who wants to be an oncologist.
"Peak Education shows us what we can do for college and what we can do in college. It pushes us on for college and shows us that we can be the next leaders," adds Jessie, who's thinking about graphic design.
Knight shares their sense of hope for brighter futures.
"We have a lot of at-risk kids in this community who have a lot to offer," he says. "So I think that partnerships like Peak Education can help level that playing field. We'll have a lot more success stories here."