The truth is I don’t remember too much about the beginning, but here’s what I do remember.
On my way to Portland in August 99 I stopped in Boulder to visit friends. I’d just graduated with an undergrad business degree from the University of Michigan and spent the summer interning at an amazing psychiatric treatment facility. It was the 1st nonprofit I worked with and I learned about how it operated and was inspired by how it got started. I worked on improving their volunteer program, but I didn’t help much. More impactful was what happened after the work hours. The facility was an hour from my house in Ann Arbor, so a few days a week I’d sleep in my tent on the property. At night I’d hang out with the residents, connect with them, eat, play pool, paint canvases, and hear their stories.
Also in my last two years of college I volunteered at a level 4 prison in Jackson, MI facilitating creative writing workshops for 10 inmates. It was out of my comfort zone, and I was often nervous before class. After class I was usually feeling like that was the best 2 hours of the week. Pushing myself to write new things while opening the door for others who really needed an opportunity to be creative, travel far away from their cells, write, and share.
It was experiences like these that made it clear what I wanted to do with my life – open doors for folks while really getting to know them. It wasn’t like charity, I wasn’t handing out anything to people I didn’t get to know. I was learning and growing a lot, and having fun of course.
When I got to Boulder I didn’t plan to stay for long. But as is the case with so many, I drove over that hill and saw the town and thought maybe I could stay for a month instead of 2 weeks. I searched for jobs in the human service field, but many of the interesting ones were looking for bilingual people, and all I had was some high school Spanish that I never used.
I ended up getting a job directing a before and after school program at an Elementary School 10 minutes from Boulder. The 1st year I had a co-director and the job was relatively easy and fun. I worked from 6-9am and from 2-6pm or so. I spent my free time learning Spanish with cassettes, taking clarinet lessons and hiking a lot in Eldorado Canyon. My 1st year in Boulder I experienced very little cultural diversity and struggled to meet new people.
In 2000, I got the summer off so I went to Costa Rica for 6 weeks to improve my Spanish and do something different. I lived with a fun and crazy family, went to Spanish class in the morning, volunteered at an elderly home in the afternoon and took some salsa lessons and played soccer at night. Life there was different and I enjoyed the challenge of the language and culture. My communication with most people was minimal, but they appreciated my effort to just experience their life and smile.
When I came back to Boulder I reconnected with Shawn Camden. Before Costa Rica I lived in a house with 3 random people. One moved out and Shawn moved in. He had just returned from a year abroad in Mexico and spoke Spanish fluently. The first time I met him he was his energetic self, telling me about how much he loved and missed Mexico and how he sang in theater there. I thought he was fascinating, but during the 6 months we lived together we hardly saw each other.
After Costa Rica I wanted to continue those cross-cultural connections in Boulder, and I remembered that Shawn had been connecting with Latinos here and mentioned something about teaching English. He was going to CU, acting, and working part-time at Savers (a thrift store) where he met lots of Latino families. A lot of them expressed a desire to learn English, so he taught a few.
That sounded like a cool way to connect with different folks in our community, and Shawn and I thought that maybe others would be interested in that opportunity too.
Shawn introduced me to another world in Boulder. He connected me with a family from Mexico, and I went to their house twice a week to teach the mom and dad English. Usually one or the other was more available. They were so appreciative and it was fun. I got to know their 2 kids, and also 5 more of their family members when they appeared one day to live with them in their small apartment.
Juan, the dad, told me a lot about the challenges of the Latino community here – not knowing the language or culture, working difficult low-paying jobs. He also demonstrated some of their strong cultural values and was just great to be around. It was like the feeling when I left the prison, usually the best and most enlightening 2 hours of my week.
I’d wanted to gain experience in the nonprofit world, and since it was tough to get decent jobs, I thought that the best way to learn about nonprofits and get some real experience was to start one. I was excited about our idea to create a program where volunteers taught English to adult immigrants (just Latinos at first and eventually people from all over the world), but I didn’t think that us two ordinary 23 year olds could make it work.
I started talking with the few friends I had at that time to see if they’d be interested in getting trained and matched with an individual to teach. They all said yes. Shawn began knocking on doors in neighborhoods highly concentrated with Latino immigrants, and many welcomed him in along with the opportunity to participate. We called the program Inglés para Latinos. Luckily we changed the name quickly. One day in my kitchen we were thinking of names and we wanted something cool that expressed the two-way nature. Intercambio de Comunidades Español/Inglés (ICE). Luckily again we quickly dropped the Español/Inglés and ICE because the INS (Immigration Enforcement) later changed their acronym to ICE.
We began recruiting volunteers at the University of Colorado (CU). I observed a teacher training in Denver, and I started developing one we could use and trained people in my living room and at the library. I went to the Boulder Bookstore and looked for books we could use to teach English. Community Action Programs let us use their copy machine and CU gave us donated binders. Some volunteers taught at people’s homes like I did, and others taught groups in the evening at schools thanks to donated space from the school district. Within the first 4 months I think we had around 40 volunteers and 100 students. I began thinking that this thing may actually happen!
But we were both volunteering 50-60 hours a week while I was still working full time at the school and Shawn was working, going to school and acting. This was not a sustainable life so we needed to raise money (also to pay off enormous cell phone bills from unexpected minute overage), but there was no time and neither of us knew how to raise money.
We needed official nonprofit status, and one day I stumbled upon the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, which serves as a fiscal sponsor for infant-stage ideas. We applied, wrote a plan, did a competitive analysis to demonstrate the tremendous need, and we were quickly accepted. It was perfect – it allowed us write grants and accept contributions, and they handled all the admin stuff so we could focus on growing the program.
Our first official “office” came after we spoke on KGNU and mentioned that we were looking for free space. Nina at The Volunteer Resource Center at CU responded, and we shared one small room with two of their workers. Our donated computers were super slow and the printer rarely worked, but it was a step up from nothing.
One of early volunteers interned for the Daily Camera, and in February 2001 she wrote an article for the paper. It was huge, literally and figuratively. It attracted many people interested in getting involved, including two amazing semi-retired women, Rivvy and Ann, who ended up volunteering for a year to help us develop the program and raise money.
It’s hard to raise money when your income statement is like $100. Few funders want to risk giving if you have no guarantee that you won’t run out of money and go under next month.
Rivvy introduced us to Carmen, who worked for the City of Boulder Office of Human Rights. Her office had a discretionary pot of funding was to be used to reduce racism in the city following the Rodney King riots. She thought that our program was a good fit, so we got our first $5,000!
Carmen then connected us with Boulder’s Human Relations Commission, which had a bigger pot of discretionary funding. We brought 40 Intercambio students to City Council Chambers to present to the Commissioners, and it was amazing seeing our brave students step up to the microphone and share their dreams and need for this opportunity to learn English. Some of those people have since become real leaders in our community. The Commissioners were blown away and granted us $15,000. That’s the moment when it became even more real.
After that we got some significant grants from the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, The Brett Family Foundation, and the Adolph Coors Foundation (which later stopped funding us after realizing we serve immigrants and we don’t ask for documentation because we believe that we’re all better off when people can communicate, understand laws and cultural norms, and succeed). We also received the NOVA award for innovation and excellence in Education.
We finally had enough money to scale back our regular jobs (which I began to suck at because my focus was elsewhere) and start focusing even more on Intercambio. The rest is history!