Alamosa County, Colorado
2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
In Alamosa County, Advancing a Vision of Well-Being by Listening to Each Other
A visit to Milagros Coffee House in Alamosa County, Colo., is about so much more than a dose of morning caffeine. Known as the “community living room,” the coffee house is one of five social enterprises, including a nearby thrift store and boutique, operated by the social services nonprofit La Puente to fund efforts focused on food justice and security, strengthening families, housing affordability, and advancing behavioral and mental health for more than 16,000 residents of the San Luis Valley.
Efforts like these are plentiful in Alamosa County. Grassroots, nonprofit, and government leaders have developed a trained eye for integrating community needs into opportunities for collaboration and ingenuity. The largest population center in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa County has worked hard to overcome its remoteness and arid environment for generations by being resourceful. Rather than compete for funding, time, space, or the spotlight, community members form partnerships to address needs and make long-term changes for a better future.
“We listen to those closest to the pain, closest to the lived experience,” said Israel Garcia, a community organizer for The Colorado Trust, a health equity foundation.
Residents say a new way of thinking began to emerge in the past decade or so. Traditional powerbrokers—local businesses, nonprofits, government—recognized they had a role to play in reaching solutions but didn’t have all the answers. Boosting opportunity for all Alamosans meant creating avenues for underrepresented, unheard communities to increase their voice in shaping policies, systems, and programs.
Local groups formed their own versions of “resident teams,” small groups of people representing different parts of the county who identify and share issues of health inequities in their communities. And other forms of engagement welcomed and elevated new perspectives. For instance, the Revitalize the Rio Community Initiative, organized by San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLV GO!), worked with community members in various neighborhoods to connect different parts of the county with the Rio Grande and public open space close to it.
Andy Rice, the City of Alamosa’s director of parks, recreation, and library, said, “Relationships matured to the point where we see one another as trusted partners.”
In 2012, the closing of a nearby mushroom farm meant unemployment, financial strain, and food insecurity for much of the county’s Guatemalan population. Guatemalan community elders Francisco Lucas and Lucia Nicolas reached out to local groups, including the San Luis Valley Local Food Coalition, the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center, and the area’s Catholic parish. Together, they pulled resources, raised funds, and in 2015 formed what became the Rio Grande Farm Park, a working farm on the land of a closed school. Nestled along the river, the Farm Park has emerged as a source of food and income for more than a dozen Guatemalan families who cultivate their own plots of land, as well as a place of recreation and community for all. As residents faced food insecurity in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Farm Park launched a grant-funded farm-to-pantry program, which pays its farmers to grow fresh produce for pantries throughout the San Luis Valley region.
The Farm Park also aligns with the Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) policy initiative, which was enacted in 2019 by the City of Alamosa and was the culmination of a years-long journey. In 2006, community members organized to promote improved nutrition and develop local food systems, which resulted in the HEAL plan. Recognized by the state, the initiative led Alamosa to become one of the first communities to form an outpost of Nourish Colorado, which addresses inequities in access to healthy food and physical activity, at a local health center.
We listen to those closest to the pain, closest to the lived experience.
—Israel Garcia, Community Organizer,
The Colorado Trust
Alamosa County, Colorado
Earning the Culture of Health Prize is a recognition of what people in Alamosa County have accomplished together. Jamie Dominguez, owner of a restaurant and construction company, is a resident activist who has spearheaded several local initiatives, including partnering with people living at a nearby homeless encampment along the Rio Grande, to improve the ways the county addresses homelessness. Dominguez describes Alamosa County residents as “active partners” committed to improving their own and their neighbors’ conditions, reflecting a community-wide value that everyone has a role to play.
“If we’re going to be healthy, we all have to handle our piece,” he said.