Longtime Vail Valley nonprofit leader Susie Davis steps into new role with Guardian Scholars
Former head of the Eagle Valley Community Foundation is ready to pass the torch
Susie Davis, a longtime force for change in the local nonprofit sector, has been named the new executive director of Guardian Scholars, a scholarship program that supports local, first-generation college students.
Ron Davis, the founder of Guardian Scholars who shares a last name with his new executive director, said that choosing Davis to lead the organization was the natural and obvious choice.
“To know Susie is to love her,” Ron Davis said Monday. “To have her lead us into the next chapter of Guardian Scholars is exciting and gratifying. She just always brings energy and new life.”
Many people in the valley know Susie Davis, especially those involved in the nonprofit world, but perhaps not so many truly understand the breadth of her influence.
“She’s the most experienced and connected person across all aspects of the valley, the needs of the valley, and with experience comes perspective,” said Mike Rushmore, the board president of Eagle Valley Community Foundation and a longtime friend of Susie Davis.
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After moving to the valley in the late ’70s, Davis helped get the “business education partnership” off the ground, an organization that has since become the Education Foundation of Eagle County and is dedicated to supporting educational excellence and opportunity in county schools, she said Monday.
She went on to become the second-ever employee of the Youth Foundation, now known as YouthPower365, in 1999.
During her tenure there, she and Ron Davis began dreaming up what would become the Guardian Scholars program, he said. Davis served on the board of the organization and as a mentor for many of the students that benefited from the financial, academic and social-emotional support the program has offered over the years.
After leaving the Youth Foundation, Davis was “a critical cornerstone” in the founding of the Eagle Valley Community Foundation in 2016, Rushmore said.
“Since the day Susie joined the earliest conversations exploring the very possibility of a local community foundation, the organization has been infused with her DNA,” Rushmore said in a statement for the Eagle Valley Community Foundation’s March newsletter.
Eagle Valley Community Foundation has two main projects: The Community Market, the valley’s first food bank that partners with local agencies to bring fresh, good quality food directly into low-income neighborhoods, and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance, or MIRA, a traveling RV that delivers public health resources to underserved communities.
Davis served as the organization’s director of community impact, securing funding and providing leadership through periods of massive growth, she said. EVCF’s director of operations, Laura Hartman, called Davis “the heartbeat” of the foundation.
When the pandemic hit, the need for food assistance and public health support soared across the valley, Davis said. The Community Market went from serving about 1,000 customers each week to 3,800, and the MIRA bus also nearly quadrupled its services, including playing an integral role in improving access to the COVID-19 vaccine for the county’s Latinx residents.
In the fall of 2020, Davis decided it was time to pass the torch and Melina Valsecia, formerly the head of MIRA, was named as EVCF’s new executive director.
After working under Davis for years, Valsecia said she is thankful to have benefited from her mentorship.
“True leaders are rare and [Davis] is one,” Valsecia said Monday.
‘The security time is not my passion’
Davis was involved with each of these projects in the initial, terrifying years when the future was uncertain, organizational identities were still being formed and directors were working long hours just to fund their own positions. Just as each organization becomes institutionalized and stabilized, she takes her leave, off to the next adventure and – believe it or not – that is intentional.
“I’m interested in that initial, lean time, you know, that risk,” Davis said. “I love the risk time. The security time is not my passion, it doesn’t drive me. I’m not good at it.”
Davis thrives in chaos. As a former employee of hers, I have seen it. When the future is the most uncertain and everyone else is frustrated to the point of tears, she will give a little giggle, offer a reminder that ’these things happen’ and set about addressing the challenges at hand.
“I think my survival kind of as a human is that I can’t be fear-based,” Davis said. “I know this is corny, but I think there’s love and there’s fear and I really want to be the love.”
Coming from a family of “alcoholics and drug addicts,” Davis said she rejected the fear that came with seeing the disregard that her family members had for their own health and safety. She became comfortable with chaos and with risk.
When she was a teenager, this comfort led her to hitchhike across the country with reckless abandon, she said. As she found her passion for organizational leadership, she began to put her knack for risk-taking to better use, she joked.
A more equitable future
In a community that is rife with economic disparity, Davis said she has always cared more about the issues than the organizations. She is constantly in motion, constantly looking at the bigger picture of how to create a more equitable future where Eagle Valley’s public and private leadership is more representative of its population – a future where everyone, as Davis often says, feels “known, needed and cared for.”
As the new executive director for the Guardian Scholars program, Davis said she is excited to be at the helm of an organization that doesn’t just provide financial aid to college students, but serves as a loving support network equipped to address any of the myriad reasons why someone might drop out of college.
The program is designed to empower low-income students to become the first in their family to attend college, Davis said.
Nationally, just 11% of low-income, first-generation youth end up graduating college, according to the Guardian Scholars website.
For Guardian Scholars alumnae David Garcia, who said his parents would have struggled greatly to support him through college, the program completely changed the way he thought about his future.
“I wanted to go straight into the workforce to provide for my family,” Garcia said Monday. “We were kind of struggling at the time, so my idea was to go straight into construction work.”
Garcia didn’t think college was an option for him and recalled crying on the phone when he was named as a Guardian Scholar, allowing him to graduate from Colorado Mesa University in the spring of 2020 completely debt-free.
Supporting young people in their formative years of uncertainty, exploration and growth is a lot like supporting a fledgling nonprofit. In both cases, “it’s not a matter of if you will fail, but when you will fail,” Davis said, and it takes a level of fearlessness and adaptability to get back up and keep going.
It was this collective vision that helped Garcia push through his final two years at CMU after struggling with depression, he said.
Now, Garcia said he is helping mentor other young men like him through his position with My Future Pathways, a partner of the Guardian Scholars program that aims to increase the college graduation rate among local, Latino men.
“Most of these boys just want to provide for their families and what they don’t understand is that by investing in yourself first — your education, getting a degree, being more employable and being a leader in the valley — you can provide much more for your family,” Garcia said.
“There’s just no pathway that has been set up for them yet, so I believe to reach their peaks, their own success, it’s a lot harder,” he said. “When you have someone to look up to, someone who you can relate to, it’s going to be a lot more manageable.”
Davis said her goal in leading the organization is to grow the program’s alumni network so that more Latinx residents like Garcia can lead in shaping a new future for their community.
“[Davis’] past and future influence will be felt for generations of people who call the Eagle Valley their home,” Rushmore said.
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org