Neighborhood Navigators are making Eagle County feel like home for everyone | VailDaily.com

Neighborhood Navigators are making Eagle County feel like home for everyone

Community ambassadors work to improve quality of life for traditionally under-served Latinx populations

Kelli Duncan
Special to the Daily
Gurrola Herrera poses in front of the "Altar de los Muertos" with one of the kids who attended the celebration dressed as a character from Coco, the animated Disney movie about Día de los Muertos.
Special to the Daily

The Neighborhood Navigators, a group of six passionate Latina women, is working to create equity and elevate the voices of Hispanic people in Eagle County in a very simple, yet revolutionary way. They take time to listen and be present in their community.

By stationing community leaders or Navigators in different areas around Eagle County, the organization has built deep relationships, created countless connections to resources, planned events, advocated for improvements to public transit — all in direct response to needs expressed to them by disenfranchised local residents.

Taking the time to build trust with their neighbors has allowed these women to become beacons of hope for people who are struggling but unsure of where to turn or how to make their voices heard.

Carolina Guzman, the Neighborhood Navigator for the town of Eagle, said that her work reinforces her belief that anyone can be a catalyst for change in their community.

“I really believe that one person can make a difference,” Guzman said. “There is a passage that I love called ‘La Estrella del Mar’ and it talks about a child who is walking down a beach picking up starfish that the ocean has washed up onshore and throwing them back into the ocean.”

Guzman explained that the beach was very long and there were countless starfish scattered across the sand, drying out in the sun. As the child was walking along, a man saw him and asked what he was doing. The child explained that he was returning the starfish to the sea so that they did not die.

The man told the child that he was foolish, there were way too many starfish on the beach and so it would be impossible to save them. At this point in the story, a slow smile crept across Guzman’s face.

“…And the child threw another starfish in the ocean and said to the man, ‘Maybe I can’t save all of them, but I saved that one,’” she recounted.

“If we all just believed in ourselves and believed in the fact that we can make a difference, things would be very different,” she added. “It only takes one person to make a change and that is how I try to live my life.”

Building trust

Norma Gurrola Herrera, the Neighborhood Navigator for the town of Dotsero, said that, for her, making a change in Eagle County is all about building trust.

“For me, the work of a Navigator is to open yourself up to trusting the people who are also trusting you with their needs,” Gurrola Herrera said. “It is also about respecting the fact that that member of the community may be going through a very difficult moment in their life and they are trusting in you to help them figure out how they can keep going.”

Gurrola Herrera said that she considers it a privilege to be able to support local families in this way.

“In my work as a Neighborhood Navigator, it impassions me that people in my community choose to open up to me and to look at me as a leader,” she said. “I am glad to be able to help people through being a leader and to motivate them to be leaders in their community as well.”

Julieta Cavallo serves as the Neighborhood Navigator for the town of Edwards because of the connections she has made as a teacher at Edwards Elementary.

“[Being a Neighborhood Navigator] means passion for helping community members with different needs,” Cavallo said. “I started because as a school teacher parents always come to me to share different experiences, so I saw the need for those families to express themselves and have someone in front of them listening to them.”

Guzman said the Navigators’ work towards elevating the voices of local residents in need is especially important for immigrant communities where people may be too afraid to speak out and ask for help out of fear of how it would affect their immigration status in the wake of the ‘public charge’ announcement.

“If people are not informed, they are going to choose not to take the risk of getting into trouble with immigration over public charge,” she said. “If a service needs to ask for information, they should explain why they need it and that it will not be shared with the government or with immigration so that people are not afraid to go and access services.”

Guzman said that the current political climate has made the work of the Neighborhood Navigators even more important because they are able to reach populations that have shied away from accessing government services.

“People really trust us enough to say, you know, I don’t have enough food to eat or I have kids to take care of but I have to work and these are all things that they may feel less comfortable saying directly to, for example, Public Health,” she said.

Advocating for community needs

Guzman said one thing she is currently working on for the Eagle community is to advocate for improvements in public transit.

“It’s difficult because there’s only one bus schedule that runs on I-70 and many times there isn’t a bus stop close enough to home,” she said. “It’s hard for the residents that live farther away and, especially in winter, it can be dangerous for people to walk that far.”

Guzman said that another issue that she is very concerned with is childcare and early childhood education options in the valley.

“Many families tell me that they are worried because they work all day and they don’t have anyone to take care of their children and they don’t know where their kids are during the day,” she said. “To not know what your kids are doing — that is a horrible feeling.”

In addition to advocacy and resource connection, the Neighborhood Navigators also spend a lot of time speaking with residents about how they can plan recreational events that will bring people out of their homes to spend time with their family and with their community.

“People are not as connected to the places where they live now. Especially us Hispanic people, oftentimes we focus only on working and working and, when you do this, you miss out on time with your family,” Guzman said. “I think if we spent more time with family and more time trying to improve the places where we live, we would all feel a lot more connected.”

For this reason, the organization uses most of its funding to hold family-oriented events where people can come and just enjoy time with their neighbors and loved ones.

Dia de los Muertos

One such event took place last Friday in the dining hall of Colorado Mountain College in Edwards. The event was called “Mexico para el Mundo” and celebrated the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.

“In the Mexican culture, it is very important to us to celebrate the dead because their souls come to us on this day to look for a ray of light and we want to celebrate that,” Gurrola Herrera said.

Gurrola Herrera explained the traditions of Día de los Muertos which center around a large, beautifully adorned altar.

“The ‘Altar de Muertos,’ or altar of the dead, is a very important tradition where you make an altar with pictures of people, loved ones, who have passed away,” Gurrola Herrera said.
Special to the Daily

“The “Altar de Muertos,” or altar of the dead, is a very important tradition where you make an altar with pictures of people, loved ones, who have passed away,” she said. “You put food and drinks because they say that the souls of the dead come to look for what they liked when they were alive. The smell of the flowers is the aroma that makes them come.”

Gurrola Herrera said she does not know of any other public celebrations of Día de los Muertos in Eagle County, so she was excited to provide a place where locals could come to connect with their loved ones who have died.

“This is our culture, this is something that we have been celebrating for years so to see a big celebration like this in our community, I feel like people feel that we have brought a little bit of them and their culture here,” she said. “It makes me happy that we can all coexist and that we can share this celebration with other people who may not know much about it.”

Looking to the future

Gurrola Herrera said that her hope is that the Neighborhood Navigators will grow into a more established organization with wide community support.

“Our program is completely dependent on funding from grants and individual donors so that is very important for our work to be able to continue,” she said “Economic support is fundamental to our being able to continue planning events and projects in the community.”

Gurrola Herrera and Guzman agreed that if the Neighborhood Navigators received funding to place them in full-time positions, they would be thrilled to leave their day jobs to follow their passion.

“If you truly like your job, then it’s not really a job. It’s your passion,” Gurrola Herrera said. “So if I have to work for Navigators on a Saturday or a Sunday, I don’t feel tired because it’s what I love to do. All of the energy I put in, I get back when I see people smiling or hear them calling me because they know they can count on me.”

Kelli Duncan is a marketing and volunteer coordinator with The Community Market, a project of Eagle Valley Community Foundation. For more information on the Neighborhood Navigators of Eagle County, go to https://sites.google.com/view/neighborhoodnavigators/home