Story and photo by Owen Woods | email@example.com
LANCE Cheslock, executive director of La Puente, is currently on sabbatical. So while he’s away, who’s running the show? In the interim position right now is La Puente’s director of organizational capacity, Amanda Pearson.
Pearson sat down with Alamosa Citizen for an interview to talk about Cheslock’s time away and to learn more about who she is and what her plan is going forward.
Originally from Boulder, Pearson, like many before and after her, found herself running track for Adams State College. From 1980-84, Pearson lived and ran in Alamosa. After graduating, she moved home to Boulder where she earned her law degree from Colorado University.
She and her husband moved back to Alamosa in 1987. From there, the law practice began in full swing. She soon became the special attorney for Alamosa County, specializing in child protection services.
In 1991, Pearson became an Alamosa municipal judge. She worked as a judge in Alamosa until 1998 when she and her husband moved to Crestone. While in Crestone, Pearson got a “part-time gig” as a Saguache County judge.
Pearson retired from social services in 2010. “I’m a trial lawyer and trial lawyers have a shelf life in my experience. …I had seen people who had tried to practice beyond their shelf life and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ So, I started preparing for the next phase and that was a master’s in organizational leadership.”
After graduating with that master’s degree, she became the magistrate for all child protection, truancy, and crossover youth in the San Luis Valley. Using her background and experience, Pearson wanted to do work that supported evidence-based practices for the child protection and truancy systems in the Valley. “And the funding for that ran out after 18 months and I lost a dream job,” she said.
This, though, allowed her to retire at the age of 55 and afforded her the flexibility “to really be creative with what my next career was gonna be.”
Pearson then enrolled at CSU in Fort Collins to earn a Ph.D. in organizational learning, performance, and change in 2016.
Looking at the kinds of jobs that might have a chance of improving or impacting the child protection system, she found non-profit work. “I thought maybe I need to get a job in the nonprofit world. And the next day after that realization, a job was open at La Puente.”
Like many Valley residents, Pearson was familiar with La Puente and its services. Her church would often go to the shelter and help cook meals. During her time in child protection, she worked closely with La Puente’s Adelante and PALS programs.
Pearson started at La Puente as the development director, which involved “fundraising, learning fundraising, managing grants, thinking about the financial well-being and needs of the organization in the future,” she said. “I gave a five-year commitment. I had kind of hoped that I would be able to complete my Ph.D. in five years at that point. I didn’t think there’d be a pandemic and it really kind of knocked me off my game.”
“When I was in year four, I told Lance, ‘I’m in year four and that means I plan on staying to my commitment and no longer.’ He then proceeded to work really hard in figuring out how I might stay.”
She was then hired into the position of director of organizational capacity.
Pearson sees change and transitions in La Puente’s future, not for five years or more, but because Cheslock has been doing this for so many years, and time will come for him to retire.
“He’s such a force of nature, he’s so smart, so thoughtful. He’s been doing this work so visionary in so many ways that La Puente has been built around his vision, and it’s grown and it’s grown and it’s grown, but it can’t sustain itself in a way that he would do it, because there’s not very many people like a Lance Cheslock.”
“There’s really, probably, a position for an executive level person to help us build sustainability beyond Lance, but what I’m doing probably isn’t that. What I’m doing is figuring out what that looks like.”
She’s going to work on getting La Puente to a place where it can evaluate what can be replaced, what shouldn’t be replaced, and institutionalizing many of Cheslock’s values and goals and also his storytelling mindset. These are things, Pearson said, “that I think need to survive him, but aren’t necessarily going to be brought in by another leader.”
With that in mind, Pearson is building up more capacity for La Puente’s program leaders to “think above just their programs and be leaders that can have vision for a whole organization and build some institutional memory around some of the things I think are really important, that I think we need to survive Lance’s tenure at La Puente.”
Now that she’s interim for the next four months, what are Pearson’s priorities going forward?
“I have priorities not to change everything. I think that’s unfair and unneeded. And I have things I can’t be Lance about. One of those things is community engagement. Lance has been doing this job for 30 years and the community has felt the impact of the work that we do and the demographic that we’ve served for 40 years, because we’ve been around for 40 years.”
Building intermediate leadership and community engagement are, really, her two top priorities.
But also there’s just “a lot going on,” she said. La Puente is currently in the process of closing on the former Atencio’s grocery, as well as working on the logistics of getting the building operational.
There is also the affordable housing project on 1201 State Ave. In December, La Puente applied for a $1.2 million grant from the Division of Housing. “If we get that funding, that’s a project we might be able to start working on before Lance gets back.”
Finally, she’s working on getting the PALS program its own facility. About two and a half years ago La Puente was given a piece of property on State Avenue near the railroad. Pearson said staff did a whole “vision quest around our facility needs, our program needs, our dignity needs for our clients, all of those kinds of things. We started addressing those things and one of the things we have not been able to address is our PALS program, our kids program, doesn’t have its own facility.”
PALS currently rents space from the Presbyterian Church.
La Puente has asked the county to be a fiscal agent for a grant that allows it to build infrastructure, sewer, and grating for the property. La Puente hopes to also raise the money, as well.
The facility will be trauma-informed, so building care within the facility is in the first phase of the project, after infrastructure. On top of PALS having its own space, this location will also have a community playground and community space. Eventually, there will be a retail space on the State Avenue side of the building so that “we can build some retail for the south side neighborhood.”
As part of the funding process, La Puente will have a public hearing for this project during the Feb. 8 Alamosa County Commissioners meeting.
An Update on Atencios
Pearson said things are moving along in the Atencio’s acquisition. But funding is still on its way from the government. The hope is to have the grant fully closed in March. LA Puente has also had to do environmental surveys on the property.
In April, she hopes to start on the roof restoration and replacement.
An architectural firm has been hired to design the interior, where work can start as soon as the roof is done, Pearson said.
She said it will all be done “maybe by the end of the year.” But that all depends on the grant closing and materials.
“The community was going to lose a store regardless. That doesn’t make losing the store an easy thing. That’s a painful thing and a romantic thing.”
When she lived on La Due Avenue, Pearson would walk over to the market to get whatever she needed to avoid a trip into town. That’s a story shared by many in the south side community.
A still very legitimate question in her mind is, “how do we deal with food access for people who don’t need a food bank?” But answering that question is not part of La Puente’s mission, she said. Pearson, however, wants to do whatever she can to support the conversation of filling those gaps in on the south side.
The idea of a food co-op, Pearson said, was brought up a few times in community meetings. As did having La Puente be involved in creating that food co-op – but, again, she said “that’s not our mission.”
Pearson said organizing something like a community food co-op is challenging, but doable. She doesn’t know exactly what it would look like, but in order for it to happen, she said “I can’t have conversations with people who are demonizing what we do. And that’s the biggest challenge. And making it personal. I don’t think there’s easy ways beyond the damage that has occurred up until now between La Puente and the community.”
Pearson brought up La Puente’s “footprint” in Alamosa. “To me, all nonprofits are started because there’s a need in the community that either private business or the government isn’t meeting . … When we are increasing our buildings or our programs, it’s not increasing the shelter. We’re not making a bigger shelter. So to me, increasing our footprint doesn’t make any sense unless you just think La Puente is evil no matter what. I can’t live with that.
“What really does that mean for the people who are in the community, for the people who aren’t just willing to throw darts, but willing to really think about it.”
The increase in footprint could mean, she said, “that people are walking through their neighborhoods toward our services, like a soup kitchen, or people at a shelter who are problematic for the neighborhood, so is our footprint increasing that? I think that’s a legitimate conversation.
“But if we’re building housing on 12th street, that’s not increasing foot traffic in those neighborhoods. That’s just building housing and the kind of housing that people need, that isn’t just the most challenged or the neediest among us, but people who just need a little extra help, because housing is hard to find.
“The PALS building: will that increase our footprint? Yes. Is it going to increase the kind of challenging foot traffic that people are worried about? I don’t think so. It’ll be beautiful, if we get it done, it’ll be beautiful. It’ll help the doorway into the southside be a really welcoming place.”
This led Pearson to talk about being a good neighbor and how La Puente can be a better neighbor. “Our thought is – we hear ‘you need to be a better neighbor.’ We haven’t always been the better neighbor, we haven’t always had the resources to be the better neighbor. We haven’t always heard, and before my time I think that’s for sure, for sure, the energy to be a better neighbor takes a certain level.”
For example, the main offices La Puente occupies were once houses. “There’s no longer a neighbor there that you can call at night when you have a problem. There’s nobody there on the weekend you get to see in your yard, when you’re having a picnic. That can be problematic. You are losing neighborhood feel.”
Something she took away from the many Atenico’s meetings she’s attended was, “How can we be the best neighbor as possible? Even though we’re not living at night and on the weekends in those houses [on State Avenue]. We can make sure our neighbors know who’s working in that housing and who they can call, and that we do act neighborly. And do that intentionally.”
Cheslock’s sabbatical is sponsored by a Colorado Health Foundation grant. He has to spend four weeks in Boulder with the Colorado Health Foundation as a leader and resident. This part of the sabbatical is to learn and work on diversity and conflict management. Pearson said this is “fairly intensive group work.”
By the time of writing, Cheslock should be on his way to Mexico. Pearson isn’t sure exactly what town he’ll be in, but he’ll be working in a shelter helping mostly Guatemalan families. “He has met a lot of Guatemalan families here, during his time here. He’s gone back to Guatemala several times and stayed with families there,” said Pearson.
Then, after a month in Mexico, he’ll head north to McAllen, Texas. He will work in a shelter that serves a large Haitian community, so “he can connect back with those roots.”
Pearson said, “He doesn’t want to be in charge of anything, he just wants to be in service. If anybody knows Lance very well, they know he is a super geek around holidays. Crazy. He does this grand Easter egg, treasure hunt on Easter. And he’s not gonna miss that. He’s coming back from Texas, he’s gonna put together his Easter thing, then he’ll go back up and do his last few weeks with the Colorado Health Foundation.”
Cheslock’s first day back is May 15. Originally, Pearson said, he was just going to be gone for three months and “they kind of convinced him to take the full four months.”
Pearson, before the interview was wrapped up, said she was going up to Boulder the next day to “take him to a ball game – that’s my neck of the woods – go see the Lady Buffs play, go have some Falafel King, do some things. He’s a very extroverted human being, he loves his people, and this is hard, this is really hard for him. So, I said ‘I’ll come talk to you and we’ll do fun stuff, but we won’t talk La Puente.’”
She said they’ve talked a few times since he’s been gone, “and he’ll try to squeeze in a La Puente thing and I’ll just cut him right off. … There would be no way he would voluntarily extend. And I hope he doesn’t,” Pearson joked. “’Cause for me, I’m doing this because I have the skill set, not because this is what my goal has been. You heard my goals. I can do it at La Puente, that’s fine, and La Puente’s been a fantastic place to work, but I don’t want to be the executive director. I’ve had big jobs, where I’ve had big decisions, and I’ve made those decisions. I’m an elder now and I’m more than willing to build those skill sets for our community as an elder might, and not be in charge. I want other people to be in charge and not me.”