By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder Read more
Bridget Sandoval knows how hard it is for families to stay connected in Monte Vista. Sandoval, who grew up in the San Luis Valley and is raising four daughters in Monte Vista, has worked hard over the past two decades to ensure her kids have a safe, supportive environment to grow and learn. She’s volunteered with the schools, joined nonprofit organizations, and gone back to school herself in an effort to help her children thrive.
Sandoval and her husband live in a small apartment with their daughters. The cramped space limits their ability to play together, work on school projects, and connect as a family. “If we didn’t have community spaces,” Sandovol says, “I think my kids would really have a hard time.”
One of the spaces her family has relied on is at Bill Metz Elementary School, which in 2013 began offering Family Fun Nights, a thrice-yearly event where students and their families gather at the school for a variety of activities. Often with more than 200 parents and students attending, parents learn at-home teaching practices, play games and make crafts with their kids, and share a free meal together. “It gets kids off the streets,” Sandoval says. “And families get to interact with their community in a way they wouldn’t otherwise on an everyday basis.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, though, Bill Metz Elementary School was forced to limit Family Fun Nights, and in the wake of the pandemic the school didn’t have anyone organizing the program—plus, a limited budget, only $500 annually, compounded the problem. Offering a meal for the families costs at least $300 alone. Still, third-grade teacher Heather Smith stepped up to bring Family Fun Nights back to the community. “I feel very strongly about families coming together without the distractions of everyday life,” says Smith, who has been working in Monte Vista schools for five years. “To me, if we have strong homes and families, we have a strong community.”
Smith says she hears daily what students in Monte Vista are going through. Some kids have only one parent at home, some are being raised by their extended family, and many are struggling to complete schoolwork because their home environments are so uncertain. She was also aware that numerous studies have shown the benefits of parents and guardians spending quality time with kids. When she took on planning Family Fun Nights, she wanted not only to bring families together, but also to equip parents—and grandparents and other caretakers— with learning resources they can take home to help kids with schoolwork. “It can be hard for grandparents to figure out learning technologies,” she says. “If they can learn some of this stuff in a controlled environment, they’ll all feel more comfortable.”
As Smith began planning Family Fun Nights for the 2022-’23 school year, she realized her vision for the events far exceeded her annual budget. But she also remembered the LOR Foundation had helped the school create revitalization spaces for teachers struggling with burnout, and she hoped the foundation might be able to help her relaunch. She contacted Ivette Atencio, LOR’s Monte Vista community officer, and explained her idea for resurrecting themed Family Fun Nights.
“When Heather reached out, it was clear that her vision for Family Fun Nights was something that our community needed,” Atencio says. “She wanted to create an environment that would support students and their families at a time when community connection is so vital in Monte Vista.”
With a $2,700 grant, the LOR Foundation helped Bill Metz Elementary purchase a variety of supplies, which included crafts and learning materials that were used for a CandyLand-themed event in December as well as a bouncy house rental that was used for a carnival-themed event and community meal in April. Combined with the free meal, the upgraded activities help get more families in the door, where they also develop learning skills through activities like math and reading games on the school computers. For upcoming events, Smith has sent a survey to families to better understand what they think is most beneficial.
With additional resources, Smith is now hopeful that even more families like the Sandovals will attend—which will only help Monte Vista thrive. “My heart is to bring our families, our school, and our community together,” Smith says. “It makes us stronger.”
If you'd like to learn more about Family Fun Nights or volunteer to help Monte Visit teachers, visit the Bill Metz Elementary School website and get in touch.Reach Out
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Having lived in Monte Vista since she was a child, Ivette has an intimate understanding of her rural community’s challenges and needs. She knows that caring for a community means first caring for the people who live there. To that… Meet Ivette