Kristine Bianchi has driven the equivalent of the circumference of the earth four times—all on the 56-mile roundtrip between Mancos and Durango in southwest Colorado.
Bianchi, a single mother who lives in Mancos, has worn out four cars. She’s been in one rollover accident and hit a few deer. The driving was necessary because Durango was the hub for her children’s activities—sports, dance, after-school activities, and birthday parties for her children’s friends.
“Once you dip your toe into Durango, you get sucked all the way in,” said Bianchi. “I went around the world four times but didn’t go anywhere.”
Bianchi’s story is unusual because she’s fostered 40 children over the last 20 years. She adopted four of those children when they didn’t find a permanent home. But her story is also emblematic of hundreds of families in Mancos—a town of about 1,200—who lacked readily available options for the long summer months when youth activities were few or none.
Until this year.
“We’re here to just make sure that they have at least one caring adult who they can go to where they have safe space,” said Angela Sayler, a board member at Mancos United, a nonprofit formed in 2021 after the second of two teen suicides in the community. The organization works to provide activities and resources for Mancos that support both emotional and physical well-being.
“All of these kids don’t have that—sometimes at home and just sometimes in their entire lives. We just want to make sure that they know the community is here to support them,” she added.
The safe space is the brand-new Mancos Summer Hub. It’s a day camp for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. The hub’s home is Mancos Elementary School. Launched by Mancos United and operated by Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County, the hub is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The staff includes a few Mancos School District and Mancos area teachers. All are local hires.
And the dollar cost to parents is zero.
Most days, says program director Donitza Ivanovich, the camp runs at capacity. Summer Hub registrations total 105, but not every child shows up every day, and the program is first-come first-served. Summer Hub staff set the initial daily limit of children at 50 and then worked to move it up to 60. The camper-to-teacher ratio is 10:1.
Mancos Summer Hub offers rotating classes in academics, healthy lifestyles and building character. Through community partnerships, students can choose to learn ukulele or wood turning. There are options for basketball, yoga and hiking. There’s free time, too, and reading.
The need, said Ivanovich, is obvious.
“One of the biggest signs for me is that we have a handful of middle school kids, probably 10, who check themselves in and out,” she said. “The good news is they’re finding community here and they’re finding a safe place to be. I find that pretty meaningful that they can be here on their own.”
Mancos Summer Hub is funded through a $73,900 grant from the Colorado Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a COVID-19 pandemic recovery initiative to help schools address academic and personal challenges during the school day as well as with student-centric summer programming.
Mancos United also received funding from private donations from the community that is being used to provide options for older youth. The School Community Youth Collaborative, based in nearby Cortez, offered to pay community members who provide the “pop-up” activities such as wood turning and yoga.
Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County provided the registration and payroll systems. They also worked with their insurance carrier to wrap in Mancos United. Mancos School District is providing all the janitorial services and the necessary spaces, including the gym and grounds. The school district “is stepping up in a big way,” said Mancos United Executive Director Katie McClure.
For parent Kyle Reick, the Mancos Summer Hub means his income doesn’t go entirely to child care. Reick is the water and wastewater operator for the Town of Mancos. Child care costs up to $27 an hour; in that scenario, “essentially, you’re working for free,” said Reick. “This definitely helps.”
The Mancos Summer Hub gives Reick “peace of mind” and, he added, gives his five-year-old son Sawyer a chance to get to meet the kindergarteners he will learn alongside this coming fall.
“I really do like it,” said Shannon Murphy, who will be a sixth-grader in Mancos this fall, of the Summer Hub. “We have really cool field trips, too, which is awesome.”
Shannon, a rock climber and mountain biker, is much better off spending time with her peers in a structured environment, said her grandfather Dan Murphy. “It means a lot,” he said. “And it frees us up to be able to do what we need to do.”
The economic benefits and convenience factor aside, said McClure, the chief benefit is keeping Mancos youth engaged in a safe space with caring adults.
The key, said McClure, is “doing well by kids so they do well in school. Supported kids learn better. Which also means they can work to their full potential and contribute to the community.”
Mancos United Board President Doty Shepard moved from Bayfield, 45 miles away, last September. She has a master’s degree specializing in cultural transformation and support for youth and families. She’s worked in that field for 20 years.
“In most of the communities that I work in, there’s a whole lot of finger-pointing,” said Shepard. “In Mancos, the response to the community tragedies was, ‘What can we do? How can we come together as a community so this doesn’t happen again on our watch?’
“There was ownership. And I knew I wanted to live in a community like that.”