A humble Christopher Aaby says he really doesn't know why he was nominated for an Inclusion Award. "I just come to work," he says. Of course, that could speak to why he was nominated: He does what he does quietly, with no expectations other than to make this city a better place.
After more than four years at the Catamount Institute, Aaby recently was named executive director. The outdoor experiential education organization focuses on sustainability and the environment, working mostly with kids in grades K-12.
"There are things that transcend gender, race, religion or any other issues," says Aaby, 32. "The environment is one of those. Mother Nature doesn't care what you are."
Aaby and his staff teach the concept of inclusion from the ground up, with kids' camps including instruction promoting the concept of acceptance. Also, he says that in its handbook, Catamount includes a clause about equal treatment. "We did it," he says, "in the hope that other businesses will follow, that it will become a normal thing for people to do."
As he sees it, there's really no reason not to be inclusive — it can even feed into business success, if you believe in the "triple bottom line" business model. "Triple bottom line is the three Ps," he says, ticking them off one at a time: "People, planet, profits. If you have happy people and a happy planet, you will make a profit."
And why not do it here? After all, Aaby says, "The Colorado Springs community can be whatever we want it to be. There are a lot of outside opinions regarding what we are as a city, but we're more than those things. We're more than just a beautiful place. We're a place filled with beautiful people."
Pam and Wayne Bland
Pam and Wayne Bland often cook meals for homeless teens at Urban Peak, where they've volunteered for close to eight years. Many of the kids there identify as LGBT, and some have run away because they're worried about what might happen if they come out to their parents. Others have already tried that, and had their parents respond by dropping them off at the shelter, a consequence of their having "chosen" such a lifestyle.
It shouldn't be so, according to the Blands.
"These kids deserve somebody to love them, unconditionally," Pam says. "And they are our kids, as a community. They just want someone to listen, just like all of us want to be heard."
Pam, 61, has been volunteering for years, dating back to when she was a struggling single mom. Today, she's an executive assistant at FedEx Services, and she and Wayne, 62, co-facilitate a Christian support group for families of gays and lesbians.
Wayne, a vice president at Kirkpatrick Bank and recent recipient of the Red Cross Hometown Hero Award, knows the couple's religious identity will surprise some, since "people think that if you're Christian, you think a certain way."
But, again, it shouldn't be so.
LGBT issues are close to the hearts of this couple. Their daughter is gay, and Wayne says, "We are Christian parents who love our kids just as we believe God created them." When others assure him they'll pray for his daughter, he responds with, "Well, pray for the right things. Pray that she's happy and healthy and that she can love someone and someone will love her back."
As CEO of Colorado Springs Health Partners, and a volunteer and board member for many organizations, Debbie Chandler acknowledges being "pretty visible in the community." Still, she says, "I'm not what I consider an activist.
"I do my part in the economic development of the city. If we want to attract young talent, we have to be inclusive."
Chandler, 54, says she's personally never had problems with LGBT discrimination in the Springs. She and wife Margo are part of the city's tapestry, often seen at events and functions together, and she says, "I've never been not honest about that part of my life." Still, she recognizes that her position may afford her acceptance that other people don't necessarily get.
For instance, there are the young people at Inside Out Youth Services, a nonprofit that she and Margo support (with Margo also volunteering and serving on the board). The nonprofit provides LGBT teens in need with resources ranging from sexual health education to financial skills-building to a pantry and clothing closet.
"[Young LGBT people] have to be supported," says Chandler. "The worst thing you can do is crush a kid."
Chandler has a deep affection for the Springs, and it comes out in the busy life she leads as well as the way she talks about how the city's reputation needs to change. In hopes of the latter, she offers up this advice: "Be accepting, and don't judge. Take the extra time and let [the LGBT community] know they are accepted. We have to go out of our way to do that. We have to go out of our way to help."
Michelle Talarico and Kathy Dreiling
Michelle Talarico and Kathy Dreiling opened their catering business in 1989, and have consistently sought to create a welcoming, diverse environment within the Picnic Basket family of companies. What's more, they've donated food and services to countless local organizations, including Urban Peak and the Colorado Springs Rescue Mission.
Even back in the early '90s, when Amendment 2 was in play, the women helped fight it via local grassroots group Ground Zero. Talarico (pictured right) was a board member, and Dreiling says the two of them did "everything from feeding people to holding meetings at our business."
Talarico, 51, who today serves on boards for groups such as the Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance and Colorado Springs Leadership Institute, says a commitment to service was modeled by her aunt, who was always volunteering. Plus, she says half-jokingly, she and Dreiling — a couple for 28 years — are "both good Catholic girls who like to help."
Dreiling, 58, says she led a double life in high school. "I dated guys and really put on a super-straight façade," she remembers. She wouldn't tell anyone she was gay and "wasn't even sure what that meant, whether there was anyone else in the world like me."
As an adult who's "out," Dreiling has heard some people question her company's decision to cater to LGBT-unfriendly clients such as Will Perkins and James Dobson. But, she says, "I really felt it was very important to show your face and connect and build a bridge, not exclude." Talarico feels similarly: "I can't imagine ever refusing a service to anybody because of who they are."
Christopher Garvin says he gets tired of labels, and of identifying people as "LGBT, black, white, homeless or mentally ill." What he'd like to see is people coming together "as a community to support whatever we need as humans."
He adds, "Maybe we don't have the same values, but we can still get along and love each other and create a great world."
Garvin, 54, does his part and then some. He's been involved with human services as a career for 31 years, having started out as a social worker and ascended to his current position as deputy executive director at the El Paso County Department of Human Services. He also volunteers his time and provides financial support to a number of groups working to improve the quality of life here, including Inside Out Youth Services, Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention and Urban Peak.
As an administrator and manager, Garvin values collaboration and hearing everyone's viewpoint when making decisions.
"There could be one little nugget of something someone says," he notes, "that makes all the difference in a program or service or an attitude. I really value that. I care about that in my personal life, too, because I have a variety of friendships with people from all walks of life."
When the U.S. Supreme Court decided last month to legalize gay marriage nationwide, it was proof that the world could move more toward the openness and understanding that Garvin champions every day.
"My husband and I gave a high-five and a big hug and we were both in tears," he says. "It was really heartwarming."
Growing up in Japan, Gregory Howell was acutely aware of the homogeneity of the culture, and of outright xenophobia. "It was fascinating," he says. "Artists are really the only people free to not identify who they are gender-wise. Everyone else is held to strict gender identification."
Seeing so many people locked into ill-fitting expectations helped Howell formulate his personal philosophy of advocacy and inclusion. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley (with a major in Asian Studies) in the mid-'80s, he stayed connected in the '90s to serve as one of the first members of the California Alumni Association's LGBT mentorship program.
And as he moved toward a career in the arts, he made sure that wherever he landed, he espoused an open-door policy. "I'm all about diversity," he says. "I'm a storyteller — bring me your story."
Now 53, Howell has established a trio of big arts initiatives in Pueblo in recent years: Kadoya Gallery, which focuses on showcasing emerging talents; The ARTery, which encourages people to get outside and interact with Pueblo's art and history; and The Shoe Factory, which serves as an incubator for local artists. Next up, Howell says, is a magazine called Konverge, which he'll devote to celebrating the melting pot that is his adopted city.
"There's so much culture and diversity in Pueblo," he says. In fact, Howell is of the belief that Pueblo is on the verge of being "one of the most diverse cities in the nation.
"We're in a really amazing time right now," he says. "There's so much here ... [and] when you collaborate, you create inclusion."
Mary Lou Makepeace
Mary Lou Makepeace, Colorado Springs' first female mayor, was also the first Springs mayor to sign a Pride proclamation. When later asked why she added her signature, she replied, "Because I'm the mayor for all people."
After serving as mayor from 1997 until 2003, Makepeace started working with the Gill Foundation as executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, whose grants aimed to make organizations more "successful and inclusive." At that time, there were no employment or housing protections for the LGBT community, and there wasn't much conversation generally about gays and lesbians. She says people in the community would tell her, "Don't send me things from the Gay and Lesbian Fund — the postman might think I'm gay."
One of the things the Gay and Lesbian Fund did was stimulate conversation, starting with normalizing the words gay and lesbian. "If you can't talk about it, you can't think about it," she explains. "A lot of people didn't realize that discrimination was happening. It wasn't until the LGBT community could tell their stories that other people could understand."
Today, the 75-year-old Makepeace teaches political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She has worked for the Independent's annual Give! campaign and remains involved with a couple of women's groups she helped form, Artemis and Pikes Peak Women.
"I think the future looks bright for equality in America," she says, but notes that there's still much to be done.
People, she says, respond to many issues by saying, "'Well, my church said ...' or, 'My parents said ...' and you have to overcome that. And that's why having conversations [is] so important."
Alicia McConnell is kind of a big deal at the United States Olympic Committee. She's the director of training sites and community partnerships, and currently chairs a board focusing on LGBT inclusion rights throughout the Olympic community — one big accomplishment of which was securing partner benefits within the organization.
But the 52-year-old also has found time to serve on 20 to 30 different boards in Colorado Springs. "Doing good," she says, "is more about what you do, not who you are."
When she came to the Springs in 2000, McConnell was one of the first people to sit on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, the renowned Gill Foundation program that helped introduce Colorado Springs to the language of inclusion; it demanded that all potential grantees have a written nondiscrimination policy based on sexual orientation and gender expression. She also has been a board member for Inside Out Youth Services, which she says exposed her to "some great kids whose worlds were turned inside out because of who they were."
Having been here now for 15 years, McConnell says Colorado Springs is on the verge of becoming a more vibrant city. "Successful communities are economically more viable," she says, "because of equality and being inclusive."
If she could get the attention of everyone living here, she says, her message would be: "Let's be proud of Colorado Springs and the wonderful community that we are. Let's be proud of our community and highlight that, instead of some of the negatives people hear about us. Let's emphasize the positive."
It's been about 15 years, but Anton Schulzki, a 55-year-old social studies teacher at Palmer High School, remembers clearly the day he became fervent about advocating for LGBT youth. He'd been approached by Palmer students asking if he'd help sponsor a gay-straight alliance, and agreed — then found that School District 11 would not recognize such an alliance as an official club.
When he heard some Palmer adults refer to the club's students as "those kids," he thought, "'Those kids are our kids. They are kids at school, and they are kids who need our help, who need our assistance.' That really solidified it for me."
After winning a lawsuit against the district, Palmer students formed the Gay-Straight Alliance (now the Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance), and the district recognized it as "official" in 2005. Schulzki says since then, the district's slowly changed its policies for the better. Three years ago, the D-11 board passed a resolution protecting students from discrimination due not only to sexual orientation, but also gender identity, transgender status and gender expression. Schulzki spoke at the meeting where the vote happened.
An educator for 32 years, Schulzki says "being a sponsor of the GSTA is one of the best things I've ever done." He also serves as board president for Inside Out Youth Services, and from his work there knows that some schools in Colorado Springs continue to ostracize and isolate LGBT students. He says he feels fortunate to teach at Palmer, where student diversity now can shine through.
Inclusion, he says, is "really just about opening doors for people and making them feel they are a recognized part of the school community."
Since hitting print in the Indy with J. Adrian Stanley's piece about transgender health care in Colorado ("Trans-lating the health divide," News, Dec. 24, 2014), Shari Zabel has really put her foot on the accelerator in the LGBT community. Among other moves, she's become the co-host for the Transgender Alliance for One Colorado, testified at the state legislature on issues affecting the trans community, and joined the board of directors for Springs Equality.
That last group was founded in January, and defines itself as a cyber LGBT community center. "We're working with [regional business leaders]," Zabel says, "to bring LGBT-owned businesses into a more active role in the business community."
Zabel, 50, was a major in the Air Force and a NORAD fighter pilot before re-entering civilian life. Now retired, she devotes time not only to the legal and business areas of advocacy, but also to strengthening support networks for the LGBT population.
"Right now I'm working on making a peer counseling network available for the trans community," she says, adding that the 501(c)3 application is under construction. She's also working on a periodic social event — "kind of a gala" — that will include members of the LGBT communities and their allies.
It may not always be easy here, but Zabel says the Springs "is a dynamic environment where people with different [backgrounds] and ways of expressing their identities can sometimes be polar opposites, but we still seem to bring ourselves together. Sometimes the viewpoints and different persuasions clash, but somehow we bring it all together."
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