A Quiet City with a Loud Voice

When a community learns how to speak for themselves, they get the change they’ve been deserving all along. 

Small communities have a lot of charm. People are friendly, they look out for one another, and you feel a sense of home and security. That is certainly the case for Clifton, Colorado, a town of roughly 20,000 people nestled between Grand Junction and Palisade. Even with all that charm, small towns can also have their challenges. If a town is unincorporated, oversight falls to the county and without an organized community effort to achieve the proper visibility, requests and paperwork, small communities can be overlooked for basic necessities.

This was, unfortunately, also the case for Clifton until 2018, when a group of residents stepped up and the community began to help themselves when no one else would.

According to the Mesa County Community Health Needs Assessment, the median household income in Clifton is $37,223. Roughly 22% of Clifton families live below the poverty line. In early 2018, the Colorado Trust was looking for a community that needed the resources they could provide. Jose Chavez was working for the trust at the time and when he took a closer look at Clifton, he saw a community that was being overlooked and underfunded in almost every way. 

The streets of Clifton, Colorado.

The most glaring example of neglect within the community was the trash. It was everywhere. In yards, vehicles, backyards. Anywhere but in a dumpster. There was no trash service and few residents had the time or money to haul theirs to the landfill. The trash also seemed to have a snowball effect on the community’s sense of self. When a town doesn’t have the resources to handle its own garbage, the metaphor writes itself. 

Knowing he needed to start somewhere, Jose organized the pickup of trash in a small one-mile area of Clifton. In that mile alone, he collected 120 tons of trash. Over the next two years, Jose and his team would pick up more than 640 tons of the town’s refuse. And garbage? That was just the beginning.

Jose Chavez and Hugo Moreno discussing needs in the community.

To begin helping a community help itself, one must first determine what the town wants. When outside parties descend on a town and try to ‘fix’ it, it can take a situation from bad to worse. This was something Jose understood. So he and his team started where they knew they could make the most impact. By helping leaders from within the community organize themselves. 

The first step toward helping this deserving yet neglected community was to figure out what the residents themselves wanted. Jose, along with a team of residents, went into the community with surveys to uncover where they should start. 

As one community leader Hugo Moreno put it, “We needed to let the county commissioners and politicians know what the Clifton community wanted.” They collected 600 surveys and put together a presentation to share with community leaders.

Thanks to support from Rocky Mountain Health Plans and a grant from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Health Equity (CDPHE), they now have training for community engagement and capacity building for each of these populations, so their voices can be amplified within the community.

And that’s when change began to happen. It started small, with a children’s park. There were no lights,  and litter and drug paraphernalia scattered everywhere. It was unusable and an eyesore. With a little money and a lot of work, they cleaned up the park until it looked like new. Once the residents of Clifton saw what a little teamwork could do, the swell began. With fliers calling for volunteers and paid positions, the Clifton Community Outreach began.

They started with presentations at county meetings, making their voice heard when it had never been heard before. Many surveys, grant applications and funding requests later, Clifton began to mend from within. 

After the park cleanup, it was wheelchair ramps and sidewalk repairs. Next, they put demand into action. The community discovered plans to put in a medical center in Clifton and while the county was patting itself on the back for the win, the community saw that the medical center was to be built over an existing park at Rocky Mountain Elementary Park. Within only 4 days, the outreach gathered over 800 signatures to petition the county to move the clinic across the street. They got their medical center plans and were able to keep their park.

Cleanup of local parks is just one way Clifton residents have chipped in to help their community.
With organization in the community, Clifton residents were able to secure an alternate location for a new medical center, saving a local park.

The next big project residents were asking for was a community center. There were more presentations, more grant requests and in September 2022, they broke ground on both a community center and a new library. And they’re just getting started.

Community leader Maria Luiza Perez-Chavez is passionate about helping the elderly, youth and latino populations of Clifton. Thanks to support from Rocky Mountain Health Plans and a grant from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Health Equity (CDPHE), they now have training for community engagement and capacity building for each of these populations, so their voices can be amplified within the community.

The Clifton Community Outreach, now renamed to Clifton Community Leaders, is also taking in their knowledge and passing it on to others within Clifton. They have community engagement classes, presentation prep and campaign planning, training up the next group of leaders.

Clifton Community Leaders has put time and effort into training the next generation of Clifton leaders.

Jose has advice for other communities looking to make their voices heard. “You can only go as fast as a community is ready to go.” He advises communities to take it slow, and allow the little wins to be what they are—wins.

Described by both Hugo and Maria as a diamond in the rough, Clifton is a community on the rise. But it may be more accurate to say, Clifton is building itself from within. Slowly chipping away at the hard edges to reveal the community hidden beneath that has always been there, but just never knew how to shine.

A small playground in Clifton.

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