ALAMOSA — Mike Roque, 50, always knew he wanted to make life better for others. He understands that social justice is important because of how his parents and grandparents were treated in the past.
"When my grandfather was released in the military after World War I, on his dismissal records he was called a moron because he didn't speak any English," Roque said in an interview on Monday.
The discrimination continued with his parents as they moved from Antonito to Pueblo when his mother was 10. She and her siblings also spoke only Spanish and thus the schools labeled them "retarded."
"They were put into remedial classes and out of nine kids, none of them graduated high school."
Roque's single mother spoke to him exclusively in English to improve his life. He became the second person in his family to attend college, behind his older brother Ray. A degree in mathematics from University of Notre Dame may seem odd for someone in the nonprofit sector, but Roque sees financial mismanagement as a major issue for nonprofits.
"Math, among other majors, makes you think strategically and analytically," said Roque. "If you want to go from A to Z, what are steps B, C and D? You have to think of those incremental steps."
He returned to Pueblo to work as a community organizer after graduating and in 1989 he became the executive director of Denver's Chinook Fund. Started by Governor John Hickenlooper two years prior, the community foundation supports progressive organizations across the state.
"Most of the funding stayed in the Denver metropolitan area," Roque said. "When I left a decade later, half of the funding was outside of the Denver metropolitan area."
Roque then launched the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) to teach other nonprofits how to effectively raise funds and build a sustainable financial base. When Hickenlooper became mayor the two worked together again to start the Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships (DOSP). The purpose was to get nonprofits to communicate and work collaboratively on large grants.
"There are literally dozens of nonprofits working on teen pregnancy, but none of them coordinated," said Roque. "So we built a coalition, went after federal dollars and we really made an impact in terms of teen pregnancy in the Denver area."
The DOSP was also able to help youth mentoring programs that were siloed.
"We found one kid who actually had three different mentors from three different organizations because they didn't talk to each other."
In 2015 Roque returned to his ancestral home after summers of fishing, camping and hiking. "I've been telling my friends for 30 years I'm going to move back to the Valley at some point," he said.
He opened up the Cafe del Valle coffee shop this spring in Antonito to revitalize the area. Along with serving smoothies, fried hand pies and coffee made with piñon, the store provides a public computer and printer along with private meeting rooms.
"We're the only public Wi-Fi in the town and we're the first new business in five years," said Roque. "We wanted something the community could take ownership of and really have a place to come to."
Now, as the executive director for the new Community Foundation for the San Luis Valley, he hopes to use his skills from GIFT and DOSP to aid local nonprofits. What used to be called the Valley Community Fund will award grants, teach proper fundraising techniques and connect them to work together on similar issues.
"Instead of going after $10,000 grants we go after $1 million dollar grants and bring those resources to the Valley...We're going to grow the pie that's available to nonprofits."
Roque can only accomplish that by expanding the one-person team. Since starting in May he has been meeting with people across the Valley to raise funds and recruit board members. According to the organization's bylaws the board must have equal representation from all six counties. Eventually he wants to have four to five other staffers and a grant-making committee so that he isn't the only decider on valuable funds.
Whoever Roque hires may someday become the next executive director.
"I love starting new things, getting my hands dirty and I'll talk to you about fundraising until you tell me to shut up," said Roque. "Yet I'm not very good at just managing something. So built into our model is developing that person to take my place. Not a lot of nonprofits do succession planning and the organization struggles when the executive director leaves."
Those interested in working for or with Roque can email him at [email protected] or call at 719-679-2970.
"I'm not going to be here for 20 years. There's too many fish to catch."