Working in the most impoverished, highest-crime neighborhood in Colorado has its challenges. For almost 20 years, Kristen Styf Rollerson ’98 has met them head-on.
And while this is not the trajectory Rollerson saw her life taking, she isn’t looking to change it.
As a young intern fulfilling her last graduation requirement in Denver, Rollerson designed some afternoon programming for urban kids as a side job. “I was asked to help set up a program; I was not going to work here,” she said with a laugh.
Yet Rollerson finds herself as the executive director of Sun Valley Youth Center, near downtown Denver, less than a mile from Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“It’s not what I thought I would be doing when I graduated from Calvin,” she said. “But God puts you in a place and time to serve and love people as he would.”
As a student, Rollerson was passionate about helping people overcome obstacles. “I thought I would be helping people with brain injuries, people with physical disabilities,” she said. “As it turns out, I’m helping people with brain trauma from poverty.”
At Sun Valley, Rollerson seeks to serve the whole person. “We’re a before- and after-school program, but we do so much more than that. It’s really about serving and loving people. These kids come from really hard places.”
Twenty years ago, the neighborhood was mostly Hispanic. Today, many are refugees. “We’re like the United Nations,” said Rollerson. Ethiopia, Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico, and Honduras are among the countries represented by families in the district, she said. About 83 percent of Sun Valley’s residents live below the poverty line, and 85 percent of children live with a single parent.
Literacy and English language are problematic, as are health issues like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
“We really try to think outside the box, creatively, about what we can offer that would be the most beneficial, the most relevant,” she said. Swimming, karate, yoga, and cycling are some of the ways the staff has attempted to reach youngsters.
They’ve also added cooking classes and entrepreneurial activities like helping create microbusinesses for the older kids.
“Calvin made me think about serving the whole person,” said Rollerson. “At Calvin I had to be out in the community serving, not just book smart. There isn’t ever a point where anything doesn’t come back to Calvin. I developed so many useful tools there that still help me today.”
And Rollerson hopes to do more. With a redevelopment of the neighborhood on the horizon, she is hopeful that they will be able to serve even more kids.
A $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other resources will help fund the revitalization of Sun Valley, a neighborhood that has been cut off from the rest of the city through geography and development. “It’s really cool to think about what we might be able to do,” she said.
In the meantime, Rollerson and her staff will continue to serve as a stabilizing force in the neighborhood. “The families here are my family,” she said. “And we’re the only nonprofit doing what we do here for a long time.
“What we do best is we love people and help walk them through life,” she said. “We give them hope.”