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"When you're a first-time mom, you're out there hanging by yourself," says Ashley Kingsley, a 37-year-old mom of two and founder of DailyDealsForMoms.com, who joined the Highlands Mommies in 2005, when she was pregnant with her first child.
But from the beginning, it was exclusive. The group's first moderators came up with rules about who could join: mommies (and, less frequently, daddies) who lived west of Interstate 25 and east of Harlan Street, north of Colfax Avenue and south of Regis University. The boundaries — collectively referred to as "the Highlands" — included most of Jefferson Park, Sloan's Lake, Highland, West Highland, Sunnyside and Berkeley.
At the time, most of these neighborhoods were changing — again.
Realtor Jenny Apel was born in northwest Denver in the mid-1960s. As a child, "I came home to a small bungalow here in northwest Denver," says Apel, who is not a Highlands Mommy. But her family outgrew that house, and her parents moved their brood of six children west to Wheat Ridge, which, Apel says, "was very much the norm."
In 1989, Apel was a newlywed looking to buy a home of her own. She and her husband returned to northwest Denver, where they bought a 2,000-square-foot Victorian near the corner of West 32nd Avenue and Perry Street for $40,000. Today the house is home to Highland's Garden Cafe, a charming restaurant that serves $30 dinners. Then, it was a HUD home, a foreclosed property acquired and sold by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"That was very much a blighted neighborhood," Apel says of Highlands Square, the stretch of 32nd now lined with shops that sell upscale clothing, restaurants that serve sushi, and spas that offer lash tinting. Nostalgic Homes, the real-estate agency that Apel and her husband now own, is one of the neighborhood's mainstays, having occupied the same location for 25 years.
In the mid-'90s, home values in the area began to rise, but not so fast as to choke out first-time homebuyers looking for an affordable urban place to live, Apel says. "So now you've got young professional people saying, 'Gosh, I could buy this bungalow here for $70,000, or I buy something in Platt Park for $110,000.'"
The neighborhood demographic began to shift as those young couples moved in, joining the largely Hispanic population that had been there for decades. "Once people started to really marry themselves to the community," Apel says, "new businesses started opening. New opportunities came."
For years, however, those urban professionals would move on once they had families, looking for larger homes and better schools in the suburbs. Apel bucked the trend, raising her now-grown daughter in the Highlands. But in the past five years, the pattern has changed again. "What I'm finding now is that while I still move many young families from smaller homes, their desire is indeed to stay here," Apel says.
"Herein lies the reality of Highlands Mommies."
"If you GPS-tracked me, it would just be 80212 and 80211," says Mommy Lauren Wolf, referring to the zip codes of the Highlands. Wolf, 36, has two young daughters and runs her own online sex-toy business, Signature Sensuality. "This is how I live my life."
"I can go to Mass, the panadería, get my hair did and do yoga within like six blocks," says Martinez, a 37-year-old Denver native who has four kids, ages two to nineteen.
Though she's lived in the neighborhood for years, Martinez didn't join the Highlands Mommies until 2009. "I didn't think the group represented me," she says. Martinez is Latina and describes herself as very much a part of northwest Denver's Hispanic community. But she kept hearing more and more about the Mommies, and it piqued her interest enough to finally join. "I wanted to know what they were doing, because I felt like what they were doing was important," she says.
Earlier this year, Martinez answered a Highlands Mommies post looking for more moderators. Now, when she's not teaching third and fourth grade at Farrell B. Howell, which offers preschool through eighth grade in Montbello, Martinez helps manage the Mommies listserv, review applications and fix web glitches. She also intervenes when things get heated.
Martinez has help from Herrera-Hay. A 41-year-old executive recruiter, Herrera-Hay joined the Highlands Mommies in 2005, when she was pregnant with her daughter. She became a moderator a year later. Recently, Herrera-Hay and Martinez's titles have changed to co-managing director, an unpaid position. They each spend between 10 and 25 hours a week on Highlands Mommies duties, and say they're motivated by a belief that they're doing what's in the best interest of their children and the neighborhood they love.
"For me and my husband, when we go out, we don't even think about going downtown anymore," Herrera-Hay says. "There are so many awesome restaurants here."
Although their boundaries haven't changed in seven years, the Mommies have evolved. As the ranks swelled, they abandoned Yahoo for findsmithGROUPS, a free web platform designed for parenting groups.
FindsmithGROUPS could support Highlands Mommies subgroups, which became necessary as the membership diversified. Moms of four-year-olds no longer cared about diaper rash, and first-time pregnant women, who are allowed to join as long as they live within the boundaries, had nothing to add to a conversation about teething.