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Sister Act

Practice what you teach: For Estephania and Esperanza Chavez, reading is fundamental.

They're the good girls, the inseparable sisters who separate only to sit quietly in their middle school classrooms, completing assignments without complaint, smiling shyly, working diligently while others chatter and tease. Esperanza and Estephania Chavez: the quiet ones.

Until you get to know them.

Then they bubble up like a couple of shaken soda-pop bottles.

"I never used to talk to anyone," says Esperanza. "But now I just talk and talk, and no one can stop me. My sister talks, too, but mostly to her friends. She's weird. Me, I'm crazy. I talk all the time."

Esperanza and Estephania. Estephania and Esperanza. Chavez and Chavez. Exemplary students. Community foot soldiers. Rising stars.

"I'll tell you what: I look up to them," says Eldred Pate, a program coordinator at YouthBiz, a teenage job program. "They're my inspiration."

Esperanza and Estephania, ages fourteen and thirteen, were born in Denver and Zacatecas, Mexico, respectively, the oldest daughters in a family of five children. Their father, Leoncio, 35, owns a tire shop. Their mother, Maria del Consuelo, age 30, is a full-time mom. The Chavezes had split their time between the United States and Mexico before finally settling for good in the Cole neighborhood two years ago.

That transition was tough.

Esperanza attended first grade and part of second in Denver, speaking Spanish at home but using English at school. When the Chavezes returned to their family ranch in Zacatecas, where they stayed for five years, she was teased mercilessly.

"The only thing I could write in Spanish was my name," she recalls. "Everybody used to laugh at me because I said my r's funny.'"

When she moved back to Denver, the heckling started anew.

"By then I had learned to read and write in Spanish, but when we got back here I had forgotten all of my English," she says. "They put me in a bilingual core, but I didn't even know what bilingual meant. I thought it was a ballet or something to do with dancing. I was speaking Spanglish. The first test I took in English, I got an F."

It wasn't much easier for Estephania.

So the sisters studied.

And studied.

And studied.

They had to, they say. Their parents demanded it. Their father had dropped out of school to find work; their mother had dropped out to care for her younger brothers and sisters. As a result, Leoncio and Maria now constantly emphasize the importance of education.

"They're always saying, 'We don't want you to be like us,'" Esperanza says. "'We want you to graduate and go to college. You guys have the opportunities. That's something we never had.'"

Although they cannot read English very well, Leoncio and Maria check their children's homework and then sign the pages.

"We can't fool my mom, either, because she'll call the teacher," Esperanza says.

Each morning, Leoncio drives his children to school and waits outside until the bell rings. Each afternoon, Maria walks them home.

"My dad is always on me to do well," Esperanza says. "When I got a C, he said, 'Esperanza, this disappoints me. I know you can do better. If you need help, just tell me.'"

Their parents are like that, the sisters say. No matter how many hours Leoncio logs at his tire shop, no matter how busy Maria is with the housework, they always make time to help.

"Last week, I dissected a frog, and I thought it was all gross, but my dad kept asking, 'So what did you learn from it?'" Esperanza says. "He kept asking me questions about frogs! I was like, 'Dang!'"

Leoncio and Maria make time for each other, too.

"My mom and dad are really close," Esperanza says. "Some parents are close, but after a while they just stop doing things together. Not my mom and dad. On Sundays he'll drop us off at my aunt's and say, 'Today, she's my wife.' I think that's cool."

Like other teens, the sisters visit the park and the mall. But their parents keep a strict eye on them.

"My dad told me if he ever sees my grades fall from A's to F's, he's going to send me back to the ranch in Mexico to work with horses and cows," Esperanza says. "I told him, 'You don't even have any horses or cows.' He said, 'Call your grandma.' So I called my grandma and she said, 'Yes, he does have horses and cows.' Then I was like, 'Oh, my God!'"

Their mother, meanwhile, monitors their junk-food intake, watches out for them when they're outside and limits their TV time on school nights to one Mexican soap opera.  

"My mom is always giving me advice," Esperanza says. "She gives me choices on the good and the bad: 'Here we have one girl who has all these friends, but she's pregnant. And here we have another girl who doesn't have friends but has good grades. Who would you rather be?' I go and think about it a while, then tell her I'd rather be like the good one. Because I don't like babies; they cry too much."

Although the sisters' friends might consider Leoncio and Maria overprotective, Esperanza and Estephania don't.

"They're my role models," Esperanza says. "My parents came from poor families, but you can never say they're poor now. You can never tell that my dad slept on the ground. Everything he does, he does to get better."

"When they're around us, they set a good example and make us responsible," Estephania adds. "They always try to make us happy."

With such strong parental support, the sisters soon boosted their grades at Cole Middle School to A's and B's. Last year Esperanza earned a Hope scholarship and a special citation from Padres Unidos. Estephania was a Hope finalist.

But those honors came at a price. At Cole, as at most schools, students are more interested in dating, dancing and fashion than homework. Esperanza, who says she's "more interested in books right now than boys," was often called a "nerd" and harassed for raising her hand in class.

"It's hard," she says. "I don't understand it. They don't want to participate, but when I do, they all look at me and say, 'She talks too much.'"

Estephania understands. Although they're a year apart in age and classes, she and Esperanza can be as close as twins.

"We're always together," Esperanza says. "If I have something and she has something, we share it. We're close, but we're different, too. She likes science. But me? No. And sometimes I get mad at her and I'll say I'm not going to talk to her for a week, but then I'll ask her for a pencil, or for help with something, and then we'll be talking again. We give each other a hard time. But it's cool."

When YouthBiz recruiters came to Cole last year in search of applicants, one sister applied and the other joined her, just like always. YouthBiz, located at East 35th Avenue and Franklin Street, helps some 250 teens each year with jobs, business skills classes and leadership training. After school and on Saturdays, teens tend a community garden, learn computer programming, complete GEDs, help neighbors weatherize their homes and operate a T-shirt production company that's earned more than $400,000 in nine years.

YouthBiz also tries to provide teens with support, direction and opportunities at critical points in their lives, says founder Brian Barhaugh. And given the pressures in today's world, timing is everything.

For Esperanza and Estaphania, YouthBiz arrived at the perfect moment. At their first training session, the sisters were shy and tentative. But after collaborating with other teens, practicing public speaking and mastering the "business handshake" that requires teens to make eye contact and introduce themselves to strangers, they began to thrive.

"I've always been a follower," Esperanza says. "But now I want people to follow me."

Through YouthBiz, Esperanza and Estephania have earned enough money to help pay the household bills. They've learned accounting principles that they use at their dad's tire shop. They've made friends, including Pate, whom they call a "big brother" and "another father." And they've found the confidence to reach out into the neighborhood.

Last summer, Esperanza attended a community summit sponsored by the Cole Alliance to discuss, among other things, the dismal reading scores at Cole Middle School, which are the city's worst. Afterwards, Esperanza approached Barhaugh. "That's not right," she said. "That's my school. I know we can do better."

And she had a plan: What if students from Cole Middle School tutored students from Mitchell Elementary? That way students would have a head start.

"Great. Why don't you write a grant proposal?" Barhaugh told her.

"I can't," Esperanza said. "I don't know how."

"I'll help you."

So a few days later, Barhaugh, Esperanza, Estephania and Maria, who sat nearby for moral support, hammered out a proposal and faxed it to the Denver Foundation, which had just launched a community grant program with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A few months later, Esperanza got a reply.

"When she opened her letter, she was jumping up and down," recalls Pate. "She was all excited because I had applied for a grant, too, but she was picked over me."

Freda Malone, a Cole resident who helped select the grant recipients, explains why. "It came from the youth," she says. "It was their idea. And there's nothing better than seeing youth helping other youth. They're the ones who know what they need."  

With a $5,000 grant in place, Esperanza and Estephania met with Bijal Choksi, a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a YouthBiz program manager. Together they contacted principals, selected candidates, interviewed tutors, developed a curriculum and posted fliers. Last fall, Project Literacy debuted in the library at Mitchell Elementary School.

Now, every Monday and Tuesday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., as many as sixteen fourth- and fifth-graders meet with tutors from Cole to expand their vocabularies, sharpen their grammar, build their retention, practice their pronunciation and improve their public speaking.

The results have been remarkable. During the first ten weeks, Project Literacy students improved their reading levels by an average of 8.2 months. "We were stunned," says Choksi, the project's director. "I could qualitatively tell you they had improved, but I was surprised to see some of their reading assessments go up by almost a year."

When reading assessments are conducted again this June, Choksi expects the scores to rise even higher. She's already sought funding to continue the program next year, hoping to eventually expand it to include parents who have trouble reading. "We created this from scratch," Choksi says. "And it's only gotten better."

Although Esperanza and Estephania are proud of what Project Literacy has done for younger students, they haven't stopped collecting honors of their own. This year, they've made mostly A's and B's, and Estephania even won the Colorado Youth Citizenship Award. Both plan to apply for another grant some day, but at the moment it's all they can do to maintain their GPAs, help their parents around the house, supervise their crew at YouthBiz -- where they've become team leaders -- and keep their eyes on the prize.

"I want to be a lawyer," Esperanza says. "Like, I really, really, really want to be a lawyer."

"Me too," says Estephania. "Really bad."

The sisters have no idea what kind of law they'd like to practice, but they know this: When they hang out their Chavez & Chavez shingle, it will be in the Cole neighborhood.

"I don't want to move," Esperanza says. "I know the good and the bad here. I want to help."


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