The Highlands Mommies are raising babies and raising Cain in northwest Denver
A month ago, a frustrated mommy wrote a post on the main message board of the Highlands Mommies, an online parents' group in northwest Denver. The note also landed in hundreds of e-mail inboxes. The subject was "wine jester."
"Anyone know the owners of the Winejester?" the woman asked. "We just had a ridiculously horrible experience, including being yelled at 'GET OUT! GET OUT AND DON'T COME BACK!' before I got two steps into the shop. I'd like to give the owner a chance to answer for this. Seriously, I am so shocked."
The Winejester is a wine shop near the corner of Tennyson Street and West 44th Avenue. It's been open three years. Though the owner, Chris Smith, isn't a Mommy herself, she's done her best to court the group, offering special Highlands Mommies tastings and discounts on Mother's Day. Many other businesses do the same sort of thing.
Go on a windshield tour of the Highlands with Lauren Wolf and Angela Tolar.
The Mommies, after all, are a powerful group. Its sheer size — there are 2,874 members — and its geographical concentration make it a formidable organization. Plus, any member can reach every other member instantaneously, whether the intent is to set up a play date, ask for breastfeeding advice, solicit donations for a holiday gift drive, alert neighbors to car break-ins, invite them to a political rally — or rant about a business.
And although the women who lead the seven-year-old organization, Laverne Herrera-Hay and Elina Martinez, haven't tried to harness that power on a grand scale, the potential is there, and it makes some people wary.
"They have a lot of community sway," says Bill Rodriguez, past president of Highland United Neighbors Inc., or HUNI, the local neighborhood association. "I think whether or not people agree with them all the time, they're still listening and are talked about. They create conversations. They've become a force to be reckoned with."
Beginning in January, the Highlands Mommies plan to step things up, moving their online message boards, directories and classified listings to a more robust web platform that will be better able to handle the group's increasing demands. They'll also debut an improved public home page, listing events and other information.
The Mommies will also add four moderators to help managing directors Herrera-Hay and Martinez handle their extensive volunteer workload.
Over the years, the Mommies have gotten involved in crime prevention, park issues and the local schools. They keep a watch on everything and aren't afraid to speak up — something that has earned them the nickname of "Highlands Mafia."
Add in the fact that only parents who live in the neighborhood are allowed to join, and the Mommies have become shrouded in a certain kind of urban mystery.
"We have no intention of expanding our boundaries," says Herrera-Hay. "We are very much a community-based organization. Our motto is stay local, buy local — which means we like to go to DJ's Berkeley Cafe for breakfast as opposed to going to a Village Inn.... If we go outside our boundaries, it's not stay local, buy local anymore."
But so far, the group hasn't proven to be a pack of stroller-pushing Tony Sopranos — not really. When one of their rank complains about a business, she'll often be scolded online by scores of other Mommies who point out that the group is supposed to support the neighborhood, not kick it in the pants.
Chris Smith, who owns the Winejester, says she has a good relationship with the Highlands Mommies, though she is not one herself.
Smith explains the incident at her shop like this: A Mommy walked into the shop with her young children, who were dressed in costumes and masks. Smith's puppy got excited and rushed at the children. The Mommy reacted by extending her foot. Whether or not she meant to kick the dog, the puppy flew through the air and landed on his back. Smith wasn't there at the time, but a staff member asked the Mommy to leave.
The day after the Mommy complained on the listserv, several Mommies responded. "You call the owner of the store and give him or her a chance to explain before posting a note on Highlands Mommies," one posted. "The folks at Winejester have never been anything but pleasant.... The behavior described below is indeed out of character, but I'm sure there's an explanation for it."
Then she added a second admonition, one echoed by others: "We need to remember how powerful this listserv is when it comes to business reviews."
The group's directors feel the same way. "You're talking about the potential to really hurt a business," Martinez says. "I'm just not okay with that."
The Highlands Mommies started small. Legend has it that in 2003, a lonely mom posted a handwritten note on the corkboard at Common Grounds Coffeehouse: "Baby seeking baby for a play date" was the gist of it. Another mom who frequented the West Highland coffee shop answered the ad, and the Highlands Mommies were born. Or, at least, conceived.
The play dates grew into an online Yahoo group where moms could post messages to other moms. They e-mailed questions about diaper rash and breastfeeding, and shared concerns about nap patterns. It allowed new moms to find support, answers and friends, and it could be accessed anywhere, anytime.
"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.
Plus, more and more Mommies were asking to form subgroups based on where they lived (Sunnyside, Sloan's Lake) or their interests (organic cooking, yoga).
One subgroup, the Giving Gals, is particularly active. Anchored by three women, it raises money for charity and holds an annual holiday gift drive.
Today there are more than fifty subgroups, including those based upon when a member's child was born. Different Mommies take leadership roles within the subgroups, but the website as a whole is overseen by Martinez and Herrera-Hay. There are several rules designed to help it run smoothly. For instance, a Mommy who is also a business owner can only promote her business once a month. All political messages must include the word "POLITICAL" in the subject line so uninterested Mommies can skip them. Classified ads should be posted in the classified section, not on the main message board.
In 2011, the Mommies will add moderators specifically to welcome new members, help keep up with policy matters and handle other issues.
Policy changes can sometimes cause a stir, though. Earlier this year, there was an online flap about whether the Mommies should start charging minimal dues — a few bucks a year — to help support the growing group. It wasn't clear where the money would go, but many Mommies said they wouldn't pay it. The issue was quickly dropped, and Herrera-Hay says there are no current plans to charge dues.
Layla Barr was among the opponents. "We have never struggled to get financial backing," she explains. Barr helped plan the first Highlands Mommies Family Picnic, which is now an epic annual event. It costs $5,000 to put on, and the moderators say all of it is donated by local businesses. "When I started doing the picnic sponsorship and going out to local businesses and saying we're looking for business sponsorships," Barr recalls, "they'd say, 'Oh, my God! How do I get involved with Highlands Mommies?'"
The first high-profile issue the Mommies took on was schools.
In 2006, a few passionate members asked for a meeting with the then-superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Michael Bennet, who had taken over the struggling school district a year earlier and was trying to stem the tide of parents who sent their kids to private schools or to schools in the suburbs because they were unhappy with the quality of DPS.
A 2007 Rocky Mountain News investigative series reported that at the time, 40 percent of Denver kids chose to go to a school other than their neighborhood school.
That's not what the Mommies wanted for their kids, so they rented the gym at Clare Gardens, a low-income townhouse complex on Osceola Street, and invited Bennet for a sit-down. More than 100 Mommy families showed up.
"We had Michael Bennet at one end of the room and a circle of parents and all the rugrats in the middle," says Mommies member Jennifer Draper Carson, a 42-year-old mother of two who helped organize the meeting. "That was the whole point: Michael, this is what's coming. This is the neighborhood, and this is what we want. If you want to keep us in the school system, you need to understand."
The Mommies laid out their demands. They wanted academic rigor and a continuation of the neighborhood's two International Baccalaureate programs at Brown International Academy and Lake Middle School. They wanted to see major changes at North High School, which had an abysmal graduation rate.
And they wanted to be involved in making it happen. "Most of us are engaged and proactive," says Draper Carson. "And most of us didn't move here to live here until our kids graduate from fifth grade. We want to stay. We love our neighborhood. The one thing that's missing is a beach — and a rigorous school system."
It's a refrain echoed from every corner of the Highlands Mommies empire. Several Mommies are currently working on their own to improve the middle and high schools, even though their own kids are still in elementary school. Take Draper Carson: Though her oldest child is only six, she's the chairwoman of the North High Collaborative School Committee, which helps make budgetary decisions.
In late August, the Giving Gals subgroup organized a pub crawl along West 32nd to benefit the elementary schools. More than 500 people showed up to drink and eat at eleven bars and restaurants, and the event raised $12,200.
The idea was to split the money between the thirteen elementary schools within the Highlands Mommies boundaries. But there was a catch: In order to receive some of the money, each school had to provide one person — a parent, a volunteer, a teacher — to help with the pub crawl. Only four schools responded: Brown, Valdez, Edison and Cheltenham. The first three schools sent parent-teacher organization members (who also happened to be Mommies). But Cheltenham, a school on Colfax Avenue that serves a lower-income, largely non-Highlands Mommies population, had no parent volunteer to send. The vice principal helped out instead. In the end, each school got $3,000.
And the Highlands Mommies learned a lesson: Not every school in the Highlands has a PTO. For 2011, Martinez and Herrera-Hay have made it their goal to help create one at all of the more than twenty public schools within their boundaries.
As it turns out, most Mommies' children go to four schools: Brown, Valdez, Edison and Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, a dual-language Montessori school on Wyandot Street with a long wait list. And at those schools, volunteerism is thriving, thanks largely to Mommies like Barr, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Sandoval.
Barr, who owns Buchi Cafe Cubano on West 38th Avenue with her husband, was recruited to be on the Sandoval Amigos board, which raises money for the school, the very first week her daughter started preschool there. "They knew I had been involved with Highlands Mommies," she explains. This year, Barr says, Sandoval raised $110,000 to pay for things DPS couldn't afford: two paraprofessionals — one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking — in each classroom, a gym teacher, and scholarships for the preschool.
Barr has been a Highlands Mommy since 2006. The members of the group, she says, are "Type A women making it happen. We just want to see a strong, healthy community for our families. We're just not willing to sit back and be apathetic.
"I think that we've banded together," she adds. "There's strength in numbers."
Rick Garcia understands those numbers. "I guess how I would say it is, you want them on your side," the former District 1 city councilman says about the Mommies.
Garcia was elected to represent northwest Denver in 2003 and left office earlier this year to take a position as regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He can remember a few times, during his years on the council, when he was inundated with e-mails from the Highlands Mommies. One was when the council was debating where to locate a new branch of the library; another concerned the medical marijuana dispensaries in northwest Denver, a topic that caused fervent online debate — but little action — among the Mommies.
And then there was the parks issue. A few years ago, the city's Parks and Recreation Department began receiving complaints about the increasing number of private workout groups using the parks, says department senior advisor Chantal Unfug. One of those groups, SoulFire Fitness, was routinely using Rocky Mountain Lake Park, located at West 46th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard.
SoulFire owner Taylor-Morgan Chapin says parks employees would interrupt her classes to ask whether she had a permit — a requirement the department was considering at the time. A good portion of Chapin's customers were Highlands Mommies, though she wasn't herself, and they decided that the permit policy just wouldn't do. They began writing letters to the parks department and the city council, asking that the proposal be dropped. We all pay taxes to support these parks, they said, and we should be able to use them however we want. But the Mommies weren't getting far.
Then one day during a SoulFire Fitness session, a few Mommies spotted Garcia running laps in the park. "A couple of moms recognized me and they said, 'There's Rick Garcia! Stop him!'" Garcia recalls. They soon caught up to him and surrounded him.
"So, literally," says Herrera-Hay, "you had like 25 Highlands Mommies track him down and say, 'Hi Rick, we're the Highlands Mommies, and why are you doing this? We'll fight you to the death.'" Garcia listened to their concerns and set up a meeting with the parks department, Chapin and the Mommies.
After that, Chapin says, the problem went away — though Unfug says the permit policy may be considered again in the future. "I think it was their influence," Chapin says. "They are a powerful group."
Not when it comes to politics, however. Though some Mommies post political messages on the forums — Help Michael Bennet Get Elected! Lucia Guzman Has Integrity! — and there are political subgroups, including Obama Mamas and Moms of the Republican Persuasion, the Highlands Mommies don't endorse candidates as a whole. Nor do they host their own Q-and-As, though several candidates bought booths at the Spring Fling fair put on by the Mommies' business group in April.
"I know, just from what people say, that they are of all parties and all political persuasions," says Democrat Lucia Guzman, a longtime local politician and state senator-elect for District 34. "Some individuals supported me based on who they are as individuals, not based on the Highlands Mommies."
Even when one of their own runs for office, the Highlands Mommies don't provide blanket support. Earlier this year, Susan Shepherd ran for the city council seat vacated by Garcia. A former political organizer turned stay-at-home mom, Shepherd joined the Highlands Mommies in 2007. She ran for council on a platform near and dear to many Mommies: better schools, better parks and a better crime rate.
"I decided to run for council because I love this neighborhood," she says. "I want this place to be a valid option for our family to live here as long as we'd like."
Though Shepherd was the second-place vote-getter in a crowded field of ten candidates, she lost to former state senator Paula Sandoval, who won 22 percent of the vote and isn't a Mommy. Shepherd got 17 percent.
"I wouldn't say the group functions in an orchestrated manner about politics," Shepherd says. "It's not the purpose of the group or how it's set up."
No, what the group is set up for is to be a place to trade information.
For years, the Mommies have posted crime alerts to their message board. Though they turned down a request from a Denver Police Department commander to join the group, the Mommies routinely forward alerts to the District 1 station, which covers northwest Denver. Lieutenant Paul Pazen says the Mommies have helped identify crime patterns and provide descriptions of suspects in robberies and other crimes. "Because they're such a strong network of moms, they are able to just keep track of their neighborhood," he says. "It's almost an electronic version of Neighborhood Watch."
Last year, the city council issued a proclamation to the Highlands Mommies, which was penned and sponsored by Garcia. It recognized the group as a robust social network dedicated to improving northwest Denver. It also noted their help in arresting suspects in a string of break-ins in the neighborhood, "proving once again that the concept of talking to neighbors and sharing information can be effective."
The network works for less serious things, too. Lost dogs. Misplaced iPhones. Stuffed animals accidentally left at the park. "Today, my daughter left her stuffed monkey at Sloan's Lake," one post said. "If anyone picked him up to help out, or because they did not realize he was a best friend to a 3-year-old, PLEASE, please give me a call."
But it's commerce that gets the most attention.
"That's one thing that can be scary with Highlands Mommies," says non-member Sarah Johnson of Stroller Strides, a franchised workout program that incorporates strollers. "As a business owner, they can help you or hurt you. Luckily, they help me."
Several other neighborhood business owners say the same thing. Even those who have received occasional negative reviews heap praise on the Mommies.
"I have had very good experiences," says Jay Hodges, the owner of Just Pipes Plumbing, which has received both negative and positive reviews from Highlands Mommies. "I get half of my business from the Mommies list."
"I'm pretty sure they're pretty happy with us," says Phillip Szczytowski, the office manager of Highland Smiles, a dentist's office on West 32nd Avenue. Though the majority of reviews for Highland Smiles are gushingly positive, a few Mommies have been unhappy with the service — and said so.
As for the Winejester's Smith, she asked a friend who belongs to the Highlands Mommies to post a polite response she'd written in which she asked "to put behind us any negative feelings." "It was just a fluke, an accidental thing," Smith says. Though she says the Mommy in question is still upset, Smith says she gets a lot of support from the group as a whole. "I haven't had any bad experiences with the Highlands Mommies."
To cut down on negative rants, the Mommies have another rule: If you're angry about the way you were treated by a car mechanic, or you think your housekeeper sucks, wait 24 hours before writing about it online. Then, if you're still upset, consider posting a vague message that says something like, "I had a bad experience with a contractor in the neighborhood. If you'd like more information, please contact me."
"You have to remember there are two sides to every story," Herrera-Hay says. "So you had a bad experience in a restaurant, or you think somebody did a really bad job in cutting all your hair off. It isn't fair to that business or that other person that only your side gets represented." The rule is unenforceable, but the managing directors do their best to send out regular reminders. They will often remove posts that bash a business.
It's a policy that's sparked sometimes heated debate among the Mommies. Everyone agrees they should be able to post positive reviews about local businesses — "shout-outs," they call them — so why not negative ones, too?
Because, as Herrera-Hay points out, "When you hit the 'send' button and get that instant gratification, you don't realize what damage you could be doing to somebody."
But the Mommies listserv works the other way, too. Many businesses credit their success to the group — especially businesses owned by Mommies themselves.
Andrea Flanagan joined the Highlands Mommies in 2004, when it was a Yahoo group of about 200 members. A former fashion photographer, Flanagan, now 36, was looking to start her own portrait business, partly so she could spend more time with her infant daughter. She decided to offer a 30 percent discount to all Mommies.
"I just posted something on the site, and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom! — I was booked," Flanagan says. She went from shooting portraits in her living room and filling out invoices at her kitchen table to having her own studio and hiring an assistant. She's now booked for months in advance.
"It's all because I'm a Highlands Mommy," she says.
A group of four Highlands Mommies has taken that concept even further. This past fall, they formed a for-profit LLC called the Highlands Business Group. Its aim is to boost northwest Denver businesses through events such as the recent Winter Market at Valdez Elementary, a dual-language school that sits in the shadow of North High on West 29th Avenue.
On December 4, about 25 local vendors set up shop in the gym, selling all-natural body scrub, hand-knit winter caps and funky jewelry made out of cut-up credit cards. In the carpeted auditorium, kindergartners and toddlers decorated snowflakes and did yoga.
The main hallway smelled like coffee thanks to the mobile baristas who set up next to the bake sale, while the Valdez PTO sold $10 poinsettias by the front door, and used books and toys — including an entire table full of naked baby dolls — in the cafeteria. In one corner, kids could have their picture taken with Santa, a real-looking one with wire-rimmed glasses and a twisty white mustache.
And from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., hundreds of people — big and small — streamed through the doors. Many of the big people were Highlands Mommies.
The Highlands Business Group also plans to produce products to sell. Its first is the Greater Highlands Local Deal Book, a $20 book of coupons for local businesses that debuted at the Winter Market. The coupon book also has a fundraising component: Schools can sell it and keep $8 of the proceeds.
"We are businesspeople, and we're adamant about fundraising and charitable giving," says Wolf, one of the four partners in the business group. "That passion goes hand in hand with being a Highlands Mommy. It's a big, blurry picture."
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