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La Alma Jaguar Club provides opportunity in a tough neighborhood -- join the club tomorrow!

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Even among the many summer programs for kids that dub themselves "not a typical summer camp," the La Alma Jaguar Club is definitely not typical. "We try to get across the idea that this is not a summer camp, this is a leadership program," says Renee Fajardo, the coordinator for Journey Through Our Heritage, the Metro State University of Denver program that runs the free Jaguar Club for kids in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. "And that each and every one of them that are there, we expect them to grow up and be leaders. We expect them to break the stereotypical mold of who they think kids are who come from the projects."

Jaguar Club kids, ages ranging from four to thirteen, play sports, go fishing and learn how to paint -- all while building the skills to beautify their neighborhood and themselves. And those skills will be on display from noon to 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, July 11, as Journey Through Our Heritage throws a free neighborhood block party at the La Alma Recreation Center to commemorate the end of the program, with food, live music and demonstrations by the program's pupils.

"When I was growing up here -- even when my dad was growing up here -- this was a rough neighborhood," says Fajardo, who's been involved in the day-to-day operations of the camp since its inception in 2011. (Full disclosure: Fajardo is my supervisor at an unpaid internship with JTOH.) "These little kids, even though they see this every day, they become immune to it. I grew up in this neighborhood, and if you stay long enough, you see the plight. It becomes part of your repertoire. It's just normal."

The La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood is one of Denver oldest, a place where colorful brick houses with overgrown yards face imposing, sparse housing projects. While the Arts District on Santa Fe dazzles hundreds of visitors on First Fridays, creeping poverty lurks just blocks away. According to statistics compiled by the Piton Foundation, Lincoln Park suffered from a poverty rate of 37.73 percent in 2000, more than twice that of Denver County as a whole. (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey statistics revealed that Denver County's poverty rate had climbed to 19.1 percent in 2009.)

Child poverty in Lincoln Park also ranked at a staggering 51.04 percent to the county's 20.82 -- and may have gotten worse as Colorado's overall rate of child poverty doubled in the past decade. This is why Fajardo believes the program is so vital. "When we started off with them two years ago, they came in and had fun, running around like little kids. But now when they draw their pictures and write their poems, they actually have this pride in themselves," she says.

The seed for the club was planted when Denver Parks and Recreation decided that the rec center's adjoining pool would be closed for renovations all summer. (Construction crews later found asbestos in the concrete, further delaying the remodel until that fall.) That left one less place for Lincoln Park kids to play in the summer. So Councilwoman Judy Montero, who represents the ninth district, approached Fajardo about giving kids an outlet for a long, hot summer. "I was so upset at the idea of the kids not having a swimming pool for the summer," Montero says. "And the idea that somebody said, 'Oh, they can walk. They can walk from 12th and Mariposa all the way to Rudy Park..." I was so outraged that the community did not weigh in on the timing of when that swimming pool would be built."

"We said, 'We've got a big team, and our kids are from this neighborhood, let's see what we can put together,'" Fajardo recalls.

"That's the character of this neighborhood. The people never give up. And they never lay down and take it," Montero says. And it was inevitable that the camp would be centered around the La Alma Recreation Center, a bright spot for culture and activity since its foundation in the mid-1970s.

"[The center] rose out of the Chicano movement, which wanted to have equal representation for public rec centers," says Dennis Weber, recreation manager for La Alma and Barnum Recreation Center. "What we are doing as a department, not only are we providing free space for them, but we're providing them pool time, swim lessons and fishing trips.... I hope I can see it continue and expand -- or have our department step up and do something different. But I think the need exists in the neighborhood."

Fajardo is candid about what she ultimately expects from these kids when the six-week club is over. "What we want to do with them is, instead of just getting used to the things in life that are disturbing and defacing and degrading, is to look at it and say, 'Hey, here are the beautiful things in our neighborhood,'" she says. "The whole concept is that we're teaching them to live a life of beauty. So now, they come in and create beautiful things, and you can feel they love to come to this program."

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