What’s behind Vail Valley poverty? High schoolers hash it out

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Photo: Deb Schmuck
Deb Schmuck teaches sociology at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum, Colo.

Deb Schmuck isn't afraid to take on some thorny issues in her sociology class at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum. Today, she's assigned the students a couple of articles to read about poverty, in particular one by liberal columnist Joel Mathis and conservative thinker Ben Boychuk called “Can Americans just stop being poor?”

About 20 kids sit around desks in a windowless classroom at the school, which is one of two high schools that serves students in Eagle County. Some students grumble they haven't read the material, but others have come prepared to debate the issue.

Gypsum sits west of ski towns like Beaver Creek and Vail, which draw wealthy vacationers from all over the world. It's home to a wide range of residents from second homeowners to low-wage workers who service the hotels and restaurants at the resorts.

Eagle Valley High School serves about 900 students and about a third receive free and reduced lunch. Half of the students at the school are Latino and several in Schmuck's class say their parents were born in Mexico and came to the Vail Valley for work. They're part of a growing immigrant population that began coming to the area in large numbers in the 1990s, but they find it tough to move up the economic ladder because the cost of living is so high.

Schmuck asks the class whether they agree with liberal Joel Mathis, who thinks the only way people can escape poverty is through hard work, resources, and opportunity. Senior Brie Yao agrees.

"You can work as hard as you want. You can work tons of jobs, but you really need resources and opportunity," Yao tells the class. "And resources as in people, you know, places that you can go, opportunities that allow you to climb higher on that ladder."Photo: Brie Yao

Sophomore Jacob Favela said his views are more in line with conservative Ben Boychuk, who argues anyone can climb out of poverty if they’re creative and motivated.

"Being creative can actually get you somewhere," Favela said. "It’s a question of whether you truly want to stop being poor."

Eventually, Schmuck poses a question that turns the conversation from theoretical to personal.

"What do you guys think about poverty in the Vail Valley?" she asked.

A lot of the students point out the large disparity between the rich and the poor in the valley. Anna Holguin said there are enormous second homes while at the same time, there are families that double and triple up in apartments. She said she's most aware of the differences when she helps her mom make beds in Vail.

"I worked at the condominiums and they’re paying up to $15,000 every three months, and they’re up there for 2 weeks," Holguin said.

The average rent in the Vail Valley is about $200 more than rent in Denver. Holguin said she’s saved up money working in case her mother needs help with the bills. Photo: Junior Anna Holguin

Junior Christian Perez said he lives in a two bedroom apartment in Gypsum with his parents, brother and sister. His sister shares a room with his parents and his 18-year-old brother helps out with the rent. Perez, who works at a local grill in Gypsum, said he also helps out with money if his parents need it.

"Sometimes my dad or mom [asks if I can help] with gas money and I give them money," Perez said. "I see it with others, like my friends too."

The latest data puts the child poverty rate in surrounding Eagle County at about 13 percent. It's begun to drop slightly but the area has a long way to go to reach pre-recession levels. Chart: Eagle County poverty

Schmuck said she can relate to the kids in her class whose parents don’t make a lot of money. She moved to the Vail Valley from Denver a few years ago and began substitute teaching, and needed another job.

"It was a little dicey for a while when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a second job," Schmuck said. "My rent was $900 a month and my monthly check was $1,200, and if you have other bills, forget it."

Schmuck said she's learned the kids in her class can’t always see the problems poverty creates because they live them every day. She tries to create a safe place in her classroom for students to talk. Schmuck said she’s heard incredible stories of perseverance, but she said the kids don’t see their own stories that way because it’s their reality.