Miki Hodge and Becky Gray, on lessons from the Rainbow Family, confetti joy and bringing Jane's Place to life.
(Publication Date: 10.18.22)
Overview: In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Miki Hodge and Becky Gray. Becky and Miki share stories from their extraordinary lived experiences, and about how those tie to their roles in the development of Jane’s Place, an innovative housing, nonprofit and commercial project in the town of Salida.
Becky also talks about her years following the Grateful Dead around the country and being part of the Rainbow Family, living in a van with her then-infant son, and eventually their reentry into Babylon, which is what the Rainbow Family calls conventional society.
Miki tells how the tragic loss of her parents at a very early age, naturally, had a big impact on her life, and what was the critical difference-maker in the path she would take to become the first in her family to graduate from high school, and then from college. Miki would go on to get her dream job as a wilderness guide, who also spent some years living in a van, and eventually founded a nonprofit for mentoring youth.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams (00:07): Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a human forward conversational podcast based in Chaffee County Colorado. I'm your host, Adam Williams. We have two guests for today's conversation, Miki Hodge and Becky Gray.
They both have some stories from their extraordinary lived experiences, and we'll talk about how those tie to the development of Jane's Place, an innovative housing, nonprofit and commercial project in the town of Salida. It's that cross section of incredibly human experiences and how together we are facing challenges like housing affordability here in our rural mountain community of Chaffee County that's at the heart of this Looking Upstream Podcast.
(00:45): The idea with getting personal and sharing stories is that the more we see each other as fellow humans with similar interests and needs for ourselves and our families and our friends, the more and better that we can build our community up and bring it together, which is what we really need to do if we are going to solve the challenges that we have.
And the name of the podcast Looking Upstream refers to what are called upstream health factors. These are things that relate to housing and living conditions, social imbalances and barriers and many related policies and systems that tend to keep things out of balance.
(01:19): It's also about how those upstream health factors lead to downstream consequences on social behaviors and health and ultimately, the connectedness and wellbeing or not of all of us together as a community. Like I said, today's guests are Becky Gray and Miki Hodge. Becky reminds us what Jane's Place is about and where it stands in the development process right now.
Miki introduces me to her good friend in the namesake of Jane's Place, the late Jane Whitmer who died from breast cancer in May of 2019, but not before the town would have a parade in her honor. That's astounding to me to be such a special person, who spreads so much light and love that an actual parade is held to show the love back.
(02:01): Becky also talks about her years following the Grateful Dead and being part of the Rainbow Family, how she lived in a van with her then infant son. And eventually, their reentry into Babylon which is what the Rainbow Family calls conventional society. Becky also talks about something that I think is really cool, which is how all those experiences directly inform her work as director of the Chaffee Housing Authority these many years later.
Miki tells how the tragic loss of her parents at a very early age naturally had a big impact on her life, and what was the critical difference maker. In the past, she would take to become the first in her family to graduate from high school and then from college.
(02:40): And then to get her dream job as a wilderness guide, who also spent some years living in a van, and eventually founded a nonprofit for mentoring youth in Salida. Of course, I'm skipping over a ton in their stories, so that Becky and Miki can be the one to share them. And I would guess that they both probably actually have a memoir or two in them that they could write.
Something that I really love is that it's those experiences that they're going to share that have led them to be the fantastically compassionate people that they are doing the fantastically compassionate work that they do in our community now.
Here we go, Miki Hodge and Becky Gray.
(03:29): Miki and Becky, thank you for coming in and welcome to the Looking Upstream Podcast.
Becky Gray (03:33): Thank you Adam. It's a pleasure to be here.
Miki Hodge (03:35): Thank you.
Adam Williams (03:37): We've got some great stuff to talk about today, and where I want to get started with that is on Jane's Place. Becky, in a nutshell what is or will be Jane's Place?
Becky Gray (03:48): Oh yeah, Jane's Place is a 17-unit rental development that has some commercial embedded in it. That commercial's going to be used primarily for non-profit development. The whole project was designed however on input from our community. So, a series of community conversations where we listened to employers and non-profits and others, asking what their greatest housing needs were in their world. And then designed the facility to meet those needs.
Adam Williams (04:22): Okay. I know that you have talked about this before. Obviously, this has been out in public and you are director of the Chaffee Housing Authority. You have a role in the development of Jane's Place and specifically, that you have been here in this station, talking with the previous iteration of this show which was the Chaffee Housing Report with the host Ken Matthews, but it's been quite a while.
We are going to talk a little bit more about that, but first, I just wanted to remind readers of that and ask for some basics of how is the Chaffee Housing Authority connected to Jane's Place? What is its role and maybe your role specifically?
Becky Gray (05:01): Oh, that's a great question. In the very beginning when we first started conceiving of Jane's Place, the Chaffee County Community Foundation and the director at that time was the thought partner in those community conversations, and holding them and hosting them and recording information.
Through that, the community foundation was able to purchase the land on which Jane's Place will be built from Jane's husband, Ron Ferris. Since then, they have transferred ownership of that parcel to the Chaffee Housing Authority. We're intended to be the owners and operators, and I like to even say culture setters for the project. We have also been partnering with the community foundation for raising local funds.
(05:50): One of the unique features about this project is we're defining affordability as tenants paying no more than 30% of their income for their housing costs. That's a little more flexible than the funds that we would receive from division of housing or any federal program would allow us to be. It's our goal to raise as much local money as possible.
With help from the community foundation, Miki Hodge and others in our community, there's been a significant amount of money close to 700,000 raised locally. In addition, the Chaffee Housing Authority has taken the lead on writing grant applications to receive funding from other unusual funding streams. We have 1.3 million granted to us from the Office of Economic Development and International Trade. That's OEDIT if you like the acronyms.
Adam Williams (06:45): Okay. Miki, please tell me what is your connection to this project, what is your role in bringing Jane's place into being? How have you been involved?
Miki Hodge (06:55): Well, I'm a dear friend of Jane's. Her and I both arrived into the community back in the early 2000s. And we both had similar mission goals in life at the time that were complimentary. Jane came here about 2000 to start parenting programs. Her longest, lasting mission statement was always to just keep families intact.
She believed in providing family stability, care so that they could prosper. And her and Ron purchased this lot way back in the day, and her vision for the lot that Jane's Place is going on always included some form of supportive programs and housing to support not only families, but maybe single income earners, AmeriCorps volunteers, people just needing a leg up.
(07:52): This is an exciting part of what Jane's Place is, and where Jane and I started which was just trying to work with what programs did not exist, what programs did at the time, and build upon them to create services.
Adam Williams (08:08): Jane Whitmer obviously is central to this, central to the feeling, to the vision for it. I've heard her described in such a amazing glowing loving terms from you Miki, I think now's as good a time as any. Let's talk about who Jane was as the human, not just in terms of the work that she did, which was amazing for the community, but who is she as you saw her as a human?
Miki Hodge (08:33):
Well, Jane was no question by far, the most joyful, always happy dancing person I've ever met. She would carry confetti in her purse. She would wave any kind of, I don't know, confetti, banners, all sorts of party aspects in her purse. She would greet you with everything from a hug to a spur of the moment dance.
I believe there is a quote that I try to remember every time I talk about Jane. It's from EB White, and I know she embodied this every day in that quote is, "I wake up every day to both change the world and have a good time doing it." And that is the true essence of Jane Whitmer. She lived for the rainbows. She told us not to worry about the thunderstorms. She loved children, she loved families.
(09:34): She loved the mission of her work was to keeping families intact. And I have to say that what I really miss most about Jane is just how she could change the energy of a room, and that would be any room. Politically, she was very invested. Of course human services, all sorts of non-profits. Any room, any meeting I was at, the minute she entered the room, she could literally change the environment and the climate.
Adam Williams (10:07): I want to clarify, you did say that you miss her and we are talking in a certain tense here. She is gone.
Miki Hodge (10:07): Yes.
Adam Williams (10:14): We are missing her.
Miki Hodge (10:14): Yes.
Adam Williams (10:15): For any listeners who are not already aware of who she is and is living on as, do you mind sharing what happened there? She did die a few years ago.
Miki Hodge (10:29): She did. She passed from breast cancer in the end of May of 2019, and she had battled a previous battle of cancer in her early 20s, but it resurfaced. When that did happen, of course it was a throttle of pain to get through, but she really reminded her closest friends and her workmates, and everyone that it wasn't about her sickness, it was about the way she lived. And I wanted to help Jane keep her energy through all of the treatments and all of the travels to the front range, and all those things that are involved in having cancer. When you live in a rural community, there's a lot of travel.
(11:15): And Jane was just so positive, she called as many friends as possible on the road. She just had a very amazing way of making everyone feel like that they were her best friend.
Adam Williams (11:28): It sounds like you were pretty close with her.
Miki Hodge (11:31): We were dearest friends, and I'm here to make sure that this project maintains her legacy and her message, and her vision of really wrapping our arms around the folks that just need that leg up, that need support services maybe after something involved with domestic violence, or how can we help a family that's just arriving and has lost an opportunity to rent a house. I mean there's so many different variables with Jane's Place, and that's why I'm really grateful for the flexibility that this housing project's going to provide.
Adam Williams (12:05): I'm curious if in your closeness with Jane, if she had ever shared with you at any point during her battle with cancer, and how did she maintain such positivity and warmth and be this presence that to me just seems so remarkable. And somebody that I wish that I could have that influence on the community, and do not see myself in any way to be in that realm of just rainbow, confetti carrying status.
Miki Hodge (12:34): And that is so great. I mean who gets that status? Not a lot of us, but I guess it was amazing because she could really refuel and reboot through meditation. And she was a long term yoga instructor for the valley. She did amazing programs within the prison in yoga and different offerings for folks that were in our local county systems. And really, she just kept refueling that infinite cell battery with the kind of love she gave. And I really had no idea how she maintained all the different things that she invested in. Through this project, we hope that it continues her message, that we can really embrace each other. And we have a lot more in common than we have in differences.
Adam Williams (13:29): Wonderful. Becky, of course you can add to that if you have any personal sentiment. I don't know what your relationship with Jane might have been, but also then either direction you want to go here. I want to just learn what is the vision in terms of anything there might be to elaborate on what's already been said, but also current status and timeline as you understand it for this evolution of Jane's Place.
Becky Gray (13:55): Hmm, so I did not have the good fortune of knowing Jane of my arrival in Chaffee County was at the same time that she was going through the end of her experience with cancer, her experience with life I should say. The second question's easier to answer though.
Adam Williams (14:14): Sure.
Becky Gray (14:14): More fundamentals about the project itself, there's five total buildings. They've been designed as I mentioned specifically based on feedback from the community. We have one building that has four, one bedroom apartments in it. It's all on one floor, and two apartments are connected by a door. It can open up and be a bigger unit with two kitchens.
We did that intentionally for groups of people in our community. We can think in the summertime about trail workers, or river guides. In the winter, we can think about lift operators, fire camp folks. A lot of our public land caretakers come through in waves and need a place to stay. We have group living quarters.
(15:02): We have some units that were designed specifically for people leaving domestic violence. And those are intentionally located right next to the office, where we intend to have supportive services always on staff. So, that's not just the Chaffee housing authority. It's all of our community partners that provide those supporting services. And then some one bedroom apartments, some two bedroom apartments. The two bedrooms specifically designed for Department of Human Services clients. We definitely have shared endeavors with that group. And as Miki's pointed out, some of the programs in DHS were launched by Jane and her vision. So, making sure that we maintain attachment to that vision is really important.
(15:52): I think the non-profit development center, the commercial space is very unique because we will have another meeting space in town, specifically designed for smaller non-profits though. And then there's a coffee bar as well designed into the facility that's going to be operated by Achieve Inc. That is a non-profit that hires divergent people to run their coffee house, giving them employment opportunities, but also I think more importantly, community engagement opportunities and a way to participate in the broader community.
Adam Williams (16:27): I'm going to ask it what feels like an incredibly basic question at this point, because I hope that listeners, they might have their own way into any of the given things points you've just made and say, "Oh yeah, I understand why that's important," but I want to ask overall why is Jane's place important. And Becky, I'll stick with you for this one.
Becky Gray (16:45): Oh gosh, multiple reasons.
Adam Williams (16:48): And I mean that is why is it important if this helps to be more clear. Why is it important to Salida? Why is it important to Chaffee County?
Becky Gray (16:55): Yeah, I think Chaffee County's undergoing a pretty significant in-migration. I think it had begun way back probably 2016, 2017, but we really saw this in-migration accelerate during the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, we even called it a zoom boom, those of us in my field of work because people who are able to rework remotely were moving to smaller remote options like ours.
What that does then is the housing stock that does exist becomes used differently than it was before, whether it's sold and short term rented, whether it's occupied part of the season, et cetera. It just adds to our housing crisis by taking away a lot of our housing stock.
(17:40): And what we know is through some scientific research is that when new groups migrate into a community, there becomes a divide between those who had been there long term, and those then who are moving in. And one of the intentions behind Jane's Place is to provide more housing opportunities, but also provide a culture that bridges that divide and doesn't exacerbate it.
For people who have been raised in Chaffee County and are finding themselves squeezed out of housing opportunities, this gives them a place to engage not only in housing, but also in community building. And for those who are new coming here looking for a place to invest in or a place to call home, it's very hard at first.
(18:25): In fact, many of the in-migrants are finding themselves in RVs or in hotel rooms. This also provides housing opportunities for both subsets of people, and intentionally creating that culture where everybody's valued, everybody belongs. And we all have a way to play in that culture and in creating that culture.
Adam Williams (18:50): In terms of the numbers and with regard to what you were just saying, then this is not – and I assume is not intended or thought to be – the solution that takes care of all of these things, but rather, an incredible model that really could shine light on how to move forward I think and resolve a number of these issues related to the zoom boom, the in migration. Am I on track there?
Becky Gray (19:16): Absolutely. I like to say that there's not a solution to this housing crisis. If there was, we would be copying it. There's interventions however. This is one intervention. The Chaffee housing authority I think it's fair to say, we're pursuing multiple interventions, both on policy level, development level, et cetera. This is one intervention, and it is a unique one. And it is a model that ideally could be replicated. We'll test that as we go along and we can come back in a few years, and let you know if it is a model that should be replicated.
Adam Williams (19:53): Great. I just hear in all of this and hear how we talk about not only Jane's place, but Jane herself and then from the two of you. There's a lot of heart, there's empathy, there's compassion for these needs for everyone that you've described is how this will be something impactful in their lives.
And I just want to talk about with each of you now, more of your stories and where that compassion and sense of empathy and caring for the world and community, where that might be rooted in each of your histories. Becky, let's start with you. From what little I already know of your story, I think you have some really interesting life experiences.
(20:37): For example, having lived in a van and spent some years in a transient flow of living. So, maybe something that was more stable, what you're describing could have been to benefit you as well at some point. And I also know that it seems you either were, or maybe still are a Grateful Dead fan, and that all of that rolls into one. I'm going to get out of the way now, and just ask what's that story.
Becky Gray (21:00): Oh, that's great. Grateful Dead fandom never goes away, does not fade away.
Adam Williams (21:05): Noted, noted.
Becky Gray (21:06): Yeah. Just real brief, I grew up in the St. Fran Valley in Boulder County. I feel like I come from a really a place of privilege, I had a excellent family and education, and all the supportive structures that a person needs to thrive. I was the youngest of my siblings. And when I graduated, it was about the same time my dad retired from his corporate job.
And the universe just happened such that they sold the family home that I was raised in when I went away to college. College didn't stick for me. I wasn't supposed to be there at that time. I was way more interested in following the Grateful Dead to be honest with you, and exploring life.
(21:50): When I left college, I found that I didn't have a house to come back to in my hometown. And I did spend a bit of time sharing homes with other people. At one point, I think we had eight people in a house. I had someone sleeping in my kitchen pantry, and it got a little overwhelming. I found myself pregnant at that time. And shortly after my son was born, we made the decision to move into a van, rather than sharing houses with many, many people, most of whom we didn't really know very well.
Adam Williams (22:26): Okay. So, that is the nutshell version and the short version there, but we've still got some time on this podcast. And I know there's a whole lot more story there. What we're really saying because I've had a chance to talk with you about some of this is that this is a year's long period. This wasn't I'm going to catch that dead concert, I'm going to go up there and catch that one. And in two weeks, we're done. This was years.
There are some interesting stories there, and the Rainbow Gatherings and Rainbow Family, and all of that being tied together. And I'm just curious because while I've heard of this and I've talked with different people, I don't really know anything about that experience.
(23:06): I don't know what the Rainbow Family is, what the experience is. Do you care to elaborate on some of those things for us?
Becky Gray (23:14):
Sure, I'm happy to. The ironic part about going to see the Grateful Dead is I really only got into two shows in that whole time. I did a lot of driving and a lot of parking lot time, but really didn't get to see very many live shows. In 1995, Jerry Garcia passed away.
And those of us that were enamored with traveling and following the Grateful Dead, a lot of us turned to the Rainbow Family because it was the same nomadic lifestyle. And it was the same type of I'll say anarchy community. And when I say anarchy, I don't mean that there's chaos. I mean that there was no centralized decision making in control. I was drawn to that. I liked living in the forest, that was fun.
For those who aren't familiar with the Rainbow Family, the idea is that we are all Rainbow Family. If you have a belly button, you're part of the rainbow family of living light and love. And the idea behind gatherings is to come together on public land, because there's no ownership and pray for world peace.
This happens every July 4th and a national gathering. In fact, there's international gatherings as well. At a national gathering, you could expect to see 20,000 to 40,000 people in the woods, without a single leader. Everybody's part of the culture building there And you see cities literally. I mean that's a lot of people in the woods. You see water infrastructure pop up.
(24:44): You see kitchen infrastructures, health and safety, medical tents, et cetera. It really is where I learned about community building and where I learned about community development, and how to engage others in making decisions for the whole, pretty fascinating lifestyle really.
Adam Williams (25:05): Yeah, yeah. Did I hear you correctly: 20,000 to 40,000?
Becky Gray (25:10): At the national gatherings, there can be. Yeah, Colorado regional gatherings are usually on the winter and spring, no... spring and fall equinoxes. There's usually still on the ground in Colorado on those regional gatherings. They're a little smaller.
Adam Williams (25:26): Okay, okay.
Becky Gray (25:27): Camping at high altitude and the snow is for a certain subset of people.
Adam Williams (25:32): Well, I was curious where and these go together, these two questions, but if you're traveling, even if you're not going into the concerts, but I picture this also for sports enthusiasts as tailgating.
Becky Gray (25:43): Absolutely.
Adam Williams (25:43): It would just be, "Oh, I'm going to drive the country and tailgate the whole time or whatever that circumstance, but you're talking about I assume a lot of driving. What kind of geographic range are we saying, but then also where can you put 20,000 to 40,000 people for larger gatherings on public land?
Becky Gray (26:05): Definitely a lot of driving time. There's a gathering happening 365 days a year, you could find one right now. I think there's one happening in the Ozarks right now. I covered quite a bit of geographic area coast to coast and border to border, really primarily hanging out in the west because everything east of the Mississippi gets busy in my mind. And driving a big van, it's a lot more fun to be on wide open roads. Where do you put 20,000 to 40,000 people and you do in the national forest. Scouts for the Rainbow gathering will spend their time on the off seasons, if you will, looking for good locations. That would be a location that has springs, because you need clean water.
(26:51): And then you build water infrastructure around that, so it doesn't get polluted. And you need a big open meadow that can hold the quantity of people you expect. You also need we call it an accessibility road. It used to be called a road to handicap. That was for people who had different abilities, and couldn't hike back to the main camp, which is usually five miles in.
There was a road that we could help transport people on vehicles, trucks and carriages and carts, and stuff like that. So, a lot goes into the infrastructure planning of it.
(27:24): And to circle back, that is really where I feel like I've learned a lot about community development, and how communities can work together to protect their natural resources, to include those who maybe have a harder time being included, and make decisions collaboratively.
Adam Williams (27:44): I think we probably, over the course of your experiences with that, get into all kinds of stories that we would find fascinating, but I really do love that what you're bringing out here is the connection to how does this society, it might be roving at times or however you want to describe that, but it is about establishing structure within the community that are our roles, but what service to the community, right?
You're saying there's not that hierarchy necessarily of authority dictating. And isn't that part of the point is that when we are a community living in this light and love place and respecting each other, things are possible and it's not just chaos.
Becky Gray (28:27): Yeah. And the thing that really struck me is that nobody was hungry. Everybody had access to water, everybody had access to shelter. If you needed a hug, you got a hug. It was so inclusive, and it was interesting coming back to Babylon as we would call it.
So, that's this society we're all sitting in with our electric environments and our cars and our roads, and seeing how so much of that had gotten forgotten, that people are hungry here and people do not have shelter. And we can do better, and I've seen it. I know we can do better. So, that's one of those things that motivates me when I wake up every morning is that I know we can do better than this.
Adam Williams (29:11): Did you have particular roles at any point that, where you got to develop those skills in a very hands on way, not just by observation, but I mean a leadership role of sorts that even though that might be the wrong term given what we're talking about?
Becky Gray (29:26): There's no really leadership in the Rainbow Family. It's you get in what you put in. You get out what you put in I should say. I was traveling with my son who was an infant and a toddler at the time. I always camped in what's called Kitty Village. And after doing so enough, you learned how to build a good teeter-totter and a swing and a balanced beam.
I took on a lot of times, those roles of just saying, "I'm going to create an environment for the kids to be safe." And then other people I think when you do take that on yourself, start leaning into it and asking questions, and they want to help. Those leadership roles just happen, you don't sign up for them.
Adam Williams (30:09): Right, right. You look for how you can serve the community and do what needs to be done.
Becky Gray (30:13): Absolutely, everybody can collect firewood, everybody can do dishes. If you have other things you can do, you jump in and do them too.
Adam Williams (30:21): I'm curious then that when you decided to move on from that, what was that like? What was that transition? What motivated it? Where did you go?
Becky Gray (30:31): Yeah. What motivated me, many things. I think the short story is that my son was about two and a half, three years old, and I recognized that I would be doing a disservice to his development if I didn't give him a broader understanding of what the world looked like. When he tried to step out of that nomadic lifestyle, that's where I found the biggest difficulty.
I had a couple of years of no job experience. I had no formal education. I had no address. Those things are all barriers when you're trying to move out of a van and into a house. No rental history, that's a tricky one when you're trying to find a house. I stopped for a little while in Alamosa, Colorado because I love the San Luis Valley.
(31:28): And I found that La Puente Shelter was incredibly open and loving and welcoming. I did not have to stay at the shelter, because I did have the resource of the van. And I was able to through La Puente, secure employment. And at that time in the world, rent was still affordable.
I was able also to rent a tiny little shotgun apartment, but just that alone, moving from the woods into a house was really overwhelming to my mental health. Who would've thought? You'd think it would be really positive and beneficial because you've got a shower and you've got lights, but it was really tricky. I felt very isolated. I felt very disconnected. I couldn't really see a way forward in my life.
(32:23): And certainly with my earning power, there was not a financial way forward in my life. I have the benefit of having a really supportive family. And when I called my parents to say, "I don't like what I'm doing," after I think their initial sigh of relief and I think my mom's saying, "Well, finally," they offered to let me move into their house, put some pretty clear boundaries around how long I could stay there, and what they expected me to do while I was there, but supported me, and gave my son and I a really safe place to be, while we transitioned back into life in Babylon, if you will.
(33:04): And I think that's what really motivates part of my intentions around Jane's Place is that I was really fortunate to grow up the way I did with the family that I did, and the resources that they had that they could extend that to me in my time of need.
I recognize that there are plenty of families that don't have those resources, or plenty of individuals that don't have those families. And I think Jane's Place fills that gap and offers that nurturing, caring, supporting environment that can help a person through a really difficult transition in their life, regardless of the situation.
Adam Williams (33:48): And it's not always about just having money to afford rent, right? It's if you don't know how to go about getting a place to rent, or how to manage bills, or any of the things that are needed to sustain that life that so many of us consider the conventional or the parts of Babylon that absolutely, it's not just a dollars and cents thing. There's a lot to it that comes with knowledge and experience, and the way that all feels.
(34:16): I think it's really interesting the way you described coming from living out the way you did, then going back into walls and having a place that you were able to live in and that difference, because I just think that gives a lot of color and something to think about when we consider the people who are living in all kinds of different conditions, whether that's in an RV, in a tent, without any of it.
And we might think, "Oh well, you're choosing it is a common line." But then also if we could just give them some walls and a door and a bathroom and shower and they're set, a kitchen and it's not as simple as that. There are emotional matters. There's all kinds of things related to it.
(35:00): Miki, I want to talk with you now in your story. Becky described having lived in a van for a period there. You also have that experience I know in doing some amazing stuff that I think what you did for several years working with NOLS is really awesome. I'll let you say what NOLS is and what that work was, how you maybe came to that, and what it meant to be living in a van throughout that period.
Miki Hodge (35:26): That sounds great. I guess to where to start is I came from a early family that had a lot of tragedy. My mother was killed in a skydiving accident, and my father also died a year later. We were moved out of a pretty stable system into our grandparents' home after in and out of foster care. My grandmother was very ill.
They wouldn't allow her initial custody after the death of our parents. But once I got into my grandparents' home and we realized that there was a lot of advantages to not having authority in the home, my sisters and I were running quite wild. I was the youngest, and we had unfortunately a large amount of neglect. What really came through in those years is that I was in a program that provided mentors to young girls.
(36:34): And my mentor was a stable force for my life through the age of eight to the age of 15. And those days and times with my mentor absolutely made the difference. And in turn is why I wanted to come into Chaffee County, and start a mentoring program which was at the same time Jane was starting her parenting programs.
I ended up luckily barely graduating high school, and I was the first one in my family to do so which was exciting. And I had a mentor voice in my head that said, "Why not college?" And I entered a junior college out of high school on my own and packed my bags, got on a Greyhound bus. Did not have transportation, did not have the family connect. It was good luck, here's $200, see you later.
(37:28): And I somehow pulled off some amazing years in college, and a lot of loan debt. And from there, I entered into my dream job which was guiding for Colorado Outward Bound School and NOLS, which is National Outdoor Leadership School. And those days were absolutely based in my van. There was no reason to try to pay rent when I was making very little in those jobs anyway.
Moving my life from a pretty tumultuous childhood, barely graduating high school, getting through college with a lot of very frivolous signing of loan papers, I got very lucky to land in the job that I wanted, which was experiential environmental science, outdoor education based learning. And I had a blast.
(38:21): I got to guide kids and adults through 30- and 23-day backpacking adventures. Rivers, canyons, mountaineering. And I got to do that through my twenties, but I never had enough money for housing. I would live in my van, and do that through very cold winters in Breckenridge, and sometimes other areas like Keystone and Silver Thorn.
(38:43): And those times were they're always very much like yesterday, I can remember waking up to the inside of my van just encased in ice, and having the police come by and check on us and make me or if I had anyone else I was trying to help out at the time, they would stay in the van, but it was very insulting and difficult to understand a system that I would pay a lot of money for an education, but couldn't make the money to make a basic deposit on a rental and live with essential needs. I had to freeze in my van to make it all come together. Luckily, summers and springs were very connected to whatever base camp I could drive between Utah, Wyoming, Colorado.
(39:37): And I could live at these different outdoor education based camps, which was by far my best time of year, or I was an intern with different outdoor programs and they would provide housing. Any job I could find that had a housing component, I applied. And it's an interesting time in my life. And I'm very proud of it because I made a lot of impact in different young people's lives with that kind of learning and guiding.
And yeah, luckily started getting some steps ahead at the end of my 20s, and moved into a more secure job in the ski industry, but here I am. I live in Chaffee now 22 years, and I helped Jane with a lot of different programs. And her and I essentially started Chaffee County Mentors nurturing parenting.
(40:28): And in turn, we started to develop the Family Youth Initiatives umbrella, which is still here and is through Department of Human Services. And they house a lot of different programs that work with prevention and of course, supporting the family and trying to keep families intact, keeping families prosperous.
Adam Williams (40:48):
I think the student loans conversation is one that could go on and on. And we could be sitting here for hours talking about that in the different experiences we have. I know that I felt a very similar way that my parents were teachers. They really encouraged education. And I also felt like maybe it was who all I was surrounded by or societally, I don't know. It was my view at the time, education is the way.
This is the way you're going to elevate yourself, be able to have that American dream, buy a house, whatever all we're told we're going to be able to achieve, but I went to college, then went in the army, went back to school. And then I came out and I was still making $11 an hour with 16 years of education.
(41:31): And I was pretty unhappy with that. My wife happened to work in technology, and just earned so much better than me. And through that, we were able to actually afford life, right?
Miki Hodge (41:41): Yes.
Adam Williams (41:42): Again, I guess that's a rabbit hole we don't need to go too far down, but I'm saying that I can connect with that for sure-
Miki Hodge (41:42): Absolutely.
Adam Williams (41:48): ... in what you're saying. I'm also really envious of the experience you chose and got to have with Outward Bound and NOLS. I think that's an amazing thing. I know that I would love to do that as an adult, and have somebody guiding my way because I don't feel very... I'm not going to say I'm not outdoorsy, but I'm not connected to say survival skills, or some of those more elemental skills. You must have built a tool chest of knowledge and skills to be out here in the mountains, and enjoy life doing that.
Miki Hodge (42:19): You know I am. I'm really proud of that, because I came from absolutely nothing like that. I was raised in inner city Denver. The most I ever saw the mountains was from the 200-mile view. We were inner city. Basically, we did anything, it was skateboarding, it was tennis, it was roller skating. I mean those were our adventures.
We didn't go camping as a family. And those science camps I would attend in public school, those were my first taste of getting to go with the woods. Those were important things. And it was a matter of one cup of coffee, I was actually living in my van in Alaska. And I saw a college catalog with a young woman repelling, and I was like, "Oh, I'm going to do that."
(43:12): I found a school that helped me learn those skills And then to get into those young professional programs of guiding was just a gift. I mean it was truly living before a technology age of GPS and all those things, you had to know how to orienter and read maps, and get to water holes in the dark deep canyons of Utah. I mean it was just a beautiful time in my 20s, but man did I starve. We really were paid horribly. And I just am so lucky that I had it, but it was a lot of dirt bagging as they say.
Adam Williams (43:51): Do you look back on that really fondly now for having had... I think our 20s, especially early 20s is when is maybe the best time to have those adventures.
Miki Hodge (44:03): I do, I agree. It was the only time I probably could have pulled it off. I have no regrets. I absolutely had immense amount of debt and a lot of forbearance accrual because of the difficulty making my bills, but really I am one of the luckiest people I know that I could live my 20s league in that type of adventure.
And who knew what was going to be down coming down the pike next? I mean we would be assigned different locations all over the west to go guide. I mean we were very fortunate.
Adam Williams (44:36): It sounds amazing.
Miki Hodge (44:36): Yeah, it was a really good time.
Adam Williams (44:38): You were talking about a mentor when you were a girl, and the difference that that person made in your life. And I wonder is that someone that you stayed in touch with.
Miki Hodge (44:47): Well, it's really interesting, I referenced them as a single, but they were actually two women. One was named Mary actually, and one the other was named Lynn. And they alternated mentoring me on Wednesday nights. I lost touch with them because when you get to your teens, that only thing that really matters is your peer group.
I remember backing away from the mentoring, and it wasn't a lot of sentimentality. It was this I started missing my meetings with them, but it wasn't until I got into my 20s, that I really realized what that had given me and the different horizon line I was offered that my sister didn't necessarily get. She ended up in a very deep spiral of drug addiction out of her teens, pregnant by 16.
(45:35): It was just a whole different world that my mentor illuminated for me. I did try to reach out and find them, and I never did. And it's one of them had already passed away. One, the woman named Mary was very old, but I never found the other one, but I decided to start Chaffee County Mentors as my thanks to the universe and them, because really mentors matter. And I'm encouraging everyone here, it does make a difference, even if it's just once a week.
Adam Williams (46:09): I want to ask about what you are able to take away from your experience in foster homes, in foster care and that I know that's one of the central pieces for your mentoring now is in your work with Jane, in that you are trying to help provide stability for kids in families, in foster family environment.
And I just wonder if there were lessons that you remember when you were a child, maybe it was when you were eight or 10 or 12. So, maybe that's that's too young, but was there anything you noted where you're like, "You know what, I have this empathy I'm already feeling. And when I get a chance, I'm going to help another 10-year-old girl With this moment."
Miki Hodge (46:55): The earliest memories I have is just feeling like you are part of a pack of children, you're not part of a family. There's a very strong pecking order when you're in a pack of kids that wants the attention of those couple only positive adults. And those are early memories. Those are when I was four and five, but then I was definitely in my grandparents' home starting at six, but those pieces of foster care, that really transitional time, I just remember feeling like what am I going to do to get the attention today?
(47:37): And I can remember that so clearly, but really when I started living with my grandparents and having those mentors visit me, I just thought, "Man, why doesn't everyone have a mentor? Parents are no parents. This is where it's at. I mean these are people that take you out to ice cream and picnics and concerts." And I just didn't understand why I was selected.
I felt like that was something that everyone should get. So, growing into it with my teenage years and then stepping away from the mentoring, that it doesn't really hit you until you're starting to be a young adult, coming into your full brain development of the lessons that really I could tie into so many different metaphors.
(48:23): I would talk about the rabbit hole, geez. Yeah, I'm just had an interesting definite childhood, but it's really led me to great places.
Adam Williams (48:36): I think the teaching aspect like with mentoring, as a father of two sons, I end up, I just said it last night to my older one who's 12, "In another 12 to 15 years, you might care about what I just said."
Miki Hodge (48:49): That's right. That's right. It's perfect. It's true. It just doesn't...
Adam Williams (48:52): It takes us time to mature into it I think.
Miki Hodge (48:54): It's the slowest percolating system... I mean for myself, I was like, "Wow, I'm still getting it, but it really did hit me my best times, where those are really 20s when I was like, "Wow, I'm really glad that my mentor took me to a symphony, or told me why not me, why can't I go to college." Those things really mattered.
Adam Williams (49:15): I wonder too about representation. You saw in that catalog a woman rappelling. I think you-
Miki Hodge (49:15): I did.
Adam Williams (49:21): ... described it as. If we're talking about someone planting seeds of what's possible for you, and if you're a young woman or a girl and seeing a woman doing this physical outdoor thing, I would have to think that might have resonated a little differently than if it would've just been somebody else.
Miki Hodge (49:38): Agree. I mean we don't know what really is going to hit us out of the blue. That image hit me out of the blue. That was nothing that we were really being marketed as back in the '70s and '80s, these women that were mountaineers and ability to keep up with the guys so to speak in extreme environments so to speak, but yeah, I mean that imaging's everything.
And it really came on fast after the '90s hit and more and more women moving into the outdoor industries. And I'm just so grateful that I was part of that. It was really great to be a river guide in the '90s, but it was also hard because a busload of, I don't know, sexist tourists guys come in, and they don't don't want to be in the "girl's boat," right?
Adam Williams (50:30): Right, yeah.
Miki Hodge (50:31): It was always an interesting challenge to try to remember that I was just as strong as any other person on the team.
Adam Williams (50:42): Well, having the skills and knowledge for anything goes so far, than the arrogance and ignorance that I can again say as having been a younger guy. I hope I wouldn't have ever treated you that way, but you know what I'm saying, I'm well aware that when we're teenagers, when we're early 20s, we're still full of ourselves and don't actually have all the answers we think we do.
Becky, I want to come back to you and to Jane's place, and ask you if you have thought about, if you've even had a chance to think about what the ultimate success of Jane's Place might look to you. And that's I think besides getting the doors open and getting the things you've described flowing, but maybe that's in five, 10, 20 years. What might that look like to know wow, we've done something here?
Becky Gray (51:30): Yeah, half of my brain wants to just say it needs to self sustain, right? It needs to have enough cash flow to take care of itself. The more fun side of my brain sees 10 years from now, maybe even sooner, Jane's Place as being just a gem of the community, a place where if an event is announced there, everybody wants to go, a place where anyone is struggling.
And I don't just mean with housing I think especially over the last couple of years as we've went through this pandemic, I'm starting to be more aware of my mental health and trying to talk about it more openly and encouraging others as well.
And I think Jane's Place would be successful if somebody is struggling with any part of their life, walking into that coffee house and sitting in that community living room so to speak should feel like a hug. It should feel like a safe warm place where everybody knows your name, right? I don't want to be too cheesy, but it should be a place for all people, and a place that we're really proud of as a community.
And ideally, the first place that the community thinks of when somebody says, "I'm just moving here or I'm transitioning out of whatever other environment," I hope that Jane's place is the first thing that comes out of someone's mouth is you should go check out Jane's Place. You'll like it there.
Miki Hodge (53:04): I love that.
Adam Williams (53:06): Miki, I want to ask you the same question. And also if you might have a sense for, this feels awkward to ask, but how Jane might feel knowing that this vision was realized and that you were part of it.
Miki Hodge (53:22): Oh geez, I'm going to cry right here on the radio. She's just in my head all the time, and I'm so grateful for that because I ask myself how Jane would do it. And it typically gives me a higher road. She really was graceful and so inclusive. I guess I would need the question again, I'm sorry.
Adam Williams (53:51): Just the success, what that might look like to you and to feel like in this case, because you think about how would Jane do it. You think about her so much. When do you think you might feel like, in what way might you feel like wow, we've really done this, Jane we've really done right by your name?
Miki Hodge (54:11): Oh, I guess I would have to put it into a day of the life. I'm at Jane's place, and I know that a single mom just checked in with her few children. I know that there's an AmeriCorps room down the hall that is getting ready and packing their lunches. I know that there's a incoming nurse that just needs temporary housing, because they really want to live here and work at Harder the Rockies.
And I know that there's an extra room just in case there might be a crisis. And it's on deck just by chance if someone needs it. That day in the life is what I hope to see. I also hope to see the bulletin board in the coffee shop full of different resources and different opportunities for classes, clinics.
(55:02): And then I would look over at our non-profit room, and see a new group meeting about the next amazing effort that they want to bring local kids or families. And I think that would be the day I could imagine in Jane's place, and that she would be there just bouncing rainbows around after a thunderstorm.
Adam Williams (55:24): Throwing confetti.
Miki Hodge (55:26): That's right.
Adam Williams (55:27): It sounds like to me what you've just described, I love the way you did that, with a day in the life, because then what that leads me to is what we're talking about a success day after day after day.
Miki Hodge (55:36): Right.
Adam Williams (55:37): It certainly isn't just a moment in time. It's not well when the doors open on this place, it's not just in five years, it's every day. So, thank you for putting it that way Miki. We'll wrap up with this, I just think you both bring a tremendous amount of heart to your work, too many years of work and to Jane's place of course.
Miki, thank you for sharing heartfully about Jane herself. You really make me wish that I would've gotten to know her. Again, she's the kind of person it sounds like who I would love to be in the world, and am very aware that I'm not. We can always aspire, right?
Miki Hodge (56:17): Thank you.
Adam Williams (56:18): Becky, thank you as well for sharing your story and for sharing the insights about Jane's Place. And just, yeah, thank you both for sharing your stories and being here today.
Becky Gray (56:27): My pleasure Adam. Thanks for having us.
Miki Hodge (56:28): Thank you Adam. Jane would love you, I know it.
Adam Williams (56:31): Oh, thank you.
[Transition music, guitar and horns]
Adam Williams: All right, that was my conversation with Miki Hodge and Becky Gray. If what they shared here today resonated with you, you can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of our producers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to rate and review that We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also welcome your spreading the word on your social media pages, and even invite you to tell your family, friends and coworkers about Looking Upstream the old fashioned way by word of mouth.
Once again, I'm your host Adam Williams. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. And thank you to KHEN Radio where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado, Heather Goby for graphic and web design, Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Initiative, Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment and Becky Gray, Director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.
The We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream Podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream Podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.
(57:49): Lastly, thank you for listening and until next time. As we say here at We Are Chaffee, “be human, share stories.”