The road to transformation for one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods began half a world away: in Nicaragua, where a 2006 service-learning project inspired two University of Denver students — economics major Eric Kornacki (BA ’09) and criminology major Joseph Teipel (BA ’07) — to fight poverty at home.
“Joseph and I went down to Nicaragua for three weeks on this service-learning project over winter break, and we both were impacted by the poverty we saw,” Kornacki says. “During the trip, we started to have a conversation about what it would look like if, postgraduation, we came back and started doing work around that issue. A lot of ideas came out of that, then we had to come back and finish school, and those ideas were tabled for a bit. But then, after graduation, we said, ‘Hey, let’s actually try to do this now, while we’re young. Let’s start a nonprofit and figure it out.’”
That nonprofit, Re:Vision (formerly Re:Vision International), started in 2007 with a global mission, but it took on a local focus when Kornacki and Teipel learned of the extreme poverty in Westwood, a neighborhood with one of Denver’s highest childhood obesity rates and an average annual household income of $27,000–$34,000 — a little more than half of Denver’s median. When the pair discovered that limited access to fresh, healthy food was one of the area’s biggest problems (67 percent of the community is at risk for obesity and diet-related illnesses), they developed their signature Re:Farm program, which works with Westwood residents to build backyard gardens and community urban farms.
Re:Vision started the gardening program in 2009, teaching seven families to plant and harvest their own fruits and vegetables and prepare healthy, nutritious meals. Fueled by a $1.2 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, the numbers quickly grew: In 2013 the organization worked with 200 families; last year the number increased to nearly 400.
“It’s a good idea. You get to watch what you grow, you get to eat what you grow, and it’s not full of pesticides and all that junk,” Westwood resident Tommy Escamilla told Denver news station CBS4 in its story on the nonprofit.
Re:Vision also hires and trains local women as “promotoras” to help set up and manage the community gardens and to promote healthy living in Westwood. A recent $744,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will allow Re:Vision to train the promotoras as community health workers and patient navigators who can perform basic health screenings in people’s homes, leveraging the trust and relationships they build through the gardening program.
“I’ve always been impressed with Eric and Joseph,” says Michael Miera, who works with Westwood as a community development representative at the Denver Office of Economic Development. “Seven or eight years ago, I started to understand the importance of urban agriculture and healthy-food access to low-income individuals. Of course, Re:Vision is all about that. They are on the radar screen of a lot of local foundations, and we are working closely with a lot of those foundations to see how we can move their mission along.”
Re:Vision has big plans not only for its own future but for the future of Westwood: In 2014 the nonprofit received a $1.2 million grant from Denver’s Office of Economic Development to purchase a two-acre property on Morrison Road near Alameda Avenue. Staffers are working with community members to transform the space — which once was filled with junked-out warehouses and abandoned storage containers — into a multipurpose community center with a focus on community wealth and health. Kornacki anticipates a community-owned international food hall, akin to Denver hotspots Avanti and the Source, along with an outdoor community market, a for-profit greenhouse, and shared office and tech-training spaces for Westwood residents.
Also in the works are a business incubator and a community-owned co-op grocery store that will employ Westwood residents and purchase surplus produce from the Re:Farm gardens. With the first stirrings of gentrification in the neighborhood, the nonprofit is looking for grants to form a community land trust in order to keep Westwood residents in their homes. “It’s a mechanism for the community to decide how to slow or how to handle development pressure,” Kornacki says.
Re:Vision also is helping to administer a $1 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation’s Healthy Places Initiative for built-environment improvements — sidewalks, streets, etc. — to increase healthful lifestyles and living in Westwood.
“When we started working here, there was very little attention on this side of town, and that’s been the case for 30 or 40 years,” says Teipel, who, like Kornacki, now lives in Westwood. “And not solely due to our work, but as a result of a lot of things that helped build momentum, all of a sudden Westwood is one of the Colorado Health Foundation’s top three communities in the state to invest this money in. We finally feel like, ‘Wow, we’re turning the tide here.’”
In addition to the Colorado Health Foundation and Office of Economic Development grants, Re:Vision has received funding from the National Convergence Partnership, which gave the group $80,000 to explore gardening as a violence-prevention strategy for youth, and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which awarded Re:Vision a $300,000 Community Food Project Grant. In 2013, the organization received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from Boulder, Colo., based nonprofit Slow Money, which supports local food enterprises and organic farms.
“These are two young, committed individuals who really believe in what they’re doing,” Miera says of Kornacki and Teipel. “They’re tenacious, and they work hard. Re:Vision is making a difference in the lives of people and the neighborhood.”
For their part, Kornacki and Teipel are quick to give the University of Denver credit for the opportunity that inspired them to start the organization.
“My experience at DU absolutely shaped my life in a way that had I not gone there, this organization wouldn’t exist,” Kornacki says. “I think what DU offers its students, which impacted me tremendously, is that ability to study abroad. There are some very forward-thinking and challenging service-learning programs that really immerse you in issues of poverty and global justice — things that, for me, expanded my worldview in a way that no longer did I see myself and my own self-interest isolated from what takes place in the rest of the world. I really felt called and compelled to go out and do something about it.”