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Jini Puma and Sonya Palafox

Ambassadors for Literacy and Resilience Guide Young Students Along a Path to Success

A new donation of nearly $1 million to the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center will train ColoradoSPH students and expand the program in Colorado

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Written by Tyler Smith on November 30, 2023

Sonya Palafox was a freshman at North High School in Denver 25 years ago when she got a message kids don’t want to hear: come to the principal’s office. She had no way of knowing it at the time, but the call would represent a turning point in her life.

In the office with a group of other students, Palafox met Dr. Norman Watt, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver (DU). Watt had conducted a “resiliency study” that identified children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who had scored in the top quartile of the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Watt wanted to know why had some students achieved academically despite poverty and other barriers. He focused his investigations on students who got early education in the Head Start program, then moved on to the Denver Public Schools (DPS) system. He identified 31 of these students with traits and influences that made them resilient and decided that these “ambassadors,” as he called them, might be called upon to go back into Head Start sites and, in turn, help a new generation of young kids learn the reading and social skills that would be keys to building their resiliency in the face of adversity.

The aim: break the stubborn cycle of poverty with a new cycle of support, strength and success.

In the vanguard of the Ambassadors program

Palafox was one of the program’s 31 original “Ambassadors for Literacy.” They went on to mentor more than 500 preschool-age children. In return for devoting time to their Head Start work, she and the other ambassadors received a powerful incentive. Dollars from the program would go into a college savings account to assist them if they decided to continue their education after high school.

“We rewarded the students for being ambassadors and positive role models so that they could go on to higher education,” said Jini Puma, PhD, associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center (RMPRC) at the Colorado School of Public Health. Puma, a mentee of Watts as a student at DU, joined the Ambassadors for Literacy program in 2002.

Watt’s original initiative was successful in spurring the young ambassadors to attend college, Puma said. Eighty-seven percent of those enrolled in the program went on to enroll in a four-year school. That compared with 22% of seniors graduating from DPS, she added.

Taking a successful idea forward

Puma will now direct a new phase of Watt’s original idea, dubbed “Ambassadors for Literacy and Resilience.” A nearly $1 million donation gives a considerable boost to the effort. It includes training ColoradoSPH students to mentor the new generation of ambassadors, just as the ambassadors guide early childhood students at Head Start centers.

“It’s a three-prong approach” to positive mentoring that proved successful in Watt’s original conception, Puma said. The new phase of the program includes hiring a program director, Joanna Coleman, who is bilingual in English and Spanish and has previous teaching experience. Among other responsibilities, Coleman will help to make connections with the school counselors and teachers who spot students with promise to be ambassadors, Puma said.

“Joanna is doing all of our community engagement and outreach, recruiting families and leading training efforts” for ambassadors in literacy and social-emotional skill development, Puma said. Coleman will also work with graduate student mentors, track ambassadors’ hours and other tasks needed to keep the program on track, she added.

Coleman will also have help from Palafox, who has come full circle from that first meeting with Watt. She worked as an ambassador through high school and continued her involvement while earning her undergraduate degree from DU in international business. She didn’t find that field fulfilling and decided her career path was in education. She went on to receive a master’s degree in counseling from Regis University and now is counselor to some 200 students at the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, not far from her high school alma mater.

Palafox now serves as an advisor to the new Ambassadors for Literacy and Resiliency program. In that role, she is working to identify students from her school who are promising candidates to help Head Start students, as she once did.

The initial goal is to recruit five students from the Denver area to serve as ambassadors, Puma said. Further on the horizon, Puma hopes to expand the program to Weld County and the San Luis Valley.

“Ultimately we aim to recruit the majority of students from rural areas because there are so fewer resources there,” she said.

Long-term benefits of the Ambassadors program

Palafox admits that as a ninth grader, she “wasn’t quite sure what the [Ambassadors] program was.” But years after the initially puzzling call to the principal’s office, she is clear about the benefits of the initiative.

“It establishes a connection between early positive experiences with education for both Head Start students and the ambassadors,” Palafox said. “For the kids, it connects them to someone positive in a way that carries through their later years in schools. For the ambassadors, it builds self-efficacy and self-confidence that they are contributing to others in a meaningful way.”

Puma said the results of Watt’s foundational work in resiliency bear out Palafox’s insights.

“The number one factor was [resilient students] had a mentor or a trusted, caring adult in their lives,” Puma said. “It could be a coach, a teacher, a neighbor, but someone who took a real interest in a child’s success and was stable and loving and secure. That finding has been foundational in [the Ambassadors] program.”

The strengthening of those type of bonds also has broad benefits for society, Puma believes.

“The Ambassadors program addresses one of the social determinants of health, namely education access and quality,” she said. “It takes a multi-generational approach in doing so and [it also] addresses health equity…We know that for every year a person goes further with their education, their health outcomes are better.”

On a personal level, Palafox recalls the first days of her ambassador training as an early glimpse at the possibility of a new life. Carrying a book bag of materials she would use with the Head Start kids, she strolled around the leafy DU campus. She was the first in her family to have the experience and opportunity.

“It was the first time someone had talked to me in a way that [going to college] was a possibility,” Palafox recalled. “It was the first time it became tangible – because I saw it.”