By Sara Knuth, Regis University, for The Denver North Star
For the newest group of Porter-Billups Leadership Academy seniors through Regis University, the summer enrichment program has been a place for them to be themselves around people they trust, create memories that will bind them together and learn how attainable their goals are.
“I can now confidently say that this program has changed my life,” said PBLA senior Natalia Jaquez, who will graduate from Rocky Mountain Prep in the spring. “We all arrived here as children with no sense of who (we) were or what was to come of this program. PBLA is a program that I couldn’t be more emotionally indebted to. It has not only motivated me to live to my fullest potential but has also served as a moral compass since the moment I stepped on campus.”
Jaquez is one of the rising, high-school seniors who wrapped up their last summer on Regis’ northwest Denver campus June 29, celebrating their achievements in a graduation ceremony with parents and academy leaders.
This year, PBLA is in its 28th year of supporting at-risk Denver kids through its summer program. As part of the program, students spend three weeks in June at Regis University, taking part in classes, from learning about the values Jackie Robinson lived starting in fourth grade, to human rights in seventh grade, to financial literacy in ninth grade.
The academy serves students from fourth to 12th grade. Lonnie Porter, the co-founder and executive director of the academy and former coach of the Regis men’s basketball team, told the students he was proud of their work — and the ways they served as role models for each other.
“It’s been a great year. Just seeing these kids back every year — it takes my excitement to a whole different level every time,” Porter said in an interview during the academy. “I get a chance to see them and to bond with them, talk with them and give them some advice, ask questions that they might have about life and just to help them grow. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Portland Trail Blazers head coach, former Denver Nuggets star and PBLA co-executive director Chauncey Billups agreed.
“This is my favorite part of every summer, to be able to come back and see how much our kids have grown, not only physically but mentally,” he said. “It’s just become very emotional every year, to be honest with you, because this is why we do it. Life is going to happen, no matter what. I think that your environment matters … the time prior to us having them, sometimes, they go through a lot of tough things. So, this is kind of a safe haven for our kids to come here, where they learn and meet new friends. They just have a wonderful three weeks. I just love it.”
For Jaquez, the program has equipped her with skills for life. “They’ve always given me independence and treated me like an adult here,” Jaquez said. “Ever since I was little, coming to a college campus made me feel grown and made me feel assertive and who I am … in school, you’re taught to memorize, but here, you’re taught how to live your life.”
Throughout the program, the academy relies on support from its teachers, staff and community partners. In the last week of the program, students participated in outdoor events led by Regis Doctor of Physical Therapy students.
Olli Lusk, a third-year physical therapy (PT) student, said the program’s goal is to offer support to the academy — and introduce them to the possibility of pursuing a career in physical therapy.
“The PT program wanted to get involved and introduce kiddos to our profession and hopefully get them interested and know that that’s an option for them,” Lusk said.
Activities ranged from learning about muscles activated while playing sports to learning about anatomy with brains and hearts. On the last day of the academy, students participated in business-oriented events, including “Out-of-the-Box Marketplace,” led by PBLA teacher Kelley Dawkins, who instructed students about financial literacy.
There, students sold products they created during the academy. Students also spent a portion of their time inventing new products that they pitched to an audience in a “Shark Tank”- style event. Products included waterproof hockey tape and an innovative device that helps people catch and release household bugs.
“It’s really cool to see the different grade levels and how the products that they’re inventing really relate to where they are in life,” PBLA teacher Meredith Blatner said.
For Jaquez, that kind of experience over many summers created lifelong benefits.
“This program has made my dreams become within reach and has broadened my horizons,” Jaquez said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my peers and how far we have come.” PBLA plans to host its annual golf tournament on July 31.
The organization’s annual gala, set for July 29, will feature a keynote address by Colorado Buffaloes head football coach and NFL legend Deion Sanders. Tickets can be purchased at porterbillups-denver.org/gala.