20 Under 40: Irene Avitia is a ‘fearless’ barrier breaker for immigrant families
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Irene Avitia was born the second youngest of six children in Merced, California, where her parents worked in agricultural fields. When she was three months old, her parents moved the family back to the small town of Zacatecas, Mexico, where they lived until Avitia was 12 then moved to Steamboat Springs.
“When we first arrived, we didn’t know where anything was: doctors, schools, grocery stores or hospitals,” Avitia recalled. “Out of my family, I was the one who spoke the most English, but it was very limited.”
Twelve-year-old Avitia became the interpreter for her family, for doctor’s appointments and for parent-teacher conferences.
“It took us so much time to get little things done,” she said.
When the family was introduced to Communidad Integrada — Integrated Community — and the organization provided an interpreter to help the family, Avitia saw a huge difference.
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“That’s why I wanted to give back,” she said.
A decade and a half later, 28-year-old Avitia is Integrated Community’s early childhood specialist — especialista en educación y capacitación. She works with local families with young children to connect them to resources and information to support their child and “to be the first and most important teacher in their child’s life,” Avitia said. That can include assistance with enrolling children in schools, applying for child care and preschool assistance, navigating the education system, calling pediatricians and “anything they need.”
Name: Irene Avitia
Profession: Early childhood education specialist
Education: Preschool directors qualification
Another project Avitia is spearheading is bringing a mobile preschool program — Right On Mobile Education — to Routt County, which would increase opportunities for local kids who have barriers to attending existing traditional preschools. She also works closely with “Lista Para Kinder,” or “Ready for Kindergarten,” a program that helps incoming kindergarteners adjust to a classroom environment.
She’s also bringing the Raising a Reader program to local Spanish-speaking children, which helps families with children from birth to age 8 develop, practice and maintain home-based literacy routines necessary for success at school.
Avitia began working with Integrated Community in 2017, after graduating from Steamboat Springs High School in 2009. She always loved working with kids and had experience teaching at a local preschool, and she’d started raising two daughters. When Integrated Community’s early childhood education specialist position opened, her husband, Adrian, encouraged her to apply.
“People out there need your voice in those meetings,” he told her.
“When I started working at Integrated Community, I started to see the bigger picture — the needs and the barriers,” Avitia said. “More than an ECE specialist, I feel like I’ve become an advocate for my community.”
Avitia serves on the First Impressions Early Childhood Council and the board of directors for Main Street Steamboat Springs. During Beth Melton’s 2018 campaign for the Routt County Board of Commissioners, Avitia organized an event to connect Melton and Rep. Dylan Roberts with immigrants, to ensure local immigrants’ concerns were heard and to help them engage in the election process.
She’s often the youngest person in the room and frequently the only Latina.
“I hope that in the coming years we have more women and more diversity running for local office and attending to different community meetings,” Avitia said. “I want more Latina moms to join me in those meetings, to have a place at the table, for their voices to be heard.”
“She speaks up with conviction to advocate for those who aren’t there,” wrote Melton, who nominated Avitia for 20 Under 40 recognition. Avitia was Melton’s son’s teacher at Young Tracks, and Avitia and Melton have worked together in several capacities.
“She is fearless in her dedication to the immigrants of the Yampa Valley, and her efforts pay off,” Melton said.
It hasn’t always been easy.
“During this political climate, we have experienced really tough situations in the office. It can be emotionally devastating,” Avitia said. “During those days, I just come to my family for strength and support.”
Avitia also has some advice for those looking to be warm and helpful during a turbulent time.
“Accept people for who they are,” she said. “I think that will change the world.”
Outside of work, Avitia loves spending time with her family: going for walks, going to the pool, baking, crafting and volunteering at community events. They recently installed a Little Free Library close to their home. This summer, they also tried camping for the first time.
“I hope to teach my girls with the work I’m doing the importance to stand for what they believe, be proud of their heritage, respect and help others and never let anybody stop you from reaching their goals,” Avitia said.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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