It took Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, three drafts before finally publishing a post to Facebook acknowledging that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault and harassment. The most recent incident was just a week earlier, she wrote.
The posts tagged or titled “Me Too” started as a rallying cry after an exposé in the New York Times cataloged the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Social media posts on Twitter and Facebook came from women of all walks of life, all skin colors, all sexual orientations — a message that it wasn’t one type of woman that fell victim to sexual violence. The message was one that quickly reinforced that the problem is widespread and doesn’t discriminate.
“Like the (Facebook) post said, the first time I was sexually harassed I wasn’t even old enough to go to school,” Esgar said.
The latest was just a week before a wildfire of “Me Too” posts hit the internet.
“I was at an event with a number of different professionals and colleagues from the general assembly were there. I had to leave for another event, so I went to another table to thank the woman who planned the event,” Esgar recalled.
As she was standing, waiting to say goodbye and slip off to the next gathering, Esgar said she felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.”
“There was a table of people around that didn’t realize what had just happened,” said Esgar, who exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” as she quickly realized she was groped by a man she only described as somebody she regularly works with sitting at the table.
The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.
“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.
Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.
“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been apart of an incident.”
House Speaker Crisanta Duran said the social media campaign has brought a sense of prevalence to the issue, but it’s one that isn’t new.
“In my opening day speech I spoke to the importance of inclusiveness, and of condemning that which is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace and in their day to day life.”
Duran, who would be in charge of investigating any kind of reported sexual harassment that took place in the legislature, added that “it’s clear that this is an issue that impacts us all, and we should all strive to create a more inclusive, safe, and respectful environment, in the legislature and more broadly.”
Esgar said she’s grateful that in her past she was able to have access to therapy after incidents of sexual assault, and that she feels comfortable admitting it happened to her. But that doesn’t mean every woman who has encountered that type of abuse should feel that they have to speak out like she has.
That was the flipside conversation to the campaign: that it would be a trigger for many women. Esgar said no woman should feel shamed into talking about their incident or not talking about it, healing is individual.
Nationally, one in five women will experience rape, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In Colorado, the prevalence of sexual assault against women is 23.8 percent, higher than the national average of 18.3 percent.
If it seems like sexual assault and harassment have landed a permanent place in the news cycle, it’s probably because it has. Esgar points to the current president, who was elected even after an old tape surfaced in which Trump boasts his own fame, saying he can do anything to women, even “grab them by the p*ssy,” as the tipping point.
The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spokeswoman, Neta Meltzer, said on one hand, the different recent news events — the Trump tape, Taylor Swift winning a symbolic dollar against her assaulter, and Weinstein’s several accusers — have shined a light on the previously taboo subject. On the other, she said many women fear they will be met with blame or disbelief if they speak up.
“Our goal is to make sure that individuals feel safe to come forward – to make sure they know that they will be believed and that they are never to blame for what happened to them,” Meltzer said. “So many survivors have been met with skepticism and victim-blaming responses, so it is easy to understand why reporting or disclosing one’s experience is not always a safe or realistic option. The important thing is that survivors get the help and resources they need, and that they know they are not alone.”
Esgar said she has been in two abusive relationships in the past, but is fortunate to have had access to counseling and now has a supportive wife and title that allows her to talk about the issue of sexual assault and harassment.
“Nothing has changed with this position. But it does give me a platform to call things out a little bit louder,” Esgar said of her job as a state lawmaker.
She recalls one particular moment during the 2017 legislative session when debate on an immigration-related bill amendment caught a comment about a rape, which Esgar said had become routine throughout the session.
Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, referenced a case in Maryland where an 18-year-old student raped a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom stall. It was later discovered the offender was from Guatemala, illegally living in the U.S.
On that day in mid-April Esgar left the floor and found Rep. Faith Winter, also a survivor of sexual assault, sitting and waiting out the speech outside of the chamber as well.
“I went to her and said we’ll go (and speak) together and we waited our turn to speak and we went down and basically said we didn’t want another survivor’s story to further his political agenda anymore,” Esgar said.
At the well of the House, standing side-by-side, the two were obviously upset. Winter said the story of a sexual assault victim was being used to “target hate” and “incite fear against an incredibly important population.”
Esgar told the chamber that using one woman’s traumatic experience over and over again had to end.
“We put up with it all session,” the lawmaker, on the verge of tears, said. “And we can’t take it anymore.”
The two promptly left the well and after more discussion the amendment failed.
After Esgar published her “Me Too” Facebook post she said she didn’t think it was such a big deal, even as she saw the speech from Williams as distasteful and insensitive. Esgar said she knows so many women who have encountered similar incidents as she has. But she also hopes maybe her story, like millions of others posted to social media, will shift the conversation and convince men to listen and women to stop shaming each other.
“The therapy went through helped me because of what happened. Every single day I’m working to stand up for people at the Capitol,” Esgar said. “I try to hold myself in that strength and to move me forward and be strong not just for myself but for the people I make decisions for everyday.”
A crash course in stopping the opioid epidemic
As the opioid epidemic has swept across the nation, proving it doesn’t discriminate against race, income or age, there has been a conversation visibly absent from schools and among young people about the dangers and addictive qualities painkillers, often prescribed by a doctor, can have.
But that is changing.
Rise Above Colorado, a drug prevention program that emerged from the Colorado Meth Project, now incorporates opioid abuse into its drug prevention campaigns, which have mostly focused on underage marijuana and alcohol consumption. And other organizations, such as Speak Now Colorado, are advising parents on how to talk to their kids about prescription drugs.
“In Colorado, (data shows) the larger rate of misuse in opioids is among 18-25 year olds, so if you want to prevent those outcomes you really need to start early,” said Kavitha Kailasam, the director of community partnership for Rise Above.
She said the move to incorporate education on the dangers of opioids in particular has been data-driven. Surveys conducted by Rise Above found that perceived risk of prescription pain relievers has decreased. In 2013, 66 to 80 percent of teenagers surveyed in southern Colorado said they perceived the risk of prescription opioids as “high.” In 2016 that perception of significant risk dropped to between 51 and 65 percent.
Maelah Robinson-Castillo, a Centennial High School student in Pueblo who works with Rise Above, said she doesn’t think a lot of the students she goes to school with are aware of how dangerous opioids can be.
“In a way, it’s kind of accepted,” she said, explaining that those drugs seem safer than others because they come with a doctor’s discretion.
Rise Above has mostly taken this approach to drug prevention: highlighting that a lot of a student’s peers don’t use drugs or consume alcohol. Kailasam said there is a misconception among young adults that use is more common than it is. According to a Healthy Kids Colorado survey from 2015, only 14 percent of those surveyed said they have taken prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, 59 percent said they’ve consumed alcohol and 38 percent say they’ve consumed marijuana.
But even with that data, there isn’t much more on the opioid epidemic as it relates to teenagers.
Alexis Ellis, a regional health connector for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said she thinks that’s going to be changing in the future, but where the data gap has presented the biggest problem is in schools where drug prevention programs are largely based on data.
Robinson-Castillo has taken on her own prevention program, called “Centennial on the Rise.” It’s an event where students highlight what they are passionate about. At its core, the high school junior said it’s a way for students to prove that they’re more than the negative stereotypes adults sometimes assign to high school students in relation to drugs and alcohol.
But she’d like to see schools do more.
“Prevention can be looked at in different ways, by just having a youth-adult connection can help. For me, (it’s helpful) going to an adult and them having the resources so I can talk about prescription drugs,” Robinson-Castillo said. “In Pueblo we really don’t have that engagement piece. That’s a place where it’s lacking. We don’t have those mentors in our schools that have the resources if we do come across wanting to get help or wanting to seek guidance. I don’t think our teachers are trained in that.”
It’s not just the classroom. Some argue parents should do more to education their children on the dangers of prescription drugs. That can start with educating themselves.
When DeEtte Kozlow took her 17-year-old daughter in to have her wisdom teeth removed last year, the Douglas County mom was sure of one thing: her daughter would not take any kind of opioid for the pain following the procedure.
Kozlow said the nurse insisted on the prescription. She was told her daughter would absolutely need it for the pain and that it is normal to take a painkiller after a molar extraction. That was the problem for Kozlow, who said she eventually took the prescription she felt was being forced on her daughter and then ripped it up.
Her daughter was able to treat the pain just fine the following days with Tylenol and smoothies, Kozlow said. She was confident her daughter wouldn’t need the drugs — and she was right — but she doesn’t think other parents are as educated about the dangers painkillers pose for young people, or that a simple prescription for a normal procedure could be so addictive.
In 2016, Kozlow lost her best friend, Bobby Hawley, to a heroin overdose. He was 39, finishing a master’s degree at Regis University and, as Kozlow put it, a beacon of hope for other addicts he knew. Since his death, Kozlow helped start a non-profit organization in her best friend’s name, appropriately called “Bobby’s House” for his work in the addiction community. Kozlow said Bobby would often let people crash on a mattress at his house when they were going through withdrawal.
Bobby’s addiction started with painkillers, just like the ones Kozlow’s daughter would have taken after the wisdom teeth surgery.
For the previous decade he struggled with addiction, spending time in and out of rehab. His addiction was something Kozlow said she and the people close to him didn’t talk about a lot. But now she wishes that more people would talk about opioid addiction. It’s why she was so adamant about her daughter not taking any painkillers.
Kozlow said if other parents knew what a simple prescription could lead to, maybe they’d rip them up too.
“Parents can help stop this epidemic,” Kozlow said plainly. She describes the epidemic as an oil spill, and that to keep it from spreading it has to start with kids.
Kozlow said she doesn’t think parents are aware of the problem or that taking a prescription could eventually lead to addiction down the road, as it did for Bobby. Most parents probably have some type of opioid in their medicine cabinet, and then when it comes to their kids being prescribed some type of painkiller, parents don’t know what they’re taking.
Speak Now’s guide for parents — which Kozlow said is easy to follow and reference — is a start. It breaks down what opioids are, what their medical names are, what forms they take and why they’re addictive. The organization’s information paired with Rise Above’s alternative highlight has become a sort of two-pronged approach.
“We need to start paying attention,” she said. “We have to quit taking a pill for everything and cope.”
Kozlow can rattle off statistics about the opioid epidemic — that it’s surpassing the AIDS epidemic, that more than 100 people in the U.S. die from overdose each day — and has stories, too. Friends of Bobby’s who have relapsed have been admitted to the hospital only to be released with little help with recovery.
And there’s a lot to be done to address the epidemic, she said. But it could get a lot better with parents asking questions and educating kids even younger. The majority of addicts say they started using as teenagers.
That’s a statistic that has Kozlow convinced the epidemic can be stopped “from the bottom up.”
Lost Youth: A rise in teenage suicides highlights a looming crisis for Pueblo County’s youth.
A spike in teen suicides and attempted teen suicides in Pueblo last year is a matter of concern that is being met with a sense of urgency by local police and behavioral health professionals.
“We at the Pueblo Police Department are affected and concerned about these tragedies,” says Officer Brandon Beauvais with the department’s Community Services Division. “Our officers who respond to these calls along with the families and friends of the victims are all impacted. This certainly is a community-wide issue, and we must all work together on the preventative side of things to get these individuals the help they need before loss of life occurs.”
Preventative measures are being taken by police in tandem with others. “We work closely with our CIT [crisis intervention team] clinicians from Health Solutions [in Pueblo] who are out with us on patrol to provide initial resource information and follow-up with these type of incidents or parties involved,” Beauvais says.
Health Solutions is a non-profit behavioral health care organization and has been providing behavioral health services since 1962. The organization provides behavioral health services to Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.
Kristie Dorwart, Youth and Family supervisor at Health Solutions, has been working in suicide prevention since 2007. She became interested in the field because of the widely perceived disgrace associated with suicide and mental health.
“I have had family members die by suicide and had a growing interest in the reason for so much stigma,” she says.
Dorwart is unaware of a career path or any way by which someone can be trained to work in suicide prevention. “It is more of a lot of immersing oneself in suicide prevention: reading on suicide prevention and attending training in the field.”
All of that reading and training is being put into practice in Pueblo.
Pueblo PD’s Beauvais says, “Generally speaking, on suicide attempts, they will be taken for medical treatment immediately and once that is taken care of they are put in contact with a hospital psych liaison who decides from there what the best option is moving forward as far as a hold or further help, treatment, additional resources, etc., while working with parents or guardians.”
Jeff Tucker, a public relations specialist with Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, says the hospital does not treat teen attempted suicides any differently than adult suicide attempts. “Attempted suicides are one of the highest priorities in our Emergency Department and a behavioral health assessment is usually given following life-saving treatment,” he says.
And last year more attempted teen suicides occurred in Pueblo County than in the past five years.
Nine too many
In 2017, nine young people in Pueblo County between the ages 10 and 20 killed themselves, according to Coroner Brian Cotter. That compares with only three teens committing suicide in 2016, another three in 2015, two in 2014, one in 2013, and six teens in 2012. Cotter also reports that suicides among all age groups also spiked in 2017 compared with the previous five years — 28 in 2012, 34 in 2013, 47 in 2014, 46 in 2015, 34 in 2016, and 49 last year.
In the city, Pueblo Police Department incident reports show that over the past three-plus years, it responded to six teen suicides last year, one incident in 2016, and one in 2015. Mercifully, there have been no teen suicides in Pueblo from January to March in 2018 as of deadline.
The police also report there were 12 incidents of attempted teen suicide last year, another 12 attempts in 2016, and seven incidents of teens attempting suicide in 2015. And as of March of this year, two incidents of attempted teen suicide have been reported.
Health Solutions Dorwart explains that suicide is the result of a string of complex emotions. “There is not one single reason that someone dies by suicide,” she says. “There are many things that happen to a person that leads them to contemplate suicide.”
Shelby Miller, Parkview’s adolescent charge nurse on the hospital’s behavioral health floor, says poverty is a major factor behind teen suicides in Pueblo. “The majority of our patients are Medicaid clients and only have one resource — Health Solutions.”
Miller adds that other reasons for teens attempting to kill themselves include “a lack of effective coping skills, stress within the family or school, inability to effectively communicate with parents or caregivers, or they don’t feel parents are listening or want to hear about their issues.”
Teens contemplating suicide should seek help, Miller says. “Ask for help. Tell someone, anyone,” she says. “You’re not alone. There are lots of teens and young adults feeling the same way.”
And Miller emphasizes that comforting teens who are considering killing themselves brings its own reward. “Try and help someone and you will in turn help yourself,” she says.
Health Solution’s Dorwart imparts that hope and help is available for teens contemplating suicide. “I encourage anyone thinking about suicide to please reach out to a caring adult and let them know that you are hurting,” she says. “There are several places to go for help.”
Dorwart adds that in addition to calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (844-273-8255), the Colorado Crisis Line (844-493-8255), or Health Solutions locally (719-545-2746), “Health Solutions has Crisis Living Rooms [at 400 W. 17th St. in Parkview Medical Center’s North Annex, and 1310 Chinook Lane] that are available 24/7 that anyone can walk into for help.”
More information, including a list of suicide prevention do’s and don’ts, can be found at www.suicidology.org.
Just girls and boys
Pueblo PD reports that the average age for teens committing suicide is about 15 and about 14 for those attempting to kill themselves.
Pueblo PD also separates suicide and attempted suicide incidents by gender. Those statistics show that in Pueblo, although boys younger than 17 commit more suicides than girls (six boys from January 2015 to March of this year as opposed to two for girls over the same time period), attempted-teen-suicide incidents over the same time period reveal that girls younger than 17 attempt to kill themselves more often than teenage boys (24 girls attempted to take their own lives and only nine boys).
When it comes to the gender split for attempted teen suicides, Pueblo is not unique.
“Historically across the nation, females have always attempted [suicide] more than males, but what is important to remember is help is available, and it is OK to reach out and ask for help,” says Health Solution’s Dorwart.
“Some factors [for girls attempting suicide more than boys] include suicide pacts, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect,” Parkview’s Miller says. “Others can be child-parent relationships, and a lack of supervision or too much freedom.”
There is hope
“Across the nation suicide has been on the rise, however, there are great strides being made in the prevention side of suicide prevention,” Health Solution’s Dorwart says. “The approach in suicide prevention is moving upstream — helping people before suicide becomes an option. Getting people into treatment early.”
And the community does seem to be getting involved as well.
Suicide was a popular topic of concern in Pueblo judging by the sizable crowd that attended a presentation about suicide at the city’s South High School auditorium on April 5. The presentation was given by Kevin Hines, the man who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. He says he landed feet first on granite rocks when he plunged into San Francisco Bay and was later rescued by the Coast Guard. Innovative spine surgery, he says, helped him to recover from his suicide attempt and he demonstrates the procedure’s success by kicking up his heels during his presentation. He emphasized the importance of self-affirmation and greeting others with a smile to prevent people from taking their own lives.
If you are someone you know is contemplating suicide call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for resources or to speak to a trained counselor.
Pull – Don’t Pray – for Pueblo: Yard-sign activism must be met with bootstrap action
Maneuvering the pickup over the dirt road so rutted and deeply cratered that our heads bounced dangerously close to the cab’s ceiling, Sal Katz, a retired army combat veteran, laughed.
“Just a little bumpy,” he said. “But let’s swing in here and park,” as he stopped the truck. “And listen, be careful of the dogs, they can be aggressive.”
It was an early morning in July and the heat was already oppressive. We were near the banks of the Fountain River behind the northside Wal-Mart, and were checking on people who were homeless and lived tucked away from nearby traffic. Katz and fellow Vietnam veteran Ed Ryan, was part of Posada’s response team who checked on people on camps around town, those who lived near the slag heaps left over from CF & I, and at the campgrounds in Pueblo West, dots on a map that Posada had identified as needing water, medical help, and information about services.
It was 2015 and Pueblo County had recently made the sale of recreational marijuana legal. At the same time, Pueblo had been touted as one of the country’s least expensive places to live. The state had voted to expand Medicaid. All had created a perfect storm for an influx of people from out of state looking for a new home. The out of state plates on cars piled high with furniture and stuffed with families filled Posada’s parking lot: I talked to many of them for a story for the Guardian with the unfortunate title, “Welcome to Pueblo, Colorado: The Pot Rush Town for the Marijuana Industry.”
I say unfortunate because the story was not only about travelers who had come for jobs in the new marijuana industry. It was about the response of Pueblo’s social service agencies to the city’s rising poverty rates among Puebloans, and how the agencies, whether governmental or non-profit, were already struggling to help the city’s poor and had been for many years, when the out-of-staters arrived.
It was about how Edie De La Torre, executive director of Pueblo’s Cooperative Care Center, Anne Stattelman of Posada, and Sister Nancy Crafton of El Centro De Los Pobres, and others, do the daily and unglamorous work of helping people do the most basic things: eat, receive medical care, and have a roof over their heads.
My path as a freelance writer landed me in Pueblo in 2014: a city I had only visited a few times because my boyfriend is here, a place the national media often refers to as “flyover country,” a city that shares many of the same social problems as other former industrial towns across the country: high poverty and crime rates, few job opportunities, failing schools, the opioid crisis, hospital closures.
But in the years that I’ve been reporting about what it’s like to live in Pueblo, a city so different than the rest of the Front Range to the north, I’ve tried to write about the people here who are working to make a difference in the city. These are the untold stories that needed to be told on a national level, to show people around the country that you can’t stereotype people by poverty or unemployment statistics.
So I wrote about Rob Archuleta, the addiction and recovery counselor whose sports program helps heroin addicts for Vice and Daneya Esgar, the state house representative I came to know for a story on the shut-down of Planned Parenthood for Dame. I learned that despite Pueblo’s high obesity rates, the city’s health department is on a mission to help people make better choices, in a story for Quartz. And that the Pueblo Mall is still the place many shop, in a piece for the Washington Post.
In the years since I’ve been here, despite the so-called Pueblo problems, the same ones that as a former state hospital and Parkview nurse told me, “made Pueblo come to a screeching halt after so many people lost their jobs at the mill, and made them feel so hopeless” are being challenged. Residents are forming neighborhood watches across the city—from the Blocks to Bessemer to the East Side, Facebook is being used to connect people who might not otherwise know each other, who share the same interest in protecting themselves and fostering strong neighborhoods. State Rep. Daneya Esgar and State Senator Leroy Garcia, both hometown heroes, have regular town hall meetings about Black Hills Energy rates. You see them shopping at Safeway or grabbing dinner at the Irish Pub.
The national media often portray working-class towns like Pueblo, the ones that don’t share in the wealth of boomtowns like Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and even Colorado Springs, with a black cloud overhead, so heavy that things can’t possibly change.
But they can, slowly. As an outsider, I’ve seen it.
Though drivers still throw out trash out of cars as they speed down Abriendo, there have also been community clean-up days, residential trash service is now a requirement, and the city is picking up the old furniture, mattresses, and beer bottles that used to line Red Creek Road. Local businesses and schools volunteer at transitional and low-income housing so that the families and children there share holidays with the rest of us.
And of course, most recently, teachers are striking, for better pay and better schools. Pueblo is going to choose a mayor for the first time.
In short, people here care. They are tending their community gardens, calling in suspicious houses with people coming and going who they don’t recognize, installing clean-up bags for pets in neighborhood parks, having clean-up days on the reservoir trails, and organizing local artisan shows. They are taking action.
That’s the new narrative to counter the old and why the signs that dot the city that read “Pray for Pueblo” need an adjustment of just one word. Replace “pray” with “pull” and you tell a new story: people who are pulling for their town and working one person at a time to actively change it.
25 by 50: A new series intersecting the voices, people, and stories of Southern Colorado. In 2018, PULP will be taking a look at the region we call home to examine, challenge and highlight what it means to live in this part of the state. We will be asking national writers, journalists, and local voices to start a discussion on what’s been called the “hardest place to live in Colorado.”
Jill Rothenberg is a freelance writer who has written for the Washington Post, CNN, Vice, Forbes, and Runners World, and others. Find her at www.jillrothenberg.com