Elsa Holguin

It’s Never Too Late to Bridge the Divide

Elsa Holguin was 17 years old when she and her family left their small town in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua in search of a better life. It had long been her parents’ dream for their seven children to go to college and have opportunities they had never had, so they made the difficult decision to leave their close-knit community rich with aunts, uncles, and cousins to forge a new life in Denver.

The newly arrived family struggled financially and soon found themselves in need of public housing. Elsa’s father vowed that they would remain there no longer than three years; he was a proud and independent man and had no intention of relying on help from the government to support his family a moment longer than necessary. Elsa meanwhile studied English at North High School and took in her new community, so different from the one she had left behind in Mexico. What she observed were families who had gotten stuck due to lack of education or support services, limited access to adequate jobs, addiction and mental health challenges, and, most of all, generational poverty. She wanted to do what she could to break that cycle.

Elsa became the first in her family to go to college, all the while juggling long hours working two jobs and going to school. She attended classes and worked in the nonprofit sector during the day, and spent her nights cleaning office buildings, often advocating for fair treatment and compensation for her immigrants coworkers. Nine years later, while building a successful career in the nonprofit sector, she earned her degree in finance, immediately starting the Business Center for Women at Mi Casa Resource Center.

Elsa worked for many years in the field of philanthropy, bridging the cultural divide between the wealthy donors she worked with and the community she knew so well. It was important work, but she understood that they were always behind, trying to fix problems that could have been prevented. In order to truly help children and families succeed, they would have to start at the beginning. Elsa knew that the early years of a child’s life are the building blocks for educational success; without that strong foundation, the cycles of generational poverty she had witnessed in the housing project would be impossible to break.

Over the years, she had granted millions for early childhood programs as a philanthropist, but the kind of change she wanted to see would take much more. The solution came with the Denver Preschool Program (DPP), a municipal tax-funded program that has become a national model to provide affordable, high-quality preschool education to over 4500 kids in Denver. As president and CEO of DPP, Elsa has been able to impact a far greater number of children and families, giving kids the social and emotional skills they need to learn, thrive, and stay on pace with their peers while providing their parents a safe place to leave their children while they work.

Elsa is proud of her many professional accomplishments, but there is nothing she is prouder of than her family. Uprooting seven children to build a new life from scratch took tremendous courage and sacrifice, she says, but it was worth it. As her parents hoped, all of Elsa’s siblings went on to successful careers, and just as her father promised, the family did not need the government’s help for long.

Now, in one of those ways life has of coming full circle, one of Elsa’s daughters has returned to the housing community where the family once lived, not as a resident, but as staff. She is vice-president of an organization that runs affordable housing complexes in Denver and realized as she toured that it was the same place that gave her family shelter so many years ago, when they were just finding their way in this country. It was a powerful reminder of how hard her grandparents had worked to create new opportunities for future generations and of the importance of continuing to serve as a bridge to those still struggling so that they, too, can find their path to success.

It’s never too late to bridge the divide.