Theresa Peña

It’s Never Too Late to Give Back to Your Community

“I think the moon hangs in Denver,” Theresa says as she speaks lovingly of her home town. Raising her family anywhere else was never even a question, and giving back to the community she loves was always a given.

In Theresa Peña’s family, education—specifically, Denver Public Schools education—is something of a family business. In the 1970s, her family was named in a lawsuit to desegregate the Denver schools. Both of her parents were a part of the school system, her mother in vocational tech and her father as a social worker. Her younger brother later worked in college placement and even her son taught for DPS for two years as a Teach for America employee.

Theresa’s own work with Denver Public Schools sprang from strong ties to a place that, at least on her mother’s side, her family has called home for generations. She comes from a large Mexican American family with deep roots in the Denver community. Her childhood was filled with large, extended family get-togethers full of aunts and uncles and cousins. In that warm familial embrace and with the encouragement of a strong maternal role model, Theresa learned to nurture her roots while simultaneously growing big wings.

After high school, Theresa left home to attend Pomona college in CA. The experience of being there, and away from her support network, challenged her in ways she did not always appreciate at the time. She was homesick, missing Denver and her family, but she did manage to find a little bit of home in the college community through her involvement with black and brown clubs, reaching a helping hand to others just as soon as she had secured her own footing. At Pomona, she experienced a type of diversity she had not known in Denver—kids from all over the country, from all different backgrounds – and through them, Theresa discovered what she describes as a new lens, a new vision of what was possible.

She met the man who would become her husband her senior year and stayed on after graduation, working with minority students in the admissions office while he completed his degree. Later, Theresa completed an MBA from Cornell, a degree that could have taken her anywhere to do anything, but she knew there was only one place to go: home to Denver.

Theresa spent several years working for US West, where she flourished under the mentorship of inspiring leaders. Eventually, though, she decided to step off the career ladder in order to raise her two young children. With more time on her hands, she began searching for ways to give back to the community, a closely held value that has always been a part of her family’s culture. After initially working on the campaign of a school board member, she later decided to throw her own hat in the ring. “I had no idea what I was in for,” she says.

She ran with the goal of creating educational outcomes that were not only better for some, but better for all. She won that election, and went on to serve two terms in what Theresa describes as the toughest, best (unpaid) job she ever had. There were complicated politics to navigate and emotions often ran high, for the school board often got involved in two areas Theresa says you just can’t mess with: people’s paychecks and their kids. Despite its challenges, the work was profoundly rewarding to Theresa, and when she was term limited out, she began searching for another way to stay involved. She began working for Denver Public Schools in the food and nutrition service division, striving to remove the social stigma of school lunches and increase food access for all students.

Now, Theresa is considering her next chapter. She would love to get back into the classroom, helping immigrant children learn to read. She has also become a student again herself, studying the Spanish language that is such an important part of her culture but that she did not grow up speaking in her childhood home. Wherever her path leads her next, she knows it will be in Denver, and she knows it will involve continuing to give back to the community she loves.

It’s never too late to give back to your community.