Caring adults are the core of Colorado Uplift’s work, which serves Denver’s at-risk and disconnected youth by connecting them with long-term and life-changing mentors. What makes these mentors special? They are employed as full-time staff members and available to help 24/7/365.
Victor Nellum is the East Senior Area Director for Colorado Uplift and a former Colorado Uplift student himself. Thirty-five years ago, Victor met his Colorado Uplift mentor, the first positive role model in his life. After experiencing the transformational power of mentoring, Victor joined the staff of Colorado Uplift to give back to the Denver community.
America’s Promise Alliance heard from Nellum about what excites him in the field, what motivates him, and what keeps him going. Take a look at his answers to our questions below:
What inspires you about your work?
I’m inspired by the opportunity to be a positive role model in the lives of kids who are growing up in the same dysfunctional conditions that I grew up in. I like to tell people I feel like I’m reaching other “Victors,” and I have leverage because I understand where they come from.
The reward is being able to see the kid’s world open up before them: the expression on their face when they go skiing for the first time or when they realize they don’t have to respond with anger and hateful animosity in a negative situation. They realize that they have skills for conflict resolution that prevent them from being a part of a legacy of folks who grow up in poverty, substance abuse, and violence. It’s inspiring to watch students slowly being exposed to another reality and brokering positive opportunities, from job training to outdoor adventures.
What keeps you doing this work?
I’ve been with Colorado Uplift for 35 years, including my time as student. I got so much out of the program that I feel an obligation to give back. My work is extremely rewarding. I get to see students experience all these firsts. Many are the first in their family to go to college, first to graduate high school without getting pregnant or being incarcerated, or even the first to ski to the Colorado Rocky Mountains in their backyard.
I’m inspired by witnessing this transformation and watching the cycles of poverty and negative mentalities be broken. And just like I started as a Colorado Uplift student and became a staff member, I’ve seen many of my students become my colleagues here—it’s a beautiful circle.
What successes in your community are you most proud of?
One of my students was facing federal charges to go to prison at 17 years old. He was the driver of a getaway vehicle in an armed robbery. When he was first arrested, I asked him why he didn’t just drive off. He said that he couldn’t abandon his stepbrother, who was involved in the robbery. This is a kid who is loyal and loves people hard, but he doesn’t know how to do it in a healthy way.
The judge called me to court to testify about my student. I told him that he was a good kid who made a bad decision. To my surprise, the judge understood and released him on three years’ probation. Three months later, I was at his high school graduation with his mom. I looked at his mom, and we shared a deep look as he walked across the stage, knowing that just a few months earlier he had walked across a courtroom the same way. Now he is working and staying out of trouble. He’s on the adult side of things—he has a child and is doing a great job raising him. We still have a great relationship, and I am so proud of him.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
The importance of perseverance, even when times are difficult. I’ve experienced many losses—students who end up in prison, have an unplanned pregnancy, or lose their lives. This takes a lot of wind out of your sails and rattles you. These students become your kids; they even call you dad, papa, uncle, or big brother. You develop these deep relationships, so if something happens, you’re going to feel it.
But then I remember the many students I helped go down a different path. And I do remain in touch with those who do end up in prison. Sometimes I’m the only one that is able to visit them. I’ve also helped teenagers go to their neonatal appointments and even taken them to the hospital when they are in labor. The greatest victory is seeing students who come back from these challenges and then still become successful.
What three words/ terms describe the biggest challenges to your work?
- Financial resources
- Overcoming disappointments
- Marijuana legalization
For more stories like this one, check out The Key to Success is Community Voice: Community Leader Spotlight with Hilda Ramirez, Latino Education Institute.