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Mile-high spirit

Rotary Club of Five Points RiNo, Colorado

Club members (from left) Therese Rasmussen, Kyle Gunnels, Lindsey Benton, and Ryan Allaire visit a neighborhood mural.

Image credit: Julia Vandenoever

About a year after she and her husband moved to Denver from Atlanta, Therese Rasmussen was at the Five Points Jazz Festival when she started chatting with some members of the Rotary Club of Denver Cherry Creek. The Rotarians had set up a booth at the festival to generate interest in starting a club in the Five Points neighborhood. “They felt the community needed one,” Rasmussen says.

Rasmussen had no experience with Rotary, but, thinking it might be a good way to meet people, she became a charter member of the Rotary Club of Five Points RiNo in 2009. (RiNo refers to the neighborhood’s River North area.)

In the first half of the 20th century, Five Points was home to a thriving African American business district and a lively jazz scene, earning it the nickname “Harlem of the West.” Jack Kerouac wrote about it in his book On the Road. But in the 1960s and ’70s, the neighborhood began to struggle.

As the population of Denver soared starting in the 1990s, however, newcomers began moving into Five Points, and between 2000 and 2010, it was one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the country. Many of the Five Points club’s 25 members were, like Rasmussen, part of that wave of newcomers.

The recent influx of white residents into the historically black neighborhood has been the source of some tension. With the median price of houses now close to $500,000, longtime community members are being priced out of their homes and businesses. And in 2017, Five Points erupted in protests when a local coffee shop put up a sign that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.”

Sensitive to the shifting dynamics of the neighborhood, club members approach community projects by seeking out partnerships with existing organizations. “We don’t come into the community thinking we know best,” says member Kyle Gunnels. “We find partners and build relationships to have the highest impact.”

The club is also intentional about recruiting longtime community members, says club treasurer Lindsey Benton. “We never want money to be a barrier, so we offer accessible memberships and events,” she says. “It’s important in a changing area not to price people out.”

The club designs its projects to be flexible in order to lend a hand wherever it might be needed — from filling seed packets at the neighborhood community garden to soliciting donations of business clothing for participants in a job training program. One of its main partnerships is with Denver Health, a public health organization that offers no-cost vaccines for children and teens. Five Points RiNo, Benton says, is “a small club with a big impact in a small part of Denver.”

“It’s important in a changing area not to price people out.”

Gunnels moved to Denver in 2012 after studying at the University of Queensland, Australia, as an Ambassadorial Scholar. “I joined because Rotary had invested in me,” he says. “I stayed because I liked the people.” (It didn’t hurt that at the time, the Five Points club was meeting in a coffee shop on the ground floor of his apartment building.)

As the only club in the city with an evening meeting, Five Points has attracted a number of younger members, and to keep things from getting monotonous, meetings take a different form every week. The first week of the month is a board meeting, the second features a speaker, the third is a service project, and the fourth is a happy hour.

Club dues are $350 a year, kept low because there is no meeting meal. Out of each member’s dues, $50 is automatically earmarked for The Rotary Foundation. “We didn’t have a lot of members giving to the Foundation, and it’s an important part of Rotary. So we made it mandatory, and it’s an easy rule for members to follow,” explains Rasmussen.

The club hosts an annual pub crawl where participants pay a small entry fee for the chance to win prizes as they spend an afternoon eating and drinking at five successive local establishments. The event serves multiple purposes: It helps local businesses by bringing in customers; it gives club members the chance to establish relationships with business owners; and, with 80 to 90 people typically in attendance, it acts as a recruiting event.

“No other club in the area does anything like it,” says David Willman, District 5450 Rotary Foundation chair and a member of the Rotary Club of Aurora Gateway. “They are what Rotary is striving to be in every way.”

“We are a young, small club and we don’t have a million-dollar foundation, so we are more active,” says Ryan Allaire, club president. “There is no shortage of ideas for service projects based on issues we have seen in the neighborhood. It seems like there are more opportunities to help people here and have a bigger impact.”


• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.