Steamboat Springs When Sofia Rodriguez and Sarah MacCarthy first got together nine years ago through Partners in Routt County, Rodriguez was an 8-year-old from Colombia who didn’t speak a word of English, and MacCarthy was a high school junior intent on going back to Junior Nationals as a Nordic cross-country skier.
Rodriguez could not have imagined that in 2014, as a high school junior, it would become her life’s ambition to be a physicist. Nor could MacCarthy, a graduate of the University of Utah, have foretold that her career focus would center on her fluency in Spanish. It just worked out that way.
“It’s crazy, because I came here not speaking a word of English. It was a new school, Soda Creek, and it was really hard for me,” Rodriguez said. “Sarah was so understanding. She didn’t take it like, ‘I’m going to teach you English.’ It was also, ‘You’re going to teach me Spanish.’ It was very mutual.”
Rodriguez and a classmate at Hayden High School, Tyanna Zabel, along with their science teacher, Sarah Blakeslee, are due to leave June 16 with a student group from California to learn about the natural environment of Costa Rica. The Hayden students never have met the rest of the group, but Rodriguez is sure to be a key member of the trip; as the only bilingual member of the group, she will translate for everyone.
Blakeslee, who is in just her second year of teaching chemistry and biology at Hayden High School, said she’s confident that her pupil is gregarious enough to succeed.
“Last school year, Sofia would say, ‘Miss Blakeslee, you’re doing great,’” the science teacher recalled with a chuckle. “She’s so attuned with how other people are experiencing the world. She’s very aware of what other people are going through.”
MacCarthy also has been traveling in Latin America and benefiting from her connection to Rodriguez. She returned this winter from Colombia, where she worked in the city of Turbaco, near Cartagena, in an after-school program. It was organized by a nonprofit dedicated to adding structure to the lives of elementary school students there.
The bonus was that after her tenure with the after-school program, MacCarthy and a traveling companion were able to stay in the home of Rodriguez's grandfather in Bogota, then enjoy an extended stay with her mother's — Lilli Hargis’ — aunt and uncle in Medellin. That visit included a stay in a cabin in a mountainous coffee-growing region.
“It’s kind of crazy how the world comes around,” MacCarthy said. “I never would have thought when I was 17 that I would be hiking around the Colombian mountains with Sofia’s (great) aunt and uncle."
Former Partners executive director Libby Foster, who ran the organization when MacCarthy and Rodriguez first linked up, said the ongoing relationship between Rodriguez and her youthful mentor is an example of the best of outcomes the organization could hope for.
“That’s what we were always trying to achieve, is that win-win. It’s sometimes not immediate, but it’s awesome when these stories come back around. This one has special layers to it, including Sofia’s ambitions (I’m sure she can pull it off) and the Colombian piece.”
Foster confirmed that theirs was one of, if the not the first, cross-cultural Partners relationships. And current Partners Community Outreach Manager Becky Slamal (who grew up in Steamboat) says cross-cultural partnerships are becoming more prevalent. The demand for partners for Spanish-speaking youngsters has grown to the point that this year the organization hired its first Spanish-speaking case manager, Slamal added.
“We don’t have many Hispanic volunteers, but we currently have about 15 partnerships that we consider cross-cultural,” Slamal said. “We have another 15 kids, mostly boys from Spanish-speaking families, who are waiting for mentors.”
Those on the waiting list are added to the Nexus program at Partners, which involves them in group activities — horseback riding and river rafting for example — while they are waiting.
The partnership between Rodriguez and MacCarthy was undertaken with the help of another local nonprofit, Integrated Community, and that relationship between the two organizations is still in place. Rodriguez volunteered there last summer.
MacCarthy, 26, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, currently is employed seasonally by Medalist Sports, the company that puts on the USA Pro Challenge, which came through Steamboat Springs in summer 2013. Her role is to work closely with a senior employee to create the start and finish lines at every stop on a tour, including coordinating vendors, staff and infrastructure.
She just came off the Tour of California and, in addition to the USA Pro Challenge, has the Tour of Utah and Tour of Alberta on her calendar this year.
Although she enjoys the responsibility that comes with her job, she thinks that ultimately, her career will be one that relies on her fluency in Spanish, and her current employment gives her time to figure it out.
In Costa Rica later this month, Rodriguez and Blakeslee’s group will study rainforest ecology and, specifically, visit national parks and research stations where scientists are studying how a migration corridor for large mammals such as jaguars can be linked up from North America all the way to Tierra del Fuego.
Blakeslee, who served as translator on a previous trip, feels certain that this year’s students will benefit from having one of their peers in that role.
“It’s going to change the way the other students are able to perceive what’s really going on,” she said. “I’m very grateful that Sofia is coming on this trip and for what she’s done to make this happen.”
Blakeslee said the Costa Rica trip has benefited from a significant number of private donations, but some of the kids still are borrowing from their college funds to make it happen. Any additional donations at this point would go directly back to those students. Checks may be made out to Hayden High School (495 W. Jefferson Ave., Hayden, CO 81639) in care of Blakeslee, she said. Donors should write “Costa Rica trip” on the memo line.
There’s little doubt that MacCarthy and Rodriguez are friends for life.
"The first time I met her, I really liked her. She spoke a little Spanish, and she was also like this beautiful, tall, blonde girl,” Rodriguez said. “She was very dedicated, very athletic, like someone I wanted to grow up to be. She taught me so much."
“When Sarah went away to college, I had another partner, Liza Darlington, but Sarah and I continued to talk. I don’t know where I would be or what I would do if I didn’t have Sarah in my life.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1