“I think voting rights is about human rights.”
In a ceremony filled with prayers and promise, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams on Monday recognized Arrupe Jesuit High School for its efforts in getting students registered to vote.
The north Denver Catholic school serves the economically disadvantaged and one of its goals to empower graduates to continue their education and return to their communities as leaders. The 420-member student body is 93 percent Hispanic and 77 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches.
During a senior assembly, Williams singled out two students, Ashley Simpson and Jesus Baez Tapia, for their efforts in working with the group Inspire Colorado to get their classmates inspired to register to vote.
Simpson and Tapia’s efforts led to the school receiving the Secretary of State’s Eliza Pickrell Routt award, which is given to high schools where more than 85 percent of eligible seniors register to vote.
“You’re going to graduate from high school soon. You’re going to be part of the community, and what happens in this community is up to you,” Williams said. “That’s the great thing about the democratic republic in which we live. There is no ‘the man” who makes the decisions for us. We get to make those decisions.”
Also addressing the seniors was state Rep. Dan Pabon, who represents the neighborhood, and Ryan Drysdale with Inspire Colorado.
“Our faith tells us we are working for the least amongst us,” Pabon said. “I think voting rights is about human rights. ‘Democracy’ can be a controversial word in the world. There are some people who don’t want to have the people control their government because, God forbid, they might actually do something that helps the people.”
Pabon also discussed current election laws, and what he believes should be changed to make voting more inclusive.
“Maybe some day you’ll be inspired to not only vote but to run for office and be a leader in this community and make a difference for all the people who don’t have a voice, who don’t have that opportunity,” he said.
Inspire Colorado works with high school juniors and seniors to prepare them for the responsibility of voting as they began to reach eligibility, at age 18.
Colorado lawmakers in 2013 passed a bill that allows young people who turn 16 but will not be 18 by the date of the next election to preregister to vote.
Inspire Colorado about a year ago held its first training event at Arrupe Jesuit.
Ashley and Jesus, Drysdale said, then registered at least 85 percent of last year’s senior class. They also registered at least 85 percent of this year’s senior class and, with with the help of juniors they recruited and trained, registered about 83 percent of the junior class. That, Drysale said, has created a “wonderful tradition” of voter registration at Arrupe Jesuit High School.
Ashley and Jesus addressed their classmates and the dignitaries. Ashley thanked teachers Brent Dexter, Roger Burch and “especially” Megan Turilli for their support for the voter-registration project.
“We wanted to give our peers the chance to assume their role in society and have their opinions heard, to show that our generation is not just the generation about being on our cell phones all the time, that it is about being educated and informed people who want their voices heard,” Ashley said.
“We are the future of this great country and we have a lot of power to shape the country,” Jesus said. “One way … is by voting. Voting is an essential part of who we are. So when we turn 18 we need to get out there and vote, and to make this country even better.”
Jesus noted that he has met a number of political figures, including two U.S. senators, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Al Franken from Minnesota.
When it was Pabon’s turn to speak, he stopped and shook hands with Ashley and Jesus and acknowledged their families.
“I wanted to introduce myself to Jesus so he could add my name to the number of famous politicians he has met,” Pabon said, to laughter.
The lawmaker explained why the event meant so much to him. He sat in the same seats the students were sitting in because he attended the school when it was Holy Family High School. Pabon graduated in 1996 and Holy Family moved to Broomfield. The Jesuits in 2003 took over the vacant building at 4343 Utica St. and in 2015 expanded the school.
“This is a special, special place for me,” Pabon said.
Before presenting the award, Williams toured Arrupe Jesuit, where the morning begins with a prayer over the loudspeaker.
Kim Smith, the director of development, and Tom Mallary, the director of the Corporate Work Study Program, explained how each student works at an outside job one day a week and that money goes to help pay for their tuition.
More than 130 organizations, from construction firms to credit unions, mortgage companies to medical operaations, hire the students. The high school handles payroll, fills out W-4 and I-9 forms, as well as provides transportation to their jobs.
“Our goal is to break the cycle of poverty through education and work,” Smith said,
All 72 students who graduated in 2017 were accepted into college and received scholarships totaling $5.3 million.
Principal Michael O’Hagan kicked off the assembly with a prayer and a speech to the seniors, asking them to “keep an eye on the greater community.” He urged them take the “talents and gifts that you have cultivated at Arrupe” and share them with others to make the community stronger.
The school’s mission is to enhance “the human, intellectual, and spiritual capacities of our students through a rigorous, innovative and affordable college preparatory education.”
Afterward students, dignitaries, school officials and others lined up for pictures.
“You’re smile is just like your smile in your photo” on the SOS web site,” one person told Williams, who let out a big laugh.