Top Company 2010: Colorado Uplift


Mike Painter talks about his kids like any proud parent. They’re hard-working and intelligent. Strong-willed and creative. And they are the president and CEO’s inspiration for returning to the corporate grind each day. But while bias spurs some parents’ gloating, Painter’s kids really are special.

One girl, on track to graduate this year just shy of a 4.0 grade-point average, began high school barely pulling Ds. Both her parents died, leaving her and her brother living alone. Another child, who watched his mother struggle to raise five kids as his dad shuffled in and out of jail, graduated first in his class at the University of Denver Law School and is now a practicing district attorney.

And those are just two examples. Painter could go on. And on.

“Not all of them turn out like that, but a lot of them do,” said Painter, who directs Colorado UpLift, a nonprofit organization focused on building relationships with Denver’s inner-city youth so that they can graduate from high school and succeed. All of Painter’s brood – 25,000-plus since the program’s 1982 inception – faced some sort of struggle: poverty or hopelessness; gang violence or fragmented families.

But most of the kids overcame their obstacles, as UpLift students who stay with the program three or more years graduate from high school at a rate of 90 percent. That compares to 53 percent for their Denver Public School peers.

A dedicated staff of 46, full-time employees, who form solid relationships with the kids and are there for them 24/7, is responsible for UpLift’s success, Painter said. Most of the employees come from similar backgrounds – a quarter of them are UpLift graduates – and are able to bond quickly, he said. That’s critical, as research shows a child stands no chance at a productive life without at least one caring, long-term adult relationship, Painter said.

The model works so well that UpLift students this year garnered 16 of the 22 Metropolitan Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Youth Awards. And, UpLift executives are consulting with peers in four cities (New York, Phoenix, Portland and Orlando), where programs based on the Denver model are being launched.

UpLift is currently in 19 Denver schools, enrolling about 3,600 students in fourth through 12th grade. With 30 passenger vans, UpLift moves beyond the classroom, with after-school and weekend programs and summer adventure trips, such as backpacking and rafting. Staff members are available to students year-round, and the program includes some post-secondary preparation.

Careful planning of board members and strong support of community leaders leads to UpLift’s financial success, Painter said. “We have never left a school because we didn’t have the funding.”
UpLift has a powerful impact on kids’ lives, the economy and society, said Painter and teacher Laura Hillgartner. One dropout can cost society as much as $2.3 million during that failed student’s lifetime, Painter said. “The return on investment is enormous.”

And UpLift isn’t just shaping kids, Hillgartner said. “It’s shaping families. It’s creating a paradigm shift for an entire community.”

Watching her freshmen grow into productive seniors is her reward, she said. “To see the path they’ve taken over the past four years compared with some of their peers … I can’t imagine what their life would have been like without this program.”
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