Jan Marie Belle has lived at 15 different addresses in the Denver metro area, and she can rattle off every block.
An Abraham Lincoln High School graduate who's gone from living in Athmar Park to …
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An Abraham Lincoln High School graduate who's gone from living in Athmar Park to modern-day Englewood to Mar Lee and most recently to Harvey Park South, Belle, 69, has been entrenched in the Denver area for decades.
She's the executive director of the SouthWest Improvement Council, a nonprofit in Westwood that works to bring nutrition, housing assistance, computer literacy lessons and after-school programs to more than 3,000 people each year, its website says.
Along the way, she's worked to preserve the beauty and dignity of the places she's called home. Here's more about Belle.
First generation off the farm
Belle's parents were farm kids during the Great Depression who moved to Denver right after getting married.
Her father, born in 1923, lived on a farm near Peetz, Colorado, which is less than four miles from the Nebraska-Colorado border. Just over that line sits Sidney, not far from where Belle's mother, born in 1927, grew up on another farm.
"One year, a man came to their house, when my dad was a child" during the depression, Belle said. "A man came by and said he'd sell an automobile for 5 dollars, but (his) family did not have 5 dollars cash. They knew what it was like to have no money."
Belle said after her father got home from what was likely Army training, he met her mother when she was singing at a choir in the United Service Organizations, which offered soldiers entertainment, she said. Her father's sister introduced them, and they wrote to each other all through his deployment during World War II, during which he taught military officer candidates how to type.
Robert Schweitzberger Jr. and Lenora Messing married Nov. 14, 1946, upon Robert's return and moved to Denver immediately after.
From a mobile home park to Harvey Park
Belle first lived as a child at Indian Village mobile home park, which once sat near West Alameda Avenue and South Lipan Street in the Athmar Park neighborhood. Her family cycled through several homes in the Denver area.
They moved to West Harvard Avenue and South Raritan Street, where there was an "annexation battle between Denver and Englewood, and Englewood won" and zoned it as a "heavy industrial" area, Belle said. Junk yards moved in, and the family moved to Westwood in 1960, a neighborhood in which Belle's lived at five different addresses in her life.
A year after her 1965 high school graduation, she got married. A teenage mother, she graduated with honors at the University of Colorado Denver with an English major and later student-taught at Cole Middle School and her old high school.
Six houses later, she ended up at 809 S. Osceola in her third marriage after her second husband was unfaithful. But in 1993, a water main break flooded her basement, swallowed much of her husband's belongings and led to a struggle with the Denver Water board to cover her costs. The incident caused strain, and her marriage ended after that.
Two houses later, she's a Harvey Park South resident at South Vrain Street and West Dartmouth Avenue.
'People these days don't have the opportunities I had'
After writing leaflets and newsletters and working as a business agent for a labor union in Denver - Service Employees International Union Local 105 - starting in 1974, Belle left 12 years later and founded the SouthWest Improvement Council nonprofit.
Its first programs were painting over graffiti, food-sharing, after-school activities and organizing neighborhood volunteers. It became a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1987.
The organization sprang out of a "social concerns committee" at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church - where it first started - in Westwood, just a few blocks away from the modern-day SWIC office at 1000 S. Lowell Blvd. Belle's organization moved to that building in 1992 and got the lease in 1993, she said.
SWIC gives opportunities for people who need food, fitness programs and even "foreclosure prevention" services - it's also a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified housing counseling agency.
A legally separate nonprofit called SouthWest Neighborhood Housing Corporation, which has the same board and staff as SWIC at the same office, Belle said, rents out 19 units of multifamily affordable housing to people who qualify. SWIC formed that nonprofit in 1995.
Belle said she recognizes that people didn't have the opportunities she did. Her parents once helped talk a seller into letting her buy one of her houses without a real estate agent involved, Belle said. When she was young, her parents were able to buy property behind their house and built three rental units.
These days, residents are lucky to be able to be renters in Denver.
Fighting to stay afloat
Belle said that in the whirlwind of rising rent, property values and population levels in Denver, she's seeing more people come to SWIC who may be homeless.
"They're wearing the same clothes for weeks; they're always very hungry," Belle said. "They stay in our bathrooms for a long time and come out cleaner."
She also lamented a lack of good-paying jobs in her area and cost of living in general, saying it's a problem for all income levels.
"The problem right now is that people can't obtain enough money in their pockets to live with dignity," Belle said. "We see it every day, people coming in, people calling us. People would be surprised that in every income level and in every neighborhood in southwest Denver, this is happening.
"I don't know how the mayor can put more money in people's pockets, but that's what they need," she said.
After about 30 years with the organization, SWIC on July 20 announced Belle's retirement, which will happen in June.
"Jan has been instrumental in the continued success" of the organization, said the letter from board president Tony Oum. "She has helped countless people in the community and has made it a better place to live because of her compassion."
When she retires, she wants to create and save habitats for urban wildlife, "especially prairie dogs," she said.
"And also see where else I can help renew the face of the earth," Belle said. "For all that lives and gives life."
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