When Allison Leath rolled into the Pine River Valley after a whirlwind adventure, she was ready to invest in her new community. A job as executive director of the ELHI Community Center in Ignacio proved to be the right fit.
ELHI, or Education, Learning, Health and Inspiration, is a central hub for nonprofits, businesses and community groups in Ignacio.
The nonprofit, housed in an old school building, experienced dual adjustments early in 2020: the departure of the longtime executive director and the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, Leath jumped in to help the nonprofit through both challenges, all while keeping an eye on ELHI’s future.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for people to know what ELHI is and how people can add value, not just in Ignacio but in this area,” Leath said. Her top priority? “Making people aware of who we are, how we can contribute and how they can contribute to us.”
Former Director Raymond Dunton, who retired in the spring, was there from the inception of the ELHI community center, said Hilary Pargin, the ELHI board of directors treasurer.
“He cared so much about the community, and he had a very vested interest in the ELHI building,” she said. “He left some really big shoes to fill.”
While living in Tennessee, Leath worked in hospital facilities, organizing internal events for medical personnel and community events. She also worked for Eastman Chemical Co., a global specialty chemical company, as the marketing and communications representative. During the hiring process, Leath beat 20 other candidates for the executive director position.
“Her leadership style is a shoulder-to-the-wheel type of leadership. She jumps right in there and is not afraid to look for solutions,” Pargin said.
A 27-foot trailerLeath and her family moved to the area after a whirlwind period of birth and loss, hoping to find a fresh start.
Leath and her husband first realized they needed to leave their high-stress jobs after the birth of their daughter in 2018. Then, Leath’s father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in June 2019.
“It made us start to consider our lives and how we wanted to live them,” she said. “It’s been pretty hard. Had it not happened, we wouldn’t be here.”
The couple quit their jobs, sold their house and “set sail” to go exploring in a 27-foot travel trailer in August 2019. They saw the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas. The family passed through seven states before finding their way to Purgatory. They loved the area and decided to stay.
“My dad was really big into the community. He did everything he could to help people who didn’t have a lot of money or didn’t have very good role models,” Leath said. “I feel like I got that from him – wanting to be part of something that’s important.”
Looking aheadThat drive to help her community motivated her to take on her new role. As executive director, Leath builds relationships with the 10 tenant organizations and the surrounding community. She manages building maintenance and reports to the ELHI board of directors.
“We’re counting on her as kind of the boots-on-the-ground person ... so we can make good decisions,” Pargin said. “Her role in doing that is invaluable to us.”
When she took on the job, Leath dove into implementing the coronavirus-related public health guidelines. The nonprofit prepared for times when tenants might struggle to pay rent. It offered adjusted payment structures if the businesses needed them.
“That helped me tremendously,” said Elizabeth Herring, owner of Ignite Gymnastics and an ELHI board member. “We immediately told people, ‘Don’t stress about rent. We will work with you.’ That helped me too because I was feeling a lot of stress and pressure.”
Leath and the board of directors have started a three-year strategic planning process to determine what ELHI should look like in the future. Leath, herself, is focused on finding new opportunities for ELHI.
“I just don’t want the ELHI to be forgotten,” she said. “With the new board, with me being new, I think the future is really bright for us.”