Anita Cooper learned how to sew when she was 14 years old. She’s the third oldest out of 10 children – so, it was sort of a necessity.
She sewed clothing for her and her siblings, creating dresses, skirts, shirts and scarves, whatever was desired.
It became a passion of hers that branched into creating accessories such as jewelry, tote bags, wallets and pouches.
You name it, Cooper could create it.
Cooper always thought about opening a boutique to sell her work. But it was a wayside idea that burned the back of her brain, occasionally boiling to the surface and eventually simmering down to the backburner.
On a random First Friday about five years ago, Cooper was strolling down Santa Fe Drive aimlessly with her family. She noticed a parking lot midway down the block and wondered what shops were in the alcove.
Cooper walked in and met Cheryl Lucero, who explained the shop was called The ZONE Marketplace, run by NEWSED, a nonprofit organization.
Cooper was intrigued and told Lucero about her work. Lucero in turn told Cooper about the entrepreneur program at NEWSED.
Cooper said that interaction was the push she needed.
“When I found this shop I thought, there’s my boutique,” Cooper said. “I signed up for the classes, signed a contract to be in the shop and now I’m here.”
NEWSED’s been helping people like Cooper since 1973
The group continues to be the go-to organization for Denverites, especially on the westside, looking for entrepreneurial classes, housing assistance and financial aid.
Andrea Barela, NEWSED’s president and CEO, said it all started with her mother Veronica.
She was on the founding board of NEWSED and in 1977 Veronica became the president and CEO. Her goal was to revitalize the Santa Fe corridor, which was in disarray.
“In the early years, NEWSED was focused on bringing small businesses and reviving retail areas along Santa Fe Drive,” Barela said. “In those days, as a Latina woman, my mom had to do a lot of banging on politicians’ doors to get resources for this neighborhood and this corridor. Community development block grants. Streetscaping projects. Her focus and NEWSED’s focus was always the neighborhood.”
Barela said the neighborhood, La Alma-Lincoln Park, continues to be the focus and the goal remains the same, to build community wealth through entrepreneurship and homeownership.
Over the years, the neighborhood, especially on Santa Fe, has seen its fair share of gentrification and displacement. Barela said that’s what happens when areas attempt to better themselves and folks with more income move to town looking for a place to live.
Up and down the corridor, especially near NEWSED’s headquarters at 10th and Santa Fe, new apartments and retail spaces are being constructed. With the changes, some long-time cultural institutions have shuttered their doors due to the rising costs. Barela said NEWSED has seen the change, which makes their goal of helping the neighborhood even more important.
“Gentrification is not something you can stop, so our job is to work with those individuals that are behind the starting line in creating those personal assets in order for them to grow family wealth,” Barela said.
On the homeownership side, Barela said NEWSED offers counseling and education classes focused on all aspects of homeownership such as credit needs, how to shop for lenders, accept the right loan, find real estate agents and create a budget.
NEWSED also provides information on foreclosures and predatory lending.
A new addition to NEWSED programming, Barela said, is their ability to help with lending. Barela said NEWSED can provide assistance with down payments on homes and small business loans.
“Over the years, we’ve evolved our programming to include small businesses, home ownership and lending,” Barela said. “We’re one of the only agencies, if not the only agency, that does all three things under the same organization. We put 100s of families into homeownership since ’97 and many of those people still own their homes. We provided the education they needed to own a home and pass it along to their families. It’s a real change.”
Barela said NEWSED also has affordable housing properties. On 10th and Santa Fe, there’s La Villa de Barela, a mixed-use development with affordable units and retail space. It’s also the home of NEWSED’s HQ.
Barela said NEWSED will continue to expand their programming but helping entrepreneurs, like Cooper, is in the organization’s DNA.
NEWSED offers an eight-week small business class, run by Lucero, that teaches folks the basics of starting and running a business. They also offer start-up funding and additional classes on procuring more funding.
Back in 2013, NEWSED created the ZONE Marketplace. It’s a small business incubator program that provides a space for retailers to sell their goods and connect with other locals.
“When we started the incubator program, we wanted to continue the legacy of serving small businesses and particularly low- to moderate-income individuals who needed technical assistance,” Barela said. “We’ve assisted at least 70 businesses through that space and we have nine businesses there right now. The idea was to give people an opportunity to manage and grow their businesses.”
It was an opportunity Cooper jumped on.
Nita Louise, Cooper’s business, launched after the classes. Her tote bags are the number one sellers, followed by her wristlets. All of the items are handmade and crafted on one of Cooper’s four sewing machines. Her jewelry is also handmade, and, she says, if a customer ever loses an earring, they can come back and she’ll make a new one.
“If there’s a problem, come back, they know where to find me,” Cooper said.
She has a website where she sells her goods and she also travels to different marketplaces, but the ZONE is always home. Cooper had the support of her family to pursue her dream of selling her product. But she said the support of the Marketplace and NEWSED is really pushing her to expand on her dreams.
Prior to working with the Marketplace, Cooper was working a full-time gig.
The Marketplace gave her a space to sell her goods without her having to be there, which allows her to work part-time. When she’s not at work, she’s learning more about her craft or selling it at ZONE.
“It’s supportive and that’s what people need when they’re first starting,” Cooper said. “We’re being pushed at the shop and are constantly talking about business and how to improve.”
Cooper said the shop is a big confidence booster and she’s starting to branch off into using new material like leather. She’s also thinking about starting a sewing class. She added that she may start a shop of her own, similar to the Marketplace, just to continue to provide support and space for other emerging creatives.
Cooper said she hopes the Marketplace continues to grow and NEWSED continues hosting more classes, maybe even some marketing courses.
“I’m not a strong social media person,” Cooper laughed. “I promote through word of mouth.”
But Cooper said overall, any creative looking to share their craft and maybe make some money on the side, would benefit from the classes. And, she said, Denverites stomping along Santa Fe should always stop by the ZONE to support their local entrepreneurs.
“If there’s something you’re passionate about, do it,” Barela said. “You don’t have to do it for the money. You can if you want, but ultimately share your gift. It’ll make you feel good that you took that step. I fell into this. No one told me this is here, and I promote it all the time.
“So, I’d encourage anybody who wants to share their gift to sign up”