Get to Know The Thoreau Community Center

Today, the Thoreau Community Center stands as a haven of hope, nestled along a dirt road against a backdrop of rustic mesas on the Navajo Nation. But until a few years ago, the Community Center was just another old building. 

Juliana Ko (New Mexico Corps ’08) was in her second year as an eighth grade math teacher at Thoreau Middle School when one of her students, a 13-year-old boy, killed himself. His death “shook my world,” Ko says. That year 14 suicides were reported in the Eastern Navajo Nation. Local agencies brought in a professional crisis team to support the community, but Ko was convinced her students needed more than counseling sessions. They needed a place to go, to express themselves, to belong.
With feedback from students, parents, and tribal government, Ko renovated an old building and turned it into the Thoreau Community Center. Through partnerships with local organizations, the center now offers art, sports, tutoring, movie nights, mental health counseling, life skills training, and traditional crafts like Native weaving. “Kids need someone to talk to,” says Thoreau native Erick Sanders, who runs operations at the center. “A lot of parents are working in Gallup or somewhere far away because there are hardly any jobs in Thoreau. It’s hard for kids to find a mentor or adult to talk to. [Here] kids know that they will be acknowledged and get that attention.”
“Our philosophy involves engaging young people in anything that inspires them,” explains Ko, “anything that makes them think about the future with excitement and hope.”

Region Timeline

  • Coronado's men bring horses, Christianity, and diseases which decimate the indigenous population. The Spanish rule over New Mexico and exploitation of the Native people and natural resources begins.

  • Led by Popé, the Pueblo people revolt against Spanish rule. Native people control New Mexico until 1692, when the Spanish reconquer the territory.

  • The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-American War. New Mexico and all Indian tribal lands within the area become territories of the United States.

  • The U.S. government forces the Navajo people to walk over 450 miles at gunpoint from their ancestral homeland during Hwéeldi, or “The Long Walk,” an attempted ethnic cleansing.

  • The Treaty of Bosque Redondo allows the Navajo to return to their reservation, commits Navajo children to compulsory education, and establishes schools for them.

  • Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian Boarding School, embarks on a mission to assimilate Native people through education with the philosophy, “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

  • The Dawes Act promotes assimilation by authorizing the U.S. government to allot tribal land to individuals, promoting the Western concept of individual land ownership over communal land control.

  • Twenty-five federally-operated boarding schools continue to rip Native children from their families, forcibly cut their hair, issue Western dress, and prevent them from expressing Native language or culture.

  • After gaining statehood in 1912, New Mexico becomes the last state to extend full suffrage to Native people by allowing all American Indians to vote in state elections.

  • Kevin Gover, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, apologizes for the agency’s legacy of “racism and inhumanity.” He promises, “Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.”


Living and working with children of the Navajo Nation and New Mexican Pueblos has been a humbling and exciting experience. As a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, my students and I enjoy sharing our cultures and languages with one another. I am excited to see my students grow to be the future leaders of Indian Country.
Alys Alley
New Mexico Corps 2012


02/02/2013 - 1:02pm
"New Mexico’s Teach For America (TFA) has a corps of teachers in the northwest of New Mexico and the northeast of Arizona that serves the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, Pueblo of Laguna and small towns in between."
10/07/2011 - 5:18pm
"The “big goal” is paying off for some New Mexico teachers and students."
10/04/2011 - 5:16pm
"At numerous schools in the Gallup area, novice teachers wear an earpiece so they can get real-time feedback from a coach at the back of the classroom..."

Pass The Chalk: The TFA Blog

Fighting for a voice and standing up for those whose "truth is often justified away."
Excerpts from the Poet Warriors Project.

Teach For Us

June 16, 2012
In my summer school classes, we have students who just finished second grade who can’t add 8 + 6...
April 3, 2012
One of my favorite kids is a fifth grader on my basketball team.