Strengthening Rural Communities in Northern New Mexico: Libraries, Community Centers, and Resilience

When visitors arrive in northern New Mexico, they are often struck by the region’s sheer spaciousness — canyons, fields, and mountain vistas that stretch to the horizon. Amidst the evocative beauty, it can be easy to wonder: where is everyone?

Our region is dotted with a wide array of small rural communities, though they don’t all exist within view of the main highways. It can take some exploring — or better yet, connecting with locals — to get to know the rich history and vibrancy of places like Truchas, Ojo Sarco, El Rito, Embudo, or Abiquiu.

The remote nature of these towns and hamlets, however, also create challenges for their residents, including access to education, health, and economic opportunity. Local libraries and community centers are often the best — and sometimes the only — place for residents to take advantage of essential services. 


Take the Truchas Services Center, for example. As Executive Director Mary Singleton describes it, the Center has spent the past five decades running “a preschool and a library, as well as adult classes such as weaving, quilting, and other crafts.” More recently, the Center has partnered with the Food Depot to add a food program, offered a summer science and art camp for six to 12-year-olds, and run the Truchas Fiesta each July.

“We try to provide community services on many levels because the community is at least 30 miles from the usual city or town amenities,” says Singleton.

Ojo Sarco

The Ojo Sarco Community Center (OSCC) has played a similarly pivotal role in its community for the past 35 years. According to Carol Miller, Administrative Director-Treasurer:

"Until OSCC was founded, there was no public space in the area. Acequia and other meetings were held outdoors. Voting was held in private homes. No organization provided services in the community, requiring us to travel for everything. Once we were designated a 501(c)3, the board purchased the long-abandoned Ojo Sarco one-room schoolhouse and could finally hold public meetings to organize and advocate for the community."

She adds, "The highest priorities were establishing a fire department and programs for children. Having a public space also allowed us to begin to participate in the USDA summer lunch program for children and we are still a site for summer food andenrichment programs."  

Embudo Valley

The Embudo Valley Library and Community Center is a crucial meeting place for community members as well, says Rachel Esposito, Executive Director:

"In addition to traditional public library services, we provide educational programming for youth, formal and informal public gathering space for meetings and resolana, and an evening lecture series for adults.We also seek to meet community needs for technology and internet access: we provide the only free internet, public computer access, printing, fax, and notary services in a 20-mile radius. We are home to a public park and orchard, pollinator garden, seed library, and an all-volunteer radio station. We seek to support rural economic development through our thrift store, fiscal sponsorship of local groups, and by providing a home for the Dixon Cooperative Market."

El Rito

Lynett Gilette of El Rito Library emphasizes what it means to serve local communities in northern New Mexico — including addressing basic needs for residents and helping community members understand their own stories more fully. She says that the library "primarily addresses lack of exposure to books (for adults and youth), few opportunities for life-long education, high incidence of illiteracy and/or K-12 students reading well below grade-level standards, and an interest in local history that is, of necessity, multicultural."   

Responding to urgent needs

For many libraries and community centers in our region, meeting local needs became more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ojo Sarco's Miller describes a familiar dynamic: "During the height of the pandemic, New Mexico rallied at all levels, public sector and private sector, to get additional resources throughout the state. These emergency funds allowed us to find and procure food and essential supplies which were brought into Ojo Sarco for distribution."

OSCC also recruited a social worker to assist community members in working through "the trauma of the pandemic, which in our community was immediately followed by wildfire, followed by flooding." Unfortunately, however, Miller reports that "the extra funds are gone. Temporary cyclical funding is referred to as yo-yo funding...It is a hardship on everyone to start programs, operate them until the funding runs out and start over again if resources are found." 

El Rito Library also found its mission expanding as COVID impacted individuals, families, and communities. Lynett notes:

"COVID forced us all to confront a host of issues that could be ignored more easily in other times – ways in which poverty impacted health outcomes in everything from unequal internet delivery and affordability, to the high costs of even life-saving care, as well as the mental health toll of social isolation and overuse of social media, especially for our young people.”

Given COVID's demands, the Embudo Valley Library and Community Center began tracking the extent of its own service provision operation more fully:

"During COVID we began tracking the ‘essential services’ that we provide to our community, which include support for those accessing health care, education, government benefits, legal services, banking, and employment-related tasks such as submitting timesheets and conducting job searches. In 2022, we had over 7,500 visitors and provided 663 essential services," says Rachel Esposito.

She describes how these services both meet the needs of elderly residents and help create a more welcoming region for younger families: "We live in a community where, according to the 2020 US Census, 49% of our population is age 65 or older, and this number has been steadily increasing over time. We strive to support young families to encourage them to stay in the community. We do this through our early literacy story time, which builds community among young families and helps develop early literacy skills in young children. We also provide childcare support through our four-day-per-week after school program. This summer, we also placed an increased emphasis on providing child care support for local families by offering a pilot day camp for K-6 youth. This was a huge success and great fun for all."

In the years ahead, community centers and libraries will likely play an ever-greater role in rural northern New Mexico communities. Mary Singleton of Truchas Services Center puts it plainly: "Due to our isolation and the fact that there are no local jobs in the area, we anticipate a need for our community services to continue into the future."

Climate change, too, will force local communities to adapt — and many community centers are planning for those needs. Rachel Esposito reports:

"We anticipate that we will be called upon more and more frequently to provide support for our community as we all adapt to climate change."

"For example," Rachel says, "this summer we purchased some portable air conditioners so that we could serve as a makeshift cooling center (our building does not have central air conditioning). Also, last summer, we held community meetings with local leaders and government officials to provide information to those who were impacted by flash floods in our valley."

El Rito Library's Lynett Gillette echoes Esposito's sense of mission: there is an "urgent need to help our community make plans for a changing climate – including drought, fires, extinctions of valuable life forms, and scarcity of raw materials."

Ongoing community support

As rural libraries and community centers seek to meet expanding local needs, they rely heavily on flexible forms of support, including from their community foundation. Ojo Sarco Community Center's Carol Miller says, "Santa Fe Community Foundation support has been essential to our survival." After the Great Recession of 2008-9, for example, the Foundation "began to help with small grants for critical needs so we could literally keep the lights on and provide emergency food assistance to a community battered by the economic collapse."

The Santa Fe Community Foundation also "provided targeted financial aid to bring Ojo Sarco Community Center’s electrical system into compliance and up to code." As Miller notes, though, the Center needed more than short-term aid: "In addition to direct support, the Santa Fe Community Foundation has introduced donors to our organization, and several have generously helped.”

El Rito's Lynett Gillette also points out a unique role that community foundations can play. "A community foundation can challenge us and support an effort to take stock of the ‘big picture’ from time to time. In our case, we heavily depend on community foundations for our annual financial support. The community foundations already have a deep understanding of our region’s needs. They’re already tuned to our situation, which can be in contrast to governmental support that often requires considerable efforts in advocacy and red-tape hoops. The community foundations allow us to increase our efficiency and use more time and energy actually providing services."  

Mary Singleton of Truchas Services Center underlines this view:

"We appreciate the personal interest that our supporters express to us. It is hard work to keep an operation like Truchas Services Center funded year after year. There are many needs, such as maintenance, that are pushed into the future year after year. It’s important that we have funding agencies that understand the needs of our type of organization."
Aug 16, 2023
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