Peru native Diego Zegarra finds a home in Park City
Fast FactsBiggest role model: My mom Favorite local restaurant: Does Ritual count? If not, Coal & Lumber – their bread is of transcendental importance. Favorite song right now: Childish Gambino – Redbone Top of your bucket list: World Cup in Russia 2018!
Looking out the window of his office at the Park City Community Foundation, Diego Zegarra can see the snow-caked roofs of Prospector Square under the shadow of Iron Mountain. The ski town vista is a far cry from the cliffy coast, speckled with surfers and busy discotheques, of his hometown, Lima, Peru. With a perfectly styled pompadour and a sharp tailored shirt, Zegarra’s style seems fitted for a bigger city.
Although Park City lacks fresh ceviche, and beach soccer, it has become home to the 33-year-old humanitarian. As the development and special projects manager for the Park City Community Foundation, Zegarra is in charge of connecting low-income families with equal opportunities in town. Above all, his mission is getting Latino children involved in recreation.
“My family was middle class,” Zegarra said, “and my school gave me opportunities that led me to where I am today.” Zegarra describes himself as “living proof” that education can take you wherever you dream.
During his first years at the University of Lima, Zegarra lived comfortably with his parents. At the age of 21, he received a J-1 visa to work in the mountains of Utah at Solitude Mountain Resort.
After two snowy seasons, he fell in love with snowboarding and the Wasatch. Upon returning to Peru, he asked his parents if he could finish his studies in business and marketing at the University of Utah. With their support, he applied and was accepted.
Before the move, “I was a kid,” said Zegarra, who was thrust into adulthood when he moved to Salt Lake City without any friends or family. Coming to Utah was as much of a geographical change as it was a cultural change. “It felt like moving to a small town,” said Zegarra, who wasn’t used to the conservative nature of much of Utah.
Graduating in 2009 into a recovering economy, Zegarra was catapulted into a new career path. His goal of climbing the corporate ladder dissolved with the lack of job offerings, and he took a modest position as a substitute teacher at an after school program.
It was in the classroom that the stories of students and their families sparked his passion for social justice. He found that his students’ struggles went beyond the classroom. For the first time, he was confronted with the socioeconomic impacts that affect many among Utah’s Latino population.
“I heard about landlords taking advantage of these poor families, family members with illnesses, or people who struggled with immigration and deportation,” he said. “You’d hear about 10 people living in a two-bedroom apartment, and I realized that these communities need a lot of help.”
As Zegarra became closer to the families, he felt he had to do more. Having big ideas for how teachers could help students didn’t always go over well with the school board. The ideological disconnect between schools and Zegarra ultimately led to his being let go. Free from a job, Zegarra took the opportunity to spend a year road tripping around the States. “People called it my ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trip,” he said with a laugh.
Upon returning to Utah, Zegarra moved to Park City, where he found the socioeconomic issues facing students particularly striking, given the extreme wealth of a resort town. In August of 2016, Zegarra started his career at the Park City Community Foundation.
At the exact same time, an initiative called The Solomon Fund was being created. Named after the donor Elizabeth “Beano” Solomon, the program “facilitates access to sports and recreation opportunities for Latino children in Park City.” Serendipitously, Zegarra found himself in a community that needed his specific experience to help young Latino students with “integration through recreation.”
Although nearly a quarter of Park City students are Latino, few participate in local athletic activities. Communication barriers and lack of transportation keep many Latino students from joining teams, but finances are the biggest deterrent, Zegarra said.
“The cost for sport participation is set by the coach,” he said. At Park City High School, for instance, team participation ranges in price from around $250 to join the wrestling team, to more than $1,000 to be on the cheer squad.
Beyond the high price tags of team sports, feelings of being an outsider can limit students’ connection to the larger community. “If you grow up thinking you can’t succeed at the same activities as your peers, it’s very unlikely that you’ll strive for larger goals, like college,” Zegarra said.
“At 3:05 p.m., Park City High School lets out, and many lower-income kids have to go home to babysit instead of going to a sports practice,” Zegarra said. By the time the students are in high school, they are already at a competitive disadvantage to their peers who’ve been participating in private lessons (gymnastics, skiing, hockey, etc.) since they were 4 years old.
That’s why the Solomon Fund’s target age group is kindergarten through fifth grade.
“If we’re able to influence these children from an early age, the likelihood of the program’s success increases,” he said. Although the Solomon Fund is only a year old, it has already proven effective. With scholarships, and a partnership with Ballet West, there has been a huge increase in Latino participation.
“Of 250 dancers, last year only three were Latino,” Zegarra said. Now there are 23.
Research conducted by The Aspen Institute and Project Play shows that physically active, involved students benefit from “long-term healthy lifestyles and greater academic achievement” that can last into adulthood.
Zegarra believes that sports are a great environment to plant the seeds of inclusion.
“When kids are able to play together, they might eat together at lunch, or form friendships that break socioeconomic divisions,” he said.
Park City has been described as a bubble that lacks diversity, but Zegarra argues that “diversity is present, but the opportunity of the diverse is absent.” If Park City wants to become a complete community, he said, there must be equal access to the opportunities the town can provide.
“When kids are exposed to compassion and understanding, they realize that they can do anything,” he said. “I grew up thinking that everything I could dream up was possible — but what if it was?”
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Daniel Lewis, an Old Town resident who unsuccessfully sought a spot on the Park City Council in 2019, said this week he will mount another campaign this year.