Gloria Curtis continues her service to Ethiopia with Denver Sister Cities

By Janet Lee, Emdeber (1974–76)

If Gloria Gieseke Curtis (Asmara 63–65) has been described as the “mother hen” of Ethiopia II, perhaps the same could be said about her involvement in RPCV Colorado, and her latest project — the Denver Sister Cities International (DSCI)/Axum partnership. Like so many of us, she answered the call from JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” From the first day of training at UCLA, where she studied Amharic under the legendary Dr. Wolf Leslau (PhD.), Peace Corps has been an integral part of her daily life.  She married Don Curtis (India VII 64–66), and their daughter Donna Jean Curtis and her husband Mike Walker (Kazakhstan II 95–97) followed in their tracks.

In the 1970s, Gloria and Don joined a few other RPCVs living in the Denver area and formed the Colorado organization, incorporating it as a non-profit, initiating a newsletter, and frequently serving on the board. It is little wonder that when an opportunity later arose for her to become involved with the Denver Sister Cities International (DSCI) project between Denver and Axum that she jumped at the chance.

Gloria will admit that it is difficult for her to differentiate where Peace Corps ends and Sister Cities begins, so intertwined are these two passions. When she makes presentations about Peace Corps to schools or civic groups, she always ends with Sister Cities; when she makes presentations about Sister Cities, she always begins with her involvement in the Peace Corps.

About Sister Cities
Sister Cities partnerships occur when a community decides to join with a community in another nation to learn about one another and to develop meaningful exchanges. The relationship becomes official with the signing of a formal agreement by the government leaders of the two jurisdictions. In the U.S. there are nearly 2,000 Sister Cities partnerships, and Denver alone can boast of having ten of them including the one with Axum.

Axum became a Denver Sister City on January 20, 1995, when Mayor Wellington Webb signed the official proclamation. However, work on developing the relationship began much earlier when Daniel Yohannes, the late City Councilman Hiawatha Davis and others prepared the application. At that time Daniel Yohannes was the Vice Chairman of U.S. Bank. In 2009 he was nominated by President Obama to become the Chief Executive Officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty. His appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on November 20, 2009 and he continues to serve in that position.

Gloria’s involvement with DSCI began in 1997 after she and Don made “sentimental reunion” trips to Ethiopia in 1995 and to India in 1996. Upon their return to Denver they joined the Sister City Committees of both Axum, Ethiopia, and Chennai (Madras) India, and over the years they have served on the Board of DSCI in various positions.

Sister City Axum
Although there is great need in Axum, as overall Ethiopia, the DSCI Axum Committee initially has focused its efforts on the overriding concerns of water and sanitation. Like many cities in Colorado, Axum has to deal with the scarcity of water, and it was only natural to bring in experts from Denver Water, the official water company for Denver and the surrounding areas to advise the committee, which has designed a low-cost, low-tech and sustainable water-treatment facility for Axum. In addition to local experts, the City of Denver has provided the Axum Committee with water testing equipment, training, and two pumps.

Gloria’s efforts on behalf of DSCI/Axum
One of the main ongoing projects in which Gloria is involved is raising funds for a septic-tank truck and for pumps to clean out latrines throughout the city.  Although the program has received a matching grant, additional funds are still needed. To meet this goal Gloria has spearheaded efforts through an annual fund-raising dinner at a local Ethiopian restaurant, and organized a silent auction of necklace and earring sets that she has made herself using beads and Ethiopian Coptic crosses, and other donated items that she has fashioned into creative gift baskets.

In addition to the water and sanitation projects in Axum, DSCI has benefitted from impressive renovation projects at the “City of Axum Park” in Denver. The Denver Parks & Recreation Department received special funds to add picnic pavilions, a wheelchair accessible jogging path, and all new playground equipment and basketball courts to the park.

Gloria was honored to consult with artists and City of Denver Parks personnel to design multi-cultural artwork on the exterior walls of the park’s restroom facilities. One wall has colorful Colorado and Ethiopian flags unfurled over each other. Another depicts various sports scenes, including a female Ethiopian runner crossing the finish line. A third wall highlights the importance of coffee in Ethiopia, complete with a woman pouring coffee out of a traditional jebena, the tip of the Ethiopian flag overflowing from the adjoining side.  And finally, there is a picture of a street sign in Axum that honors the Sister Cities’ partnership. It is written in English and Amharic, and is the sign for “Denver Street,”  a major thoroughfare in Axum.

During the opening ceremonies of the newly renovated park, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper welcomed dignitaries from Ethiopia, including Axum Mayor Ato Hagos Grebewahid, to a picnic in the park and the entire neighborhood was invited. Children and youth played cricket and soccer (aka football) and Mexican and Ethiopian dancers performed traditional dances. Mayor Hickenlooper presented Mayor Hagos with a scale replica of the obelisk that is a prominent feature and tourist attraction in Axum.

One wonders where Gloria gets all of this energy, speaking to schools and clubs, designing jewelry, and putting together gift baskets for the silent auction. If you are ever new to an event in Denver, be it Peace Corps or Sister Cities, and have not yet met Gloria, you will soon find yourself whisked under her wing along with the rest of her brood, welcomed, warmed, and included.

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