Sara Vaas, assistant director of Council of Neighbors and Organizations, has a lot of responsibility. Sometimes the 34-year-old must act as a mediator when it comes to neighborhood issues in El Paso and Teller counties. A lot can go down in neighborhoods and she’s there to help keep the peace.
In addition to her assistant director role, she’s vice president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors, which consists of more than 8,500 households. Vaas, also an artist, helps organize two annual art shows at Westside eatery Front Range Barbeque, has a license to teach yoga (though she’s not currently instructing) and loves to hike, travel and camp.
An Ohio native, Vaas has her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Cincinnati but, as of about six years ago, she’s called Colorado Springs her home.
She was the first paid staffer for CONO, which transitioned to a 501(c)3 a few years ago. Since coming on board, she’s seen CONO’s influence grow throughout the community.
Can you give an example of how CONO helps neighborhoods?
We help neighborhoods that have never been organized organize. An example is the Cragmor Neighborhood Association, which is near UCCS. The Bates [Elementary] School, which was no longer being used as a school, was sought by a developer for student housing. We helped the neighborhood walk through the public process to address safety concerns, traffic flow and pedestrian concerns. That neighborhood wasn’t an association as the development was going on but we helped them to organize because we know, when you can be an organized voice and speak as one, it’s more powerful in front of city council. … Now that neighborhood does yearly cleanups, socials … they communicate on nextdoor.com — they’re just a more cohesive neighborhood because there are more developments that are popping up and now they’re more prepared to deal with it.
How do you assist homeowners associations?
We work with HOAs a lot. Sometimes we get phone calls about a board that doesn’t know what it’s doing. Sometimes we come in as a third party, a neutral voice in the room, and run an election. We will solve disputes and find out how to recruit new board members if someone may be taking advantage of their role in HOA. An example would be being too strict with enforcing covenants. Sometimes they simply need to talk to that [homeowner]. Maybe there’s an emergency happening in that family and they can’t mow their lawn. We’ll come in and provide support to some boards. … We also have a monthly HOA support group. … There are so many people that need support and to hear from each other: ‘What are you doing in your HOA? How can we do better at this?’ We encourage people to have fun. I know HOAs can be really strict but we want them to communicate first before they do anything else.
Have you always enjoyed helping people organize?
I’ve kind of always been a community organizer and just didn’t know it. … I’ve also always wanted to work with people and, when I used to paint in high school, I’d always paint faces and eyes because I liked people and learning about their story — it’s always been part of who I’ve always been. … I like a challenge and this job meshed very well with my background.
What kind of art do you enjoy?
I paint. I really like to paint trees and I also make jewelry. However, jewelry is something I can do sitting in front of a movie at the end of the day. Painting takes a little more focus and sometimes I work too much for that much focus. … I sell some [of my jewelry] in a couple of boutiques.
Any advice for other young professionals?
It’s really important to stay connected with people. … Nobody knows all the answers. We have to rely on each other to make the community better. … [Also], this is kind of a small town in a big city. It’s all who you know. Every job I’ve gotten [in Colorado Springs] has been through a connection — I’ve never had to do a job search. Get on the newsletter list, get on social media, as much as that can be a time suck, that’s where I hear about a lot of things. Don’t be afraid to show up and be involved. Find out what you’re good at, not good at and what you need to learn more about. Take that initiative and be involved. It’s also important to support each other and ask the hard questions: ‘How are you? How are things going?’ Slow down and take time for yourself. People can get really burned out in the [nonprofit] industry. Have a coffee meeting that doesn’t talk about work. Supporting each other is so important, especially as the days get busier and busier.