By Dawne Belloise
Betsy Kolodziej sits casually in a high-back tufted leather chair, her fingers intertwined as if in thoughtful anticipation of conversation, a smile gracing her face. Draped around her neck is a mala, a necklace of prayer beads that ends in a delicate, light greenish tassel. The necklace, she says, is actually a bit short for prayer but she liked it enough to buy it anyway. She has the composure of one who has learned patience and experience from raising many children, which in her 20 years of working in a teaching capacity in one form or another she’s certainly honed.
Born and raised near Harrisburg, Pa., closer to the Mason-Dixon line where the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Mountains were her backdrop, she excelled in math and reading, so much so that she was bused to a advanced school a couple of times a week. It was, she felt, a welcome escape from the very religious and conservative environment of both her home life and her regular school. She blossomed and gained an awareness she might not have had otherwise. “It opened my eyes to so much, to the power of education and of getting perspective, of having a world view, which I would never have had growing up in the environment that I did.” It liberated her and gave her a great appreciation for education, and most important, she realized at a very young age that the way out of her oppressed environment was by doing well in school.
Throughout high school and college she was on the swim team, a springboard diver. She graduated from high school as salutatorian in 1994, and enrolled at Lafayette College in eastern Pa. with a scholarship, intending to study science, especially biology. One of her most profound experiences was researching parasitology with a biology professor. By the time she graduated, Betsy had co-authored more than ten research papers published in international journals.
She graduated in 1998, “and I realized that while I enjoyed studying biology I had no idea what I was going to do with it. So I entered the AmeriCorps VISTA program, which placed volunteers in various roles in U.S. communities with specific needs. I was placed in Harrisburg at a YWCA that had recently started a charter school that served victims of domestic violence and sexual assault for both kids and families that came there. Abused women would come to the shelter and their children would attend the charter school.” She also did community outreach, going into homes to ensure children’s basic needs were being met, like eating breakfast or a quiet space to do homework. She did curriculum work for the school in science and tutoring programs, all of which allowed teachers to focus on teaching.
But Betsy was still in Pennsylvania and she understandably felt stuck, living at her parents’ house with a two-hour work commute to save money. At the end of that year, she moved out of her parents’ house and into Harrisburg, when she was offered a full-time position as domestic violence and emergency counselor. But she really wanted to get back to science and make use of her degree.
After a visit with a friend in Steamboat Springs while she was looking for another job, she decided to stay there for the summer of 2000. Like most who find themselves in transition, she was waiting tables in a restaurant.
She decided to stay for the winter because the vastly different lifestyle was exciting, and she wanted to learn to ski. Within a few months, Betsy was hired for a position at an environmental lab as an inorganic chemist. “I wanted to experience being a ski bum. They allowed me to come in at noon so I could ski. I could work ten-hour shifts, four days a week and as long as I got my work done they were fine. They were a third-party testing facility for the EPA and I was running an instrument that tested metal content of soil and water samples from different areas across the U.S.”
Betsy discovered that she loved to ski. She met her now-husband, Roman, through some friends at a Steamboat party in 2001. He was the first employee for the original owners of Black Tie Ski rentals. Betsy was still struggling with the idea of wanting to do science as a career while she was working at the environmental lab, when she realized she could combine the things she loved, doing science curriculum work and teaching kids. She applied to teaching programs in Colorado to get a teaching certificate. In 2003, she moved to Boulder, attended CU and received her teaching certificate in 2004.
She thought she’d rejoin Roman in Steamboat, but an interview for a science teaching position at Cherry Creek Schools landed her a job in Denver. “I was thinking that going to an interview would just be good practice for future interviews… but I got hired. You can imagine my surprise,” she laughs.
She spent a year at Cherry Creek, and then was hired to teach advanced level biology and APIB at Fairview High School in Boulder, which was a far better situation for her since she was still living in Boulder, working on her master’s degree in science curriculum and instruction at CU and commuting to Cherry Creek in Denver daily. She taught at Fairview through 2007 and earned her master’s. Roman had moved to Crested Butte to start the Black Tie Ski rentals branch.
“We had been engaged for a year and decided that we needed to be living in the same place so I moved to Crested Butte without a job, thinking that I was going to have to work my way into the Crested Butte Community School.” Serendipitously, an enrichment coordinator position opened up, and Betsy interviewed and was hired for the position. “It wasn’t science but I was in that position for seven years and it ended up being the gifted education teacher position.”
Betsy and Roman married in June 2008 and on their honeymoon she started having vertigo. She began having other symptoms that wouldn’t go away, like loss of fine motor coordination, and the vertigo continued. After seeing many specialists, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, just four months after their wedding. She was still teaching and trying to make it through the day. She began treatment, MS therapies to prevent future relapses.
“The hard part about MS is you don’t know what kind of symptoms will develop—no two people with MS have the same disease course. The vertigo hasn’t come back but I have relapses every four or five years, like a flare-up. I’ve found that exercise is the best medicine. I mountain bike, even though I’m not very good and struggle with it—it’s good to rebuild those neural connections.
“When one pathway of your body shuts down it’s about finding other pathways,” she continued. “It’s taught me to be more empathetic with people because everybody has something that they’re dealing with and you don’t always know by looking at a person what they’re experiencing. I feel I have to be at the forefront of MS therapies and research, to be knowledgeable going into a doctor’s appointment in order to get the best care for myself and my journey. It’s all part of navigating the world. Most days I don’t think about it, it’s not a defining part of my life but I do have enough symptoms that make tasks difficult, things we often take for granted, like grasping a glass or mountain biking. I try not to use it as an excuse. I think people will be surprised when they hear I have MS. I’m doing just fine and thankfully I found Colorado and Crested Butte and a place I can be outside and that’s so healing in its own way.”
In 2014, Betsy and Roman were up for a grand adventure to gain some cultural perspective. With Betsy’s experience, she could teach abroad and as owner of Black Tie Ski Rentals, Roman felt he could probably go along and manage from afar via the internet. “We looked for places that had a similar outdoor lifestyle but were culturally diverse and would accept our dog Lucy without quarantine. We decided on Ecuador.”
Lucy flew out with them to the capital city of Quito and Betsy began a two-year stint as a middle school science teacher at an international school. “We went sight-unseen but we had done a lot of research about the area. Quito is a large city of 2.5 million people, however it’s in the mountains and the elevation is the same as here, 9,000 feet. Even though it’s on the equator, the temperatures are constant springtime, 60 to 70 degrees every day. We lived near the largest metropolitan park in all of South America and it was amazing. We were within riding and walking distance to access a fairly large trail system. Having come from Crested Butte, it was great to be able to access the outdoors on a regular basis.”
Betsy feels the experience was expansive for them and highly recommends living in a country that’s so culturally different. It gave them an alternate perspective, she says, “on the humanity of all of us, especially, for example, for those who come into our country not knowing the culture or speaking the language.
“In our time there, we traveled all over Ecuador, which is about the size of Colorado so it was very easy to see most of the country,” she went on. “It’s so diverse geographically, there are rainforests, mountains, coasts, and the Galapagos, so for a science teacher it was an amazing place to see the biodiversity of the world.”
They also travelled all around South America. “On our long breaks we went to Argentina, Patagonia, Chile, Colombia, and we took a long trip driving to northern Peru,” she explained. “We left at a turning point of Ecuadorian politics, violent crime was on the rise and what we learned was that you try to blend in; we tried not to draw attention to ourselves. In general, that’s part of living in South America. We loved the travel opportunities and the time we were there but we very much appreciated getting back to Crested Butte, because we consider this our home. We want to see the world and have those travel experiences and living in a place is really the way to do it, to get to know the place and its peoples. But we’ll always come back here.”
Betsy had taken a leave of absence during the two years of teaching in Ecuador but when she returned, a science teaching position opened and she came back to a job teaching secondary and high school in 2016, and she gets to teach APBio, or advanced placement biology.
“I’ve come full circle. I started in AP and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do here and finally I get to do it,” Betsy says gratefully. Betsy and Roman have found their life here and she feels, “It’s about the friends and the community and the lifestyle. I have everything I need here, including Roman and Lucy, my two favorite organisms,” she grins, speaking as a true biologist.