When Heather Marsh walks onto the Red Rocks Community College (RRCC) campus, she still gets goosebumps.

“I got so much support at this school for six years,” she said. “You can accomplish almost anything here.”

Marsh is one of the thousands of students who have participated in RRCC’s College Gateway, a program that has helped justice-involved individuals return to the community since 2006. Beyond one-on-one support, students benefit from coursework in critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and career exploration that prepares them for college.

The opportunity has proved life-changing for Marsh. A former hospitality worker, she fell into an abusive relationship that left her struggling with alcohol use disorder and legal challenges. After she ended up in the hospital, an advocate from the Lakewood Action Center referred her to College Gateway.

“I knew that this was it—I had to change my ways,” she remembered telling herself. “The College Gateway classes were exactly what I needed to focus and get back to school.”

Making a Difference

Left to right: Cathy Lachman, Heather Marsh, and Edward Smith pose for a photo on Red Rock Community College’s Lakewood campus.

Fast forward several years, and Marsh’s journey has come full circle. After completing her certified nursing aide program, she became a housing navigator for the same action center that referred her to College Gateway originally.

Transformations like Marsh’s are common among College Gateway students, says program founder Cathy Lachman. She and four alumni, including Marsh, shared their stories at a recent State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE) meeting.

“I’m very proud of this program,” said Lachman, a former law enforcement official. “What we’re seeing with our students is that education makes a difference in their life, and it makes a lot of difference for their families and their children. They don’t reoffend, and they go on to become change agents in our communities.”

In their first course, students analyze Viktor Frankl’s memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his eventual escape from a Nazi concentration camp. The text inspires students to uncover their own motivations for change.

“In that very first class, we focus our attention on helping students get in touch with their purpose and meaning for being here,” said Lachman. “We really push for them to get past their shame about what put them in prison and to move on from that.”

That idea resonated with Edward Smith, who graduated College Gateway in 2015 after serving an 11-year prison sentence. The courses exposed him to new ideas that helped him unpack his traumatic experiences.

“I realized that this was an awesome opportunity to get acclimated to school. People started calling me ‘Ed Nerd Smith,” he said with a laugh.

Smith now works for Goodwill of Colorado, helping other community members get back on their feet.

“You can overcome everything that you’ve been through, provided that you utilize the resources available to you,” he said.

Rebuilding Lives

For Rita Erickson and Sonja Aller, College Gateway has provided a pathway to a more secure future.

Left to Right: Cathy Lachman, Rita Erickson, Sonja Aller, and Edward Smith present to the State Board.

Formerly in foster care, Erickson battled substance use and acquired a list of misdemeanors. When she found out she was pregnant in jail, she knew she needed a new direction. Her parole officer pointed her to College Gateway.

Erickson graduated with a degree in business management and went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree in computer information systems from Regis University. As a contractor with the Department of Energy, she’s even received a security clearance.

“Setting goals when you have no goals beyond the next week—that made a huge difference—as well as having a community of people going through similar things. Some of us are rebuilding our lives from the very bottom,” she said.

Like Erickson, Aller came to RRCC at one of her lowest points: she had recently relapsed and lost custody of her children. With the guidance and care of RRCC staff, she blossomed.

“I started the Gateway program, and I found out that I was smart. Everything that people had been telling me my whole life was not true,” she said.

With graduation in sight, Aller plans to transfer to Metropolitan State University next year and eventually work with families dealing with substance misuse. She has since regained custody of her children, become a foster parent, and qualified for a home loan.

Given all these accomplishments, Aller says becoming a role model for her daughter has been the most gratifying experience so far.

“I was a statistic, and I’m not anymore. That’s the biggest and the best thing that I could ever do for her,” she said.

I was a statistic, and I’m not anymore. That’s the biggest and the best thing that I could ever do.
Sonja Aller, College Gateway Graduate


Transforming Narratives

As State Board members wiped tears from their eyes, they praised the alumni’s tenacity in turning their lives around. The stories particularly touched board chair Landon Mascareñaz, who is in recovery himself.

“One of my first sponsors told me that everyone has a different rock bottom, and that the measure is whether we can find that moment, understand it, and then transform the narrative about ourselves. That’s a powerful thing to see and to go through,” he commented.

Lachman says that kind of hard-earned transformation is what College Gateway is all about.

“We know that people can make their dreams come true, and we’re here to help them do that,” she said.

To learn more about College Gateway and its transformative impact, visit the RRCC website.