Who We Are: Brewer’s change of perspective
summit daily news
What does it take to truly make an impact in the world?
Ben Brewer’s varied life experiences have altered his perspective about how to create lasting change.
Born and raised in Summit County, Brewer was a bit of a drifter growing up. After eighth grade, he went to a school in New Hampshire for two years, then enrolled in a private high school, Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, from which he graduated in 1986. Though his older sister Betsy did well in the Summit School District, he found that “my personality wasn’t well-suited to public schools; I was just kind of squirrely.”
Smaller classes in private schools seemed to be a key to improving his bad grades. In New Hampshire, he learned to play lacrosse, which ultimately led officials from Whittier College in California to recruit him.
“I was able to reinvent myself at a new school and focus on academics and playing lacrosse, which we didn’t have here at the time,” Brewer said.
In college, he majored in philosophy, with a minor in political science.
“I gravitated to classes where I was able to read a lot, write a lot and talk a lot about life and different issues,” he said. “I really liked discussing issues … I think things through a lot – maybe sometimes to a fault.”
As part of his scholarship requirements, he was obligated to work part time, so he snagged a job with a law firm. But he didn’t know what kind of career he wanted after graduation.
“I really was living day to day in college and studying what I wanted and loving it,” he said.
As an activist, he involved himself in everything he could, from student council to gathering 10 friends to protest offshore drilling in Santa Barbara.
After college, he volunteered full time with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union in downtown Los Angeles. There, he aimed to help empower people.
“It was quite an experience coming from Breckenridge,” he said. “At that time in my life, that’s exactly where I wanted to be – protecting the public from pesticides in food and improving the lives of farm workers.”
But after six months, his student loan demanded payments, so he started teaching sixth-graders at the Orange County Outdoor Science School.
After the school year, he lived in Guatemala for four months, learning Spanish and making instant connections by taking out the soccer ball he carried in his backpack.
“I didn’t speak Spanish that well, but everyone understood soccer; it broke down language barriers,” he said, adding that his time in Guatemala “showed me different cultures and showed me the reality of poverty.”
He returned to Berkeley, Calif., with the goal of becoming a teacher so he could make a difference in the world through children – particularly those who didn’t speak English as their first language.
However, after three months of substitute teaching in public schools while he took classes on teaching English as a second language, symptoms of tuberculosis stopped him cold. It turns out he contracted the disease in Guatemala from a man who played Brewer’s harmonica. The man was extremely resistant to play the harmonica, but Brewer insisted.
Brewer returned to Breckenridge to recover, a process that involved lying in bed for an entire month, taking antibiotics for nine months, and pacing himself for about three months until he felt “normal.”
“I was extremely weak; it was a scary experience,” he said. “If it had gone untreated longer, I could have died.”
When he felt better, he applied to Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine and became a Coast Guard-licensed sea captain for eight summers while attending University of Colorado at Boulder during the school year for his master’s degree and teaching credentials.
In 1996, he accepted his first job teaching middle schoolers computers and technology through the Denver Public Schools. After a year, Battle Mountain High School in Vail invited him to teach its bilingual program, which he did for two years.
“During this time, (with) the activist spirit that started in college, the conclusion I came to was that teaching was the way I’d have the most positive impact,” he said. “It was where I wanted to put my energy.”
During his last two weeks of graduate school, he met Robyn, and they celebrate 11 years of marriage this summer. In 1999, the couple bought a home in Breckenridge, and Brewer turned his attention to the Internet boom.
“I was tired of being poor as a teacher and graduate student, and there were lots of opportunities in the Internet world,” he said.
He started his own website design firm and had plenty of clients until around 2004, when the bust occurred. In the fall of 2004, the housing boom was still going strong, so he became a real-estate agent.
“I was just kind of riding the economic waves,” he said.
Through the downturn, he has remained a Realtor, and though it’s been difficult, he said, he has had “good – not fabulous” success.
However, his true focus these days revolves around his son, Jacob, who was born in 2002. Work became less important, and friends and family took center stage. Though both he and Robyn work full time, they “draw the line” when it comes to allowing anything to interfere with them sharing dinner every night. They also got rid of cable television “so we have to do things to entertain ourselves,” including reading, listening to the radio and playing Monopoly and cards.
His second family, of sorts, consists of his bluegrass band, named the Pine Beatles. He and Matt Krane (photographer) play guitar; Doc PJ (physician) plays bass; Nancy Hallett (caterer and landscaper), fiddle; Mark Gidney (clinical psychologist), banjo: and Bryan Austill (clinical psychologist), harmonica – and everyone sings. They perform at parties, weddings and fundraisers – about once a month in the off-season, and once a week during the summer.
“That’s been the thing that has been the most fun in recent years,” he said. “It’s an incredible collection of different experiences and skills and outlooks on life. They’ve improved my life. (At practices) we also talk about life and help each other with problems. Music is the medium that’s bringing us together, but the camaraderie is probably why we do it.”
This year, Brewer also ran for Breckenridge Town Council, missing a seat by 61 votes. He hoped to bring his values of improving education and the lives of mainly working residents to the job and says he might run again. But for now, he’s helping make a difference in local education by getting involved with Summit Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funds from the community to support Summit School District in its mission of education excellence, because state funding is currently insufficient.
“I went from a position in college of feeling like I had to change other people for me to change the world, and now I understand that it’s much more important to change myself and lead by example,” Brewer said. “Now, you won’t see me carrying the protest sign – now I do the actual work to accomplish (things). I’m not as showy as I was in college, but I think I’m more effective because I’ve realized what works. And what works is doing the work – organizing people … If we just communicate amongst ourselves, the group will figure out what’s best. It’s a much different outlook.”
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