Hispanic Heritage Series
Part I of VI
Two years in, the Denver native successfully helms Denver’s most demanding job.
When Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock chose to enlist Don Mares as Denver Human Services (DHS) Executive Director in the summer of 2015, he did so knowing two things. One, he was getting a highly-regarded professional with a steady track record and two, his administration would continue to benefit from Mares’ efforts in mental health as head of the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies.
Since taking up his latest position with Denver Human Services two years ago, Mares has continued to strive both politically and professionally while furthering the outreach of one of Denver’s most in-demand departments.
As late as last week, Hancock announced that September would receive the official designation of Kinship Care Month. That designation gives those who sacrifice their time, personal and professional plans, as well as finances through kinship care – the act of taking in children by relatives or close family members – a month worth of due recognition.
According to DHS, Denver County is one of the top-performing counties in the state in placing children in kinship care. Nearly half of children in out-of-home placements are placed with kin. The statewide average is about 30 percent. That fact is not lost on Mares who is very direct in his praise for his department’s work in kinship care.
“Kinship care is about so much more than just placing a roof over a child’s head,” Mares said in a release. “We know that kids who stay connected to family have better long-term outcomes and better chances of reunification. We’re proud of the success of our kinship care staff in making us a state leader in this area. We are also very appreciative of all of our kinship families for stepping up and providing care to our kids when they most need it.”
Kinship Care Month and other similar recognitions are just a sample of what Mares has accomplished in his short time with DHS. The department provides assistance benefits and protection and prevention services to one in three Denver residents. Assistance programs range from food, cash and medical benefits as well as child care, child support and general assistance. But it is not just about providing services to families in need, Mares has also led DHS to look into strengthening families.
In August, for example, both Hancock and Mares celebrated Child Support Awareness Month with a unique focus on fathers. Their message: “It’s about more than just money.”
That mindset led to the launch of a new Fatherhood Program through which Child Support Services offered incentives for child support debt reduction and opportunities for the reinstatement of suspended driver’s licenses for those who are delinquent in payments.
“Kids are safer when they have parents that are engaged in their lives,” Mares said. “Our new Fatherhood Program and the services it provides will help fathers gain the skills and support they need to ‘be there’ for their children, both financially and otherwise.”
The program also catered to many needs by providing job skills, employment assistance, educational programs and basic wellness needs customized to each program participant.
A Denver native, Mares, has been serving his city and state in some capacity most of his professional life. He was a state legislator from 1989 -1995 and served under Gov. Bill Ritter as the Executive Director of the Department of Labor and Employment.
Under Mares, DHS continues to innovate on mental health as well. Replacing the stigmatizing mental illness, with the fortifying mental wellness.
“One of the big things is to start talking about mental wellness,” he said. “We talk about prostate cancer now, we talk about breast cancer, but we still don’t talk about our mind that way.”