John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Joey and Chandler, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Snoopy and Woodstock, Bonnie and Clyde… these are all examples of dynamic duos. When it comes to advocating for and nurturing the health and wellness of Colorado Springs, alumnae Amber Ptak and Heather Graves are another pair worthy of that moniker.
Amber (B.S. ‘98, Community Health Education) is the CEO of Community Health Partnership, an organization dedicated to improving the health of the Pikes Peak region, while Heather is executive director of Catamount Institute, a youth development, outdoor and environmental education organization. Although they both graduated from Western Michigan University and have had similar career trajectories, these fellow Broncos didn’t meet until 2021.
“I was introduced to Heather during a work-related phone call. After she spoke, I recognized her Midwestern accent and asked if she was from Michigan,” Amber said. “She confirmed my suspicions. I then asked her if she attended WMU because there was something about her that sounded familiar, and she confirmed that as well.”
“I knew immediately that I wanted to be friends with her,” she continued. “Heather is a powerful and strategic force in the community! She is so incredibly bright, has a passion for public health and has that Midwestern humor I love so much.”
Amber and Heather (B.A. ‘96, English and Spanish) found their way to Colorado Springs, CO in 1999. “In the time I’ve gotten to know Amber, she has become a treasured confidant and friend,” Heather said. “Together, in our respective roles, we are disrupting status quo, bringing about new perspective and leading dynamic systems change.”
Amber started her career at two local health departments (Berrien County, MI and El Paso County, CO) working on sexual health and violence prevention, suicide prevention, and building community assets and resiliency to support-community wide change. Her career highlights include doing consulting work with communities across the country to address a variety of social justice causes; serving as Director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado as part of the Gill Foundation; moving to Dunedin, New Zealand to work with the local community and Ministry of Education, focusing on improving the nonprofit sector and building support for healthy youth; and joining Community Health Partnership (CHP) to transform community health in the region.
“[At CHP] We implement a collective impact framework to address homelessness, suicide, LGBTQ+ health equity, behavioral health and affordable housing,” Amber said. “We work hard to build collective power with those with lived and learned experience to change the way our current systems operate so that everyone in the region can thrive.”
“Amber is humble,” Heather added. “The work she’s doing is groundbreaking. She and I are like-minded with blue-ocean ideas that have already and will continue to put Colorado Springs on the map. The best words I can think of to describe it are strategic, innovative, disruptive, thought provoking, systems change, collective impact, fresh, collaborative… and we are just getting started.”
From 2021-2022, Heather also happened to work for the El Paso County Public Health Department overseeing critical programming like youth suicide prevention, child fatality review and prevention, and youth and adult substance use prevention. Today, she’s on CHP’s board of directors.
“Heather is helping lead this same transformation on behalf of the organization and broader community,” Amber said. “Her wisdom and insights are making a huge difference on the organization’s future direction.”
Outside of CHP, Heather has held a wide range of roles, all with the common thread of youth development that includes the social determinants of health and prevention. Before she graduated from Western, she began working for the Kalamazoo County YMCA. For nearly 17 years, she took on many positions in senior leadership there.
“In my last year at the YMCA, I wrote and received a substantial grant so that YMCAs in the Pikes Peak Region could assist kids and families with Medicare and CHP+ insurance applications,” she said. “This grant impacted the most vulnerable families in our communities in decreasing wait times for application approvals and providing greater access to health care that was so needed.”
From the YMCA, Heather went on to work for Centura Health, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. Among her accomplishments, she grew the hospital’s workforce volunteer program to be the largest of its kind in the Western United States, including the largest pet therapy program in the state of Colorado. Before the pandemic hit, she then joined the newly opened Children’s Hospital in Colorado Springs, where she wound up pivoting and supporting hospital efforts related to battling COVID-19.
Now, as executive director at Catamount Institute, Heather feels right at home. “Catamount strives to connect kids 2 through 17 to the outdoors through equitable access in order to impact their physical, mental and emotional health,” she said. “This position allows me to bring my career full circle with my education, experience and expertise to impact the lives of families and children in Southern Colorado.”
Here's more of what Heather and Amber had to say about their work in Colorado Springs and their time at WMU:
Why did you choose WMU?
Amber: I attended the University of Michigan my freshman year (1993-1994). My plans then were to pursue a degree in occupational therapy (OT), so I started applying to schools that offered an OT path. I transferred to WMU my sophomore year and ran into a high school friend who raved about WMU’s community health education program, so I started taking classes. I realized early on that it was the perfect career path for me.
Heather: Growing up in Kalamazoo (Parchment) and being a first-generation college student, it was a natural choice. I attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College prior to transferring to WMU. As a local I remember feeling fortunate to have a great option right in my own backyard.
What was your major and how/why did you select it?
Amber: I chose to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Community Health Education because I was passionate about social justice and promoting community wellbeing. Once I started taking classes, I bonded with the professors and other students. These connections created a sense of belonging at WMU and opened so many doors for me professionally. The program taught me how to think strategically, engage more deeply with community, and provided me opportunities to think more broadly about the impact I wanted to have in the future.
Heather: Originally, my major was Elementary Education with three minors; K-8, English and Spanish. Ultimately, I graduated with a B.A. in English and Spanish. I was passionate about making a positive impact and difference in the lives of children (youth). I didn’t have an easy road as a child/student and felt very strongly about education and youth development equity.
I changed my major from education as I was drawn to youth development programs and organizations that took place outside of a traditional classroom.
Were you involved on campus, and if so, how?
Amber: I was accepted into the Sexual Health Peer Education Program my junior year. This program was likely the most transformational experience I had at WMU. The woman overseeing the program at the time, Christine Zimmer, was my first mentor and helped guide me professionally and personally. The other peer educators became lifelong friends. I became active locally with the sexual assault prevention program in Kalamazoo and worked on campus to address sexual violence. I spent two years educating other students about healthy relationships and sexual health. In 1996, I traveled to Washington, DC with a professor and 12 students to support the HIV/AIDS quilt display, a memorial to celebrate the lives of people who died of AIDS-related causes. That profound experience ignited my passion for community health work, and 26 years later, I'm still deeply engaged and committed to it.
Heather: I was involved with Spanish Clubs and activities. On behalf of WMU, I taught ESL to Migrant Farmers and their children in partnership with the Spanish American Consulate located in Kalamazoo. I also participated in an international studies program where we traveled to Guatemala to study foreign political systems and social justice.
What was a formative experience you had as a student that continues to influence you today?
Amber: The most formative experience at WMU was the mentorship I received from the faculty. WMU’s faculty in the community health education program mentored me during my tenure there and into the early years of my career. I kept in touch with one member of the faculty for a decade after leaving the University. The head of the Sexual Health Peer Education Program became a dear friend and mentored me for years. I felt seen by my professors and they were 100% invested in my career after graduation. They connected me to an internship and ultimately helped me land my first job in public health before I even graduated. The relationships and their connections set me up for success.
Heather: My most formative experience was the relationships, mentorship and genuine care my Spanish professors provided me. There were times in my college years where I worked two jobs and attended school at the same time. I struggled financially to purchase books and class materials and at times missed class due to work. The Spanish professors were supportive, understanding and always helpful.
Tell me about any professors or staff members who left a mark or went above and beyond to help you succeed.
Amber: The three professors and faculty members who transformed my experience at WMU include Dr. Bob Bensley, Dr. Marianne Frauenknecht, Dr. Bill Gross (deceased), and Christine Zimmer. All four individuals mentored me throughout my tenure at WMU and I still think of them often. Dr. Bensley helped me access my first internship at the Kent County Health Department and first job at the Berrien County Health Department. These individuals were incredibly passionate about their work, the students and our futures.
Heather: Irma Lopez, Seniora Wilhite, Ruth Moser, Mercedes Tasende. Ruth Moser was also my high school Spanish teacher. I always knew she believed in me and believed I had potential.
What career and/or personal accomplishment are you most proud of?
Amber: I am most proud of the opportunities I’ve had to work alongside some of the most brilliant, humble and impact-driven people in Colorado and Michigan. Working on behalf of women and children experiencing family violence to change the way the “system” responds to domestic violence, fighting for equal protections for the LGBTQIA2+ communities, raising money for a large health care system committed to community health, and now working to transform community health by pioneering a process of collaboration and collective impact. I look back and I am so proud of the work I have been invited to do alongside people with lived experience and professionals working tirelessly for change. And I am just as passionate and motivated to lead and support big changes for this community and beyond for another two decades (at least).
Heather: I am humbled and proud of the opportunities I have had to develop, mentor and lead others. Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to work with kids and families from diverse, multicultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Through fundraising, program development and innovation, prevention, coaching, leadership development, relationship building, resource development and expansion, and meaningful collaboration, I have worked alongside authentic leaders in Michigan, Florida, and Colorado committed to making a positive impact in the lives and on the health of others (physically, emotionally and mentally).
Earning my masters at MSU is also a proud moment.
What’s your favorite campus memory?
Amber: My personal favorite memory: my roommates and I went to a Verve Pipe concert in downtown Kalamazoo. We ended up meeting the band and staying out a little late with their lead singer, Brian Vander Ark. I had an early morning class the next day, so he loaned me his gold car for the day, and I just drove around telling anyone who would listen whose car I was driving.
I also lived in a house across the street from Knollwood Apartments with five other girls. We had the time of our lives together! Most of us are still closely connected and meet up during the holidays. If there is one connecting thread about my experience at WMU, it is the relationships I built and have maintained over the years. Everyone had each other’s backs. Even now, we still have each other’s backs.
Heather: I met my husband at WMU. He is from Flint, and I always tease him that he married a “townie.” We have been together since 1992 and married 20 years.
Tailgating at the football games with a friend who had an old Army tanker that everyone gravitated to, and yes, hanging out at Knollwood apartments. I remember the soccer team published a photo of the whole team naked with only a soccer ball covering their “unmentionables” on the front page of the Western Herald to raise awareness and interest in the team and to increase attendance at their games. It worked!
Graduating from WMU was also a great memory and allowed me to believe that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, especially being a first-generation graduate.
What advice do you have for current students?
Amber: Get involved! While it is enticing to hit Waldo’s every Friday and Saturday night, it’s really important to focus on making the most of your WMU educational experience. Connect with as many students and faculty as you can, take advantage of all learning experiences the University has to offer, ask for support when you need it. Go to football and hockey games. Travel as much as possible to learn more about yourself and others.
Heather: I echo Amber’s answer here. Find a balance between working hard and playing hard.
Try new things, ask for help, don’t take anything too seriously, give yourself grace. Ask questions, be curious and never lose your desire to learn. Networking and relationships are the cornerstones to success in any professional role. Explore all the great buildings and events campus has to offer.
We love hearing your alumni success stories! Submit yours today at WMUalumni.org/YourStory.