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Delta's Karen population has dropped to a 'very solid base'

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In the spring of 2012 Karen families, resettled from Burma (also known as Myanmar), began moving into the Alta Vista de la Montana agricultural housing complex on Highway 50.

Four years later, Pastor James Conley of First Baptist Church says some families have moved on to other parts of the U.S. While they found seasonal work in the Delta area, it wasn't steady.

"In 2012 the Alta Vista apartments opened and a lot of Karen families came from Denver, Aurora and Arvada. There was work in the orchards. Both men and women had jobs, some in Dominguez Canyon, some in Cedaredge and Hotchkiss.

"We had 30 families at the peak," he said. Now there are about 14 families ... over 100 Karen people in the community. Three or four families are planning to move to Nebraska at the end of the school year. Pastor Conley explained that packing sheds in Cozad, Neb., are hiring and there are other Karen families there, in addition to the jobs.

"However, there are Karen families in the Denver area scheduled to move to Delta when school is out. That will make up for those leaving," Conley said.

The American Baptist denomination has had a missionary presence in Burma since 1812.

James Conley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Delta, and his congregation continued that commitment to the Karen people from Burma.

Randall Taylor, property manager at Alta Vista de la Montana, said there are half as many Karen residents currently living at Alta Vista as there were in 2014. In order to be eligible to rent an apartment at Alta Vista, at least 65 percent of a family's income must come from agricultural work.

Bonnie Koehler, director of the Delta County Health Department, said she sees the same activity in health needs: the same number of Karen in the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) programs and the same number of immunizations for the Karen community.

Pastor Conley says the remaining Karen families form a very solid base.

Some are employed by Foster Farms; one man works two days for the school district and drives a truck for Foster Farms three days. Three are working at an orchard in Cedaredge, doing preparatory work for the upcoming crop, and others will join them at harvest time. One woman is a meat processor at Homestead Meats. One woman works for a business in Cory that makes computer parts.

With pride, Pastor Conley recites some Karen community achievements.

"We have had several babies born to Karen families, with one set of twin boys," he said.

"There are three Karen Delta High School graduates at Adams State College in Alamosa, two sophomores and one freshman.

"A few months ago a Mennonite man and a Karen woman were married at First Baptist. Mennonite songs were sung in English along with songs in Karen. The reception was held in the church fellowship hall.

"Karen families are buying homes. One family bought a house in the Pioneer Circle subdivision and another has contracted for a house in that subdivision," Conley said.

Richard Saw Peter and wife SuSu, together with Richard's parents Saw Htoo and Abey Htoo, bought a two-generation house together in Delta three years ago.

Conley especially celebrates that Saw Htoo and Abey Htoo passed their test for U.S. citizenship on Feb. 25. The official citizenship ceremony will be held in Grand Junction.

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