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Young Leaders’ Photographs Show the Challenges and Beauty of Wood River Valley
Thursday, April 28, 2022


Patricia Ballesteros’ International Cowboy Cucina Restaurant was once a colorful restaurant boasting purples and greens, along with a menu of hamburgers and Central American dishes, such as tamales rolled in banana leaves.

But Johenny Ballesteros’ photographs of her mother’s restaurant include pictures of an empty room where the restaurant used to bustle with locals and tourists eager to try the Honduran specialties.

Ballesteros was given a month to vacate the premises in September 2021 after six years in business when her landlord increased her rent by 65 percent. And Johenny Ballesteros used her photographs to tell the unseen story of how increased rents are forcing business people in the Wood River Valley to shutter their businesses.

“It took my mother years to build her business. Then she had to close overnight because of rent going up,” said Johenny Ballesteros, a Wood River High School Senior who is headed to Santa Clara University next fall. “I used to see people there and tell them, ‘Welcome to my home.’ People knew my name, who I was then. Now my mother is cleaning houses.”

Ballesteros’ photo essay was part of a photo exhibition created by members of the I Have a Dream Foundation-Idaho Leadership Lab. The assignment was “Highlighting the Unseen of the Wood River Valley” and students hosted a Gallery Walk complete with wine, flavored waters and spinach dip to share their photos with the community.

“The idea was to give those in our leadership building group an opportunity to portray a concern or challenge in our valley through their eyes,” said Kris Stoffer, leadership development program facilitator for the group. “Some depicted parts of the valley that they thought others might take for granted.”

Juan Reyes, who plans to go into pre-med at the University of Chicago, decided to honor those who help keep the valley churning by showing their shoes. He captured the shoes of his father, who does a variety of jobs, from landscaping to snow shoveling.

“You think about the unique way in which they leave footprints,” he said.

Cesar Tellez photographed his mother’s sandals in their kitchen at home as he thought of the many roles she had to take on during the pandemic.

“We hope someone will look at these and think about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” he said.

Fernando Reyes captured scenes of the Big Wood River as he tried to show the places in which he finds peace and tranquility. Yameson de la Cruz showed the two faces of tourism as he provided a picture of bustling Ketchum and a photograph of Ketchum at slack with empty streets. And Olivia Camili shared photographs of snowshoeing to a yurt as she described what the newfound experience was like for her:

“I breathe in and out, seeing my breath

It is cold almost impossibly cold.

I think we’re lost but then I see our destination, a yurt …

Part of this impossibly beautiful earth.”

Fourteen students took part in the leadership program this year, said Stoffer. They met once a month after school, during which they learned about leadership skills and styles and listened to community leaders talk about their experiences. They also played role-playing games focused on leadership and discussed what leadership is.

“This project was a journey done both as individuals and as a group,” said Stoffer.

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