Businesswoman, community visionary, youth advocate Polly Raye
Raye grew up near Boston and had an early career as a stockbroker and financial analyst in New York. When she found herself unexpectedly divorced, with three young children to support, she knew she could resume her career. Doing so, however, meant less time with her children, and she wanted to do something that felt more meaningful. She took a year off to think about her values and how to build a relevant life. Polly bought a used 1974 Chevy van, equipped to travel and live in with her children (and their books). This was not a strange choice for a woman who had majored in religion in college and written her thesis on “The Meaning of Life.”
The commune movement was strong in the mid-1970s, and Raye had the idea that life in a spiritual commune might be a good fit for her family. Having read “Communes USA,” she set out to see if she could find one that felt right; in the East, they hadn’t. As December grew cold, they crossed into Mexico and traveled down its east coast, where they met friendly families living in one-room, grassroofed, mud-floored palapas with one bed for the whole family, a hearth in the corner for cooking and chickens in the rafters. These generous people changed her world view. She thought about a spiritual teacher who had said, “There are two ways to be rich: One is to have a lot, and the other is to not want much.”
The family spent the rest of that winter in Guatemala then traveled up the west coast of Mexico back into the United States, still searching for the right commune. Eventually, they discovered the Lama Foundation in San Cristóbal. It felt “right,” with 14 children going to school in town every day, daily meditation and decisions by consensus.
Polly Raye describes herself as a serial entrepreneur. Over her 43 years in Taos, she founded or co-founded five businesses, including three nonprofits, and worked with hundreds of people she describes as “amazing.”
After four years of simple off-the-grid living,
transportation to after-school activities became challenging for Raye’s preteen children. She moved the family to a former church in the center of town, where she still lives today.
Raye started a meditation group around her adobe fireplace and soon learned that all 10 members, herself included, were unemployed or underemployed struggling to support their families with part-time, minimum-wage jobs. They all wanted to practice the Buddhist path of Right Livelihood, so they decided to open a restaurant with healthy organic food, plenty of opportunities for “service” and the possibility of lots of jobs. The name Apple Tree came to her in a dream and also honored the old apple tree at the center of the patio.
For many years at their weekly meetings, the staff explored what Right Livelihood meant. Everyone contributed recipes and created the menu together. Wages were equal, jobs were shared and all the compost went to the chickens.
When making decisions, someone usually said, “Well, if this were a REAL restaurant…” Over the years, new staff came and Raye told them, “What we serve is love, disguised as food.”
Raye credits the success of the restaurant to the phenomenal people who worked there, some of whom later moved on to open their own restaurants. In 1979, Raye started the Downtown Merchants Association which, around 2000, morphed into The Taos Project. With roughly 30 active merchant members, the group worked closely with the town government to improve the downtown. During her 10 Apple Tree years, Raye also served on the boards of both the Taos Chamber and Taos Mainstreet.
Raye sold the Apple Tree to her employee Ginny Greeno who, Raye said, made it even better. In over 30 years, the Apple Tree employed hundreds of people. It was the first job for a whole generation of Taos teenagers, many of whom Raye now sees in town with their children or grandchildren.
As she was thinking about what to do next, Raye was at a social event with Judge Joe Caldwell when he told her about a Taos girl he had sent to a group home in Albuquerque. While running away from the home to get back to Taos, she had been raped, beaten and left for dead. The girl was lying in a hospital in Española.
Caldwell said, “We need a group home for girls in Taos.” Raye decided to build one.
She visited teen facilities all over the state, worked with the Children Youth and Families Department, wrote a grant for initial funding, met with the governor when she needed a bit more and invited everyone interested in the project to a series of lunches to spread the word and share ideas.
Polly Raye poses for a portrait by the gardens scattered throughout the John Dunn House Shops. Since Raye bought the property in 1982, she has spearheaded efforts to make the property more beautiful, fostering community and helping businesses thrive. Morgan Timms
The original 10-member board coalesced from those lunches. Linda Hill donated 5 acres.
Raye hired an architect and a builder who donated most of their services as did many Taos subcontractors and suppliers. More than 500 Taoseños donated money or goods to build the home.
Casa de Corazon opened in 1990. Over the eight years Raye worked there, it expanded to include a school and outpatient services to families. During those years, Raye was also a licensed foster parent, mostly caring for teenage girls waiting for a space in the home.
In 1988, Raye received a visit from Kristina Wilson, Liese Frank and Carol Harrington, who wanted her to help them form a land trust. Harrington’s father had recently passed away, leaving a beautiful meadow in El Prado. With a land trust she could preserve the land as open space and wouldn’t have to sell it to pay estate taxes. Together they formed the Taos Land Trust and served on the board for several years.
It was too late to save Harrington’s land, but since that time the Land Trust has helped Taos landowners create voluntary conservation easements that permanently protect over 25,000 acres of family lands, usually saving families significant taxes in the process.
HEART advisory board member Polly Raye stands inside the Casa de Corazon home that is being renovated to become a transitional living space for homeless women and children. Morgan Timms
While they were working together at Casa de Corazon, volunteer accountant Fred Winter asked Raye to help him start a community foundation. Winter had clients who were making significant gifts of land and money to out-of-town charities because there was no organization in Taos capable of accepting those donations or holding an endowment. Raye discovered a trove of resources at the National Council on Foundations. But she found little local understanding of community foundations, and in fact, some nonprofits feared that a community foundation would reduce donations to their causes. It was clear that the first step in Taos was to educate both the nonprofits and the public about community foundations.
Edy Anderson, Leslie Hale, Carolyn Haddock, Marcus Whitson and Mari Ulmer joined Winter and Raye on the original “organizing board.” Today, TCF has an endowment of more than $10 million, oversees grants and donations of some $800,000 a year and, equally important, offers training and expertise to keep Taos’ 200-some nonprofits strong.
Raye considers the three nonprofits her most valuable business ventures. But the one she is best known for, in addition to the Apple Tree, is the John Dunn Shops. For years, the Plaza was the center of town, and a rickety boardwalk past John Dunn’s house connected the Plaza to Bent Street. In the 1970s, Harvey Mudd purchased Dunn’s home and divided it into seven small shops for his friends from the New Buffalo Commune. Dunn’s stable became the popular Joe’s Restaurant.
When Mudd moved to California in 1982, he asked Raye to buy the property. She didn’t have any money to invest, so he lent her the down payment and she secured a mortgage at the bank. Polly’s
interest was in making the property beautiful, supporting a sense of community and helping the businesses thrive.
In 1983, Joe’s Restaurant burned down. With some open space available, the town asked Raye to create a safe walkway to the Plaza for its employees, who were all on Armory Street (now Civic Plaza Drive). Raye worked with the town to design a long-term land-use plan and, with the insurance money as down payment, went back to the bank, created the walkway and built seven shops on the footprint of Dunn’s old stable.
The John Dunn House Shops grew from there. Most of the shops now have second-generation owners. Few have gone out of business.
When Raye was told she’d been selected as an Unsung Hero, she was surprised and said, “I’m a has been,” as her last business was started 20 years ago. And she said that none had been her idea or really “hers.” All had been created in response to a need, and all were successful only because of the collaboration of many people.
These days, Raye is still supporting nonprofits, especially SOMOS; TECC (Taos Education and Career Center); and TCEDC. She is also on the advisory board of HEART, which is currently renovating the Casa de Corazon home for a transitional living space for homeless women and children.
Fifteen years ago, she married her childhood sweetheart, Bill Christmas. Together they have 10 grandchildren, who live on both coasts. The Rayes look forward to spending more time visiting them.