When I was 16, my friends worked at Pizza Hut and at the town candy store. I was a reporter for the Weekly News Chronicle in Parker. It might have been the best job of my life.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Stump, got me the work. It was 1993, the Chronicle was new to town, and the newspaper needed cheap labor to fill its pages every week. If I remember correctly, the application bar was pretty low. I may have used a sophomore-year essay to get the job. My mom answered the phone when the publisher called to say I was hired. I don’t think I’ve seen her happier.

For my work, I received $250 each week and had personalized business cards. Truth be told, I would have done the work for the business cards. “Robert Sanchez Staff Writer,” the cards said, which meant more to me than anything appearing in my nascent bank account. The card affirmed to me that I belonged in the working-journalist club. More importantly, it was proof that I mattered to my community.

I covered high school football, then high school basketball, and then high school baseball. When our twenty-something editor got caught that summer using the company long-distance code to make personal phone calls to a girlfriend, I was told I would begin covering town council meetings. I’d lived in my town nearly a decade by then, but I had never before felt so connected to my community. I wrote about town budgets, business openings, and infighting among a local school advisory board. The first time I used a cell phone was at a murder site. My first intense story was about a teenager whose estranged father tried to set fire to his mother’s apartment. The mayor recognized me at the Baskin-Robbins on Mainstreet; the police chief cornered me at Safeway to talk about community policing; kids at school told me how badly our town’s new “teen center” was failing; one of the local bar owners told me how much he hated the council members. I kicked ass on our newspaper softball team. I still have my shirt.

At one community meeting—on a proposed skate park in town—my physics teacher, Dr. Thompson, spotted me. I was getting a C in his class, in part because nighttime meetings were cutting into my study time (but mostly because I was terrible at physics). Dr. Thompson walked across the room. “I might need to change my mind about you,” he told me. He did, but my grade didn’t improve.

I wrote, I edited, I answered phones, I folded newspapers and delivered them in my 1988 Toyota 4Runner in the pouring rain. Before I was given a key to the office, I would slip my story drafts under the glass door and then call my editor from school the next morning to make sure he’d gotten the story. When I applied to college at the University of Missouri, the editors let me print at least 100 of my newspaper clips to attach to my application.

I eventually left that job. I took a position at the Douglas County News-Press, in Castle Rock, where I was made the paper’s education editor. (I had just graduated myself.) I spent my 18-year-old summer in the old offices off Perry Street, which were torn down long ago. When I came back from college in the winter, I didn’t have to ask if I still had a job. I interned there the next summer, too. I learned how to write when I was at the News-Press. I learned how to take criticism. I learned how to be a better version of myself. When one of my then-retired editors died years later, I found his wife’s phone number and called to tell her how much he meant to me.

I still live in Parker, and I’ve driven my teenage kids past my old Chronicle office several times. I’ve told them about the newspaper and the people who once worked there and how they gave me my first break in journalism. I told them about community newspapering and how it’s more meaningful than ever. I told them about my business cards and how I’d never felt more important in my life. I told them how special my work felt to me.