Despite the drumbeat of ominous news and grim statistics on a national level, COVID-19 has triggered amazing creativity and collaboration among our local organizations and institutions.
This isn’t to say all the problems are solved, or that the hard work is finished. But the coronavirus has forced charitable institutions far and wide to stretch, cooperate and improvise in order to support the most vulnerable residents of our valley.
Take the case of Katherine Sand, director of Aspen Family Connections (AFC). The organization was established in 2016 as a one-stop resource center for local families. Though AFC is located at Aspen Middle School, they exist to help any local in need. In a given week, Sand and her team field phone calls from parents whose kids are having academic or emotional problems. Sometimes a family or individual is seeking financial help or a counselor. Maybe they’re new to town and just need a referral to a good piano teacher.
Whatever the case, COVID-19 arrived like a tsunami in March and things haven’t been the same for AFC since. “COVID has changed our work enormously, and in ways that are not necessarily negative,” Sand said.
Since March, when the first public-health orders shut down schools and businesses, Sand and her three-person team have staged 26 food distributions in Aspen and Snowmass Village. Food Bank of the Rockies delivers the food items to the Aspen schools complex and AFC has coordinated with local officials and volunteer teams to create regular drive-up food giveaways. None of them ever expected to hand out food in a school parking lot while wearing a face mask, but the pandemic has forced many people to don different hats.
“We offered to do it because it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Sand recalled. “Before we do anything else, we need to make sure people can eat.”
Interestingly, the food giveaways also have enabled the AFC team to meet and connect with people of all ages they hadn’t met before.
“At a time when we’re not supposed to see anybody, we’ve been seeing hundreds of them through the car window,” Sand said. “It’s been a pleasure for us. I think feeding people conveys dignity and reassurance.”
Even now, four months after the pandemic descended on Colorado, Sand is still serving 160 households every Wednesday. In August, the food distributions will move to the parking lot at Buttermilk Ski Area, in order to make way for the planned reopening of the Aspen schools.
Of course, aside from the food distributions, the AFC caseload has increased drastically. As people have lost jobs, lost their child care and deliberately isolated themselves, their lives have, in many cases, turned upside down. Life in the upper Roaring Fork Valley was already a fragile balance between a high cost of living and low wages, and COVID-19 made it much harder. Sand is seeing, among other things, “enormous amounts of credit card debt and medical debt.”
Assistance from local governments and nonprofit organizations, including the Aspen Community Foundation’s 2020 Rescue and COVID-19 Regional Response funds, has enabled Sand’s organization to help struggling individuals and families with direct financial assistance to pay a utility bill or obtain some child care so a parent could go job-hunting. Even just lending an ear to a person in distress can often brighten their day.
As for Sand, all of this hard work simply makes her grateful. She’s proud of the way the Roaring Fork Valley has responded to this huge challenge with compassion, creativity and collaboration. The food distributions in Aspen and Snowmass Village are just one example of local government, nonprofits, businesses and volunteers joining hands to help other community members.
“Many of us have just felt helpless during this crisis,” Sand said. “I’m fortunate that I was able to do something practical, and I know my staff feels the same way.”
We’re all fortunate to have effective organizations led by thoughtful people to help carry our community through this deeply unsettling time.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.