Overwhelmed by generosity: Summit County community works to support one another in face of pandemic
On March 5, 2020, a visitor to Keystone Resort tested positive for the new coronavirus, the first confirmed case in the state. Less than two weeks later, Summit County officials ordered widespread business closures to try to stop the virus from spreading.
Shops were forced to close their doors. Restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery. Concerts and festivals were canceled. Ski areas stopped spinning their lifts. In the course of a few weeks, unemployment rates jumped to record highs, and as community members reckoned with the new realities of the COVID-19 era, many found themselves facing unstable housing and food insecurity while struggling to fulfill other basic needs.
As Summit County — and much of the world — began to experience the anxious grip the virus would hold on the community, there were many who viewed it as a call to action.
“I knew there was a need,” said Katrina Doerfler, a volunteer at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center. Doerfler retired to her Silverthorne home in October 2019 and began volunteering at the center March 18, just two days after the shutdown. “Here I was in this community, and people had lost their jobs overnight. … I knew FIRC was there, I knew kind of what it did, but I had never volunteered before. … I knew there was a food bank, I just didn’t know how to connect with it. So I went down there and just asked — knocked on the doors until someone answered.”
Doerfler, who had just turned 60, spent the next year working around the resource center’s offices sorting food into bags, handing out meals and picking up donations from local grocery stores.
She acknowledges her volunteer work could be perceived as risky because of her age.
“Yeah, there was risk there, but there was also a need that was hard to ignore,” she said.
It was the remarkable generosity and work done by Doerfler, and countless others like her, that helped Summit County weather the storm and underscored the importance of charitable and service-based organizations throughout the community.
“It really should be considered part of the infrastructure of Summit County,” Doerfler said.
Indeed, the nonprofit’s efforts proved vital to keeping residents afloat. Brianne Snow, executive director of the resource center, said the organization saw a typical year’s worth of assistance requests in three months during the onset of the pandemic. Since March 2020, the center has distributed nearly $2.5 million in housing assistance and about $700,000 in food to the community — both figures that dwarf the center’s pre-pandemic numbers.
The center certainly wouldn’t have been able to keep up with demand without the kindness of community members stepping up to help, whether through food and in-kind donations, delivering hot meals to tired volunteers or providing money to help keep operations running.
“We noticed right away the impact on families on the local level, and (the pandemic) amplified all preexisting economic disparities,” Snow said. “… We were going to lose our workforce. And that is, in my opinion, the very thing that makes this such an awesome community. As we were struggling to get our footing and to figure out how to move our limited resources around to help this population before they all left, the community just showed up.
“We were watching people get sick and have their incomes disappear and struggle to put food on their tables, but almost immediately, the community ramped up all the resources. … It was one of the more beautiful things that came out of the pandemic, recognizing that everyone was truly willing to support one another.”
Snow said donations from community members increased about 600% during 2020, and she emphasized that the need for increased resources would remain over the coming years as economic disparities continue to grow and as those who have been impacted continue their long roads to financial recovery.
The Family & Intercultural Resource Center’s experience during the pandemic wasn’t unique. Colorado Gives Day donations in Summit County reached record highs, the county’s animal shelter saw record adoptions, and residents and organizations throughout the area confronted growing societal problems head-on.
The Summit County Community and Senior Center — which has helped to facilitate emergency food response (demand for the meals-on-wheels program went from about 35 meals a week to more than 200) in addition to distributing medicine, baby supplies and more — saw an immediate increase of nearly 190 new volunteers, according to Lorie Williams, the senior center’s manager.
To help vulnerable populations, the county and its partners organized other programs on the fly, such as the HEART committee, which was established to provide resources to homeless individuals, and the Community Inclusion Group, which assists with access and functional needs.
“From my experience over the past year, it’s almost hard to talk about without getting choked up,” said Joanne Sprouse, the county’s human services director. “The outpouring from the community in terms of donations to our food banks and to our home delivery for the quarantined folks has been incredible, to say nothing of the people who volunteered to distribute the food. And what can be said about all the towns and the Summit County government who donated money for rental and business assistance, and the nonprofits, churches and schools?
“When this first started, and we said, ’We need some help,’ the number of people who wanted to sit on our committees was unbelievable. It was amazing, and still is to this day. There’s not enough room in the paper to thank everybody.”
Mike Kramer, who organizes the Coats and Clothing for Kids campaign for the Knights of Columbus, said his group raised about $43,000 from community donations this year, a nearly 150% increase from previous years, which helped to provide about 2,300 winter items for 1,600 needy children. Kramer said the pandemic also forced the organization to pivot from purchasing and distributing items themselves to providing funds directly to schools and other agencies to better target children in need, an improvement likely to continue in future years.
“It restored our faith and our recognition of how many good people there are in the community willing to help out, and willing to share what they have,” Kramer said. “Sometimes, we don’t think about that. We think of our own needs and kind of limit our sights. But we realized there were countless wonderful, very caring, very aware people out there that realize that everybody doesn’t have what we have.”
Stu Dearnley, who ran the Adopt an Angel program for The Rotary Club of Summit County, said the program dispersed coats and toys to 569 children this winter but collected enough toys and funds ($74,000) for double that amount. He said the excess money was donated to other organizations, like the family resource center and Smart Bellies, and that the group is hoping to intake twice as many kids into the program this year to put the community’s generosity to good use.
Dearnley also lauded partners in the community like Alpine Bank, FirstBank and Mountain Movers for their help storing toys and volunteering in other ways.
“As soon as I would say, ‘My name is Stu, and I’m calling from the Rotary Club,’ the answer was always ’yes,’” Dearnley said. “So many times, the partners would go way above and beyond what I had in mind. … This county is awesome. You’ve got to start from there. When there’s a need, the county rushes to fill it. … It was very humbling.”
While its clear the Summit County community worked hard to meet the tremendous amount of need that emerged over the past year, many voiced that the struggle has highlighted their organizations’ resiliency and productivity as well as shown them where they can improve into the future.
“I’ve been thinking about that constantly,” Sprouse said. “How do we continue the work that has been pulled together? … What are the conversations that still need to be had? What are the additional platforms we need to launch? Because as much as it showed everything we were able to do successfully, it also showed holes in what we need to work on. … It really puts your mind on who our most vulnerable populations are, who might struggle with access to the vaccine and food resources, and how that work continues on. They’re important conversations and things we’re thinking about.”
This story previously published in Still Standing: How Summit County Weathered the Pandemic.
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