The Hope Project: ‘A ray of hope’ when a family needed it | AspenTimes.com

The Hope Project: ‘A ray of hope’ when a family needed it

Bob Ward
Special to The Aspen Times

Editor's note: This is the second of four installments in a series of stories created jointly by The Aspen Times and the Aspen Community Foundation. The Hope Project aims to raise awareness of all the emergency services available to needy families in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Social Security was designed as a financial safety net for older Americans, but sometimes it takes more than one safety net for a person to get by.

In late August, Bonnie Southard, 58, broke a tooth and needed to have it pulled. Problem is, Southard lives solely on her monthly Social Security checks, and the cost of her required dental work was more than double her monthly income.

"There was no way I could afford it," she said over a cup of instant coffee at her breakfast table.

Southard lives with her mother, Harriett Noyes, 85, in the Phillips trailer park on Lower River Road. She spent most of her working years as a waitress in Utah and Arizona, but about six years ago began to lose her eyesight and moved in with her mother.

"Nobody wants to hire somebody that can't see," she said. "I really can't take care of myself. I can't read the mail. I do need someone to take care of me."

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Southard and her mother lead a modest, quiet life near the east end of Snowmass Canyon, but this unanticipated dental problem left them both feeling suddenly helpless. Southard didn't know until she spoke to a dentist's office that neither Medicare nor Medicaid would cover the tooth extraction, fillings and other work she needed.

"I wasn't in a lot of pain, but it wasn't real comfortable to have a broken tooth," she said with a shrug.

Three anxious weeks passed before she went to Pitkin County Health and Human Services seeking help and learned about Catholic Charities. The organization, an arm of the Archdiocese of Denver, provides various kinds of emergency assistance to low-income families, regardless of religion or denomination. There are small funds for dental work, medical prescriptions and eviction prevention, to name a few.

Becky Rippy, a case manager at Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs, said she sees a lot of cases where a dental issue takes a back seat to more seemingly urgent concerns.

"Dental is one of the last things on people's lists," she said. "You put it off because having a roof over your head and food on the table is the first priority."

When Rippy first spoke to Bonnie Southard on Sept. 10, things began to move more swiftly for the family. And that was a refreshing change of pace for the mother and daughter, who had grown accustomed to bureaucratic delays in connection with Bonnie's Social Security and disability support.

"It was like a breath of fresh air," Bonnie recalled with a smile. "That's really the best way to describe it. You get used to just holding your breath, hoping something will happen."

Harriett said it was like "a ray of hope" when Catholic Charities agreed to help. Bonnie's tooth was pulled on Oct. 8 at Comfort Dental in Glenwood. More work on her teeth is still needed, and Catholic Charities will pick up those costs too.

"They work very diligently to get you the help," Noyes said. "They don't put you on the back burner."

Bonnie Southard's situation is not uncommon. Countless Coloradans live paycheck to paycheck, and any kind of unexpected burden — a medical emergency, a car repair, the loss of a job — can place them in a financial squeeze. Do they forego the medical bill in order to buy food? Which expense can wait for a month?

"We have seniors, people with disabilities, single parents trying to raise children all up and down the valley," Rippy said. "They have to make those tough decisions every day — do I pay the rent or keep the heat on?"

Both Noyes and Southard struggled for the words to express their gratitude.

"You get to feeling really helpless," Noyes recalled. "I'd like to say how thankful we are for their willingness to help. It really is appreciated."

The Emergency Assistance Fund has been established at the Aspen Community Foundation to help families like Bonnie's in times of need and to support agencies such Catholic Charities.

The Aspen Community Foundation and The Aspen Times are collaborating on a series of stories collectively titled "The Hope Project." The Emergency Assistance Fund has been established at the Aspen Community Foundation to help families like Southard's in times of need and to support the agencies mentioned in this article.

Organizations that provided help for Southard

• Pitkin County Health and Human Services: pitkincounty.com/182/Health-Human-Services

• Catholic Charities: http://www.ccdenver.org/western-slope-emergency-assistance

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