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AVCF’s circle of giving

Chad Abraham
Aspen Valley Communiy Foundation board member and donor Marcie Musser in her home. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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In a world of fast-food choices and high-speed lives, grabbing a meal on the go for a couple of bucks is nothing more than a quick snack for most people.For others, particularly those in menial and manual labor jobs, cheap, sugary, fat-infused food is the only option during a long day.And that only option is a deceptive killer.More than 200,000 people in the United States die each year from diabetes, which can be caused by obesity or physical inactivity, among other risk factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 6 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 20, or 18.2 million people, have the disease. But 5.2 million diabetes sufferers don’t even know they have it, according to government figures.

Another risk factor is ethnicity. Latinos are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes as whites of similar age, the CDC says.In the Roaring Fork Valley, and across the United States, diabetes cases are surging. But a Glenwood Springs medical clinic is fighting back.Mountain Family Health Center, which serves indigent families and those without adequate medical insurance from around the Western Slope, is on the front lines of the battle against diabetes and obesity. The center’s practitioners see thousands of people, including large numbers of Latinos, annually.”It’s a huge issue in this valley,” said Dave Adamson, the health center’s executive director, about diabetes.But thanks to a new funding mechanism offered by the Aspen Valley Community Foundation and other charitable organizations, Mountain Family Health Center is planning a “very intensive effort” to identify patients at risk for the disease. The initiative will offer nutrition counseling and exercise guidelines, and will provide equipment to allow diabetes patients to monitor their blood.”You see all these young kids around here,” Adamson said during a recent tour of the health center, “and about one out of five of them are going to get it.”

The money behind this large and significant effort was contributed through an obscure philanthropical device that is growing in popularity. Donor-advised funds first came to the attention of Aspen Valley Community Foundation officials in 1998, when the local organization was facing a crisis.The Aspen Skiing Co. was phasing out its Bronze Medallion ski pass program, which had raised $16 million for the foundation since it started up in 1980. The nonprofit, which in turn gives grants to other nonprofits, needed new contribution sources.”That was sort of the turning point for us when we started becoming more of a true community foundation,” said Ellen Freedman, the organization’s executive director.Board member Marcie Musser was more blunt.”It was very scary,” she remembered.

So began the transition to donor-advised funds. Foundation officials studied other charitable groups and their contribution mechanisms in an effort to keep financially afloat.”Lynn Russell was the executive director [at the time],” Freedman said. “Lynn and the board looked at the transition we were facing, what was going on out there in the world of community foundations and what we needed to start doing to continue to be a viable foundation. And it was so clear that donor-advised funds were the way to go.”The funds have opened the door for a flood of new philanthropy for the foundation, which doled out about $2 million to local and national nonprofit groups last year. More than half of that was made possible through donor-advised funds, Freedman said.It’s easy to understand why. Mountain Family’s Adamson said the funds will allow people on the verge of a serious illness to be treated before their health deteriorates further. People, regardless of their income, tend to ignore preventative health measures and wait until they are quite sick before seeking treatment. Low-income residents lacking health insurance often end up in emergency rooms, which offer the most expensive care in medicine. These are factors in the skyrocketing cost of health insurance and treatment.”All hospitals have concerns that if a lot of these emerging illnesses are not addressed,” emergency rooms, which are already swamped, will see even more people seeking treatment for preventable diseases,” Adamson said. “Diabetes is a good example. If that gets out of hand, that’s a very serious matter.”Mountain Family Health Center also provides, among other services, well-baby checks, gynecological examinations and evaluations for depression and other mental conditions.”Our goal here is to provide high-quality health care to anybody medically indigent or underserved and make sure they get as good of care as they would get in any practice,” he said.

Thanks to donor-advised funds, philanthropists now have a direct line to that type of message statement. The funds, which offer tax advantages beyond private giving, allow donors to give directly to the causes that interest them.”I’ve always donated on my own,” said Lynn Nichols of Basalt, who now contributes to donor-advised funds. She was interested in seeing “what the foundation could do for me in terms of simplifying the process of giving, which [it] does incredibly well.””For me, it really simplifies the paperwork in terms of who you’re contacting and making sure all the tax stuff is done correctly. They just simplify it so much, it’s terrific.”The community foundation also researches the groups that philanthropists are interested in and contacts nonprofits to find out how they are spending their money.

Musser said she and her husband “very actively” utilize their donor-advised funds for several reasons.”The ease is great, but what I want to emphasize is also the advice that you can get from the foundation about organizations locally,” she said. She added that she wouldn’t have known about the Mountain Family Health Center without the Aspen Valley Community Foundation.Adamson said the money received from the donor-advised funds is invaluable. Upon receiving such money, he said he can barely control himself. “When I open these checks – because they don’t happen a lot – I almost fall off my chair,” he said. “The hardest thing is those [contributors] never get to see the huge impact they’re having. And it’s too bad they can’t. We appreciate it enormously.”It’s very, very important, and I think if they could ever see the people with their own eyes and what this does for them, it would really make them feel good.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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