Brands always looking to help others in Garfield County, Western Slope
Sally Brands recognized for her three decades of volunteer work
It was a picturesque fall day in Rifle that brought Sally Brands to the realization she could make a life on the Western Slope. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Brands had considered herself a city girl and wasn’t quite sure about rural life.
She and her husband, John Savage, officially made the move from Denver during the oil shale boom in the early 1980s. Despite Exxonmobil pulling the plug a few years later on the Colony Oil Shale Project, commonly referred to as “Black Sunday” in Garfield County, the two decided to stay in Rifle to stay close to Savage’s family, who at the time had a ranch near Rifle.
“When the oil shale boom busted, we stayed. We almost left in the late ’80s because we didn’t think we were ever going to see daylight,” Brands said recently. “At that point we decided that our family could have a quality of life here that would cost a whole lot more somewhere else. It was a family-supported kind of life, and if we lived in Denver we would have been much more on our own.”
In time, the couple became a family of six with the arrival of four children — Catherine, Maria, Louis and Jeb. And for decades, Brands also has been involved on one level or another with eight to 10 nonprofit group boards, and recently she was awarded the Lifetime Impact Award at this year’s Garfield County Humanitarian Awards.
Lending a hand
Volunteerism is something Brands has experienced her whole life. Her mother volunteered with Meals on Wheels in Portland for 40 years.
“I kind of grew up doing that,” Brands said. “My volunteer work was always sort of related to where I was in my life, so I mostly started at Children’s House preschool in Rifle, which was a cooperative preschool that expected the parents to put in two mornings a week to help run it.”
Later down the road, when the kids were in grade school, Brands got involved with the PTA and the accountability committee at the old Esma Lewis Elementary School in Rifle. One thing led to another, and Brands found herself collecting signatures to run for the Garfield Re-2 school board in 1995.
“In the early ’90s there was a big brew-ha about standards; people were really upset about standardized testing,” Brands said. “I woke up one morning and found out that the three people running for the school district board were all anti any of this more progressive way of working with the schools, and so I thought, ‘Hmm, I guess I better run for the school board, because I don’t think I want these people running the schools that my kids are going to.’”
She won the seat and served on the board for eight years.
For years, Brands has been involved board work — ranging from Rifle’s Downtown Development Authority to Colorado Mountain College’s Foundation board, the Family Visitor board and others.
She recently worked with a group of friends to bring back the Rifle chapter of a Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO), which helps women advance in the workplace through scholarships and grants.
Outside of board work she has volunteered for a number of organizations including Habitat for Humanity, LIFT-UP and Extended Table and has followed in her mother’s footsteps by driving for Meals on Wheels for the past 15 years.
“I grew up in a generation when people didn’t expect the government to solve all of our problems,” Brands said. “If you had a problem, you get together to figure out what to do about it and you do it. I think that’s something we’ve lost to some extent.”
As a contractor and the co-owner of Savage Land Co. for 15 years, Brands was able to use her connections and talents to help with the development of the new LIFT-UP building in Rifle as well as Habitat for Humanity houses and the renovated Ute Theater.
“Those were the things that utilized most of my talents and persuasive abilities to get people to help,” she said. “People in Rifle are always willing to help a good cause with their time and talent. … That makes it very easy for somebody like me to get involved and help.”
Lifetime Impact Award
Brands was awarded Garfield County’s Lifetime Impact Award after being nominated for her many years and service to Meals on Wheels and other community services.
“I was very surprised,” she said. “When I got nominated, I looked at the list and thought, ‘Shoot, there are some really high-powered people in this group. What am I doing on here?’”
Kaaren Peck, the director of human services at Grand River Hospital, nominated Brands for the award and has known her since she began overseeing the Meals on Wheels program 15 years ago.
Peck initially thought to nominate Brands due to her years of service with Meals on Wheels, but after doing some research realized the scope of Brands’ volunteer work went well beyond just Grand River.
“She is a very unassuming person who often might get overlooked, and it just hit me how much she helped during COVID,” Peck said. “Then once I researched her, I realized how diverse her volunteer efforts are.”
During the early days of the pandemic, Meals on Wheels was suffering severely from a shortage of drivers. Brands stepped up to the plate and delivered three times as often as she normally did and helped the organization deliver more than 21,000 meals under pandemic conditions.
“But it is not just delivering meals during a pandemic that inspired my nomination of Sally Brands,” Peck said. “As I researched Sally and was looking for other areas of volunteering that she has been involved with, I was amazed at how far reaching and diverse she is.”
Inspiring others to volunteer
Brands has always been a firm believer in getting out and accomplishing what needs to be done.
She encourages those looking to help out their community to find something they are interested in or something that fits their lifestyle.
“If you’ve got little kids, start with getting involved with your school. Once you do that and if you show up twice they’ll give you a job,” Brands said. “Look around and see what needs to be done and where you are and what you care about.”
Now that Brands has hit her golden years, she is looking to back away from scheduled board meetings and enjoy retirement with her husband, John. But the volunteering will continue.
“When you get to 70 like me, you start to slow down a little bit,” she said. “But there’s always a time in your life when you can look and find a way to help somebody else out.”
Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.