Good news from Aspen
December 18, 2009
ASPEN – Newspapers and other media outlets are often accused of focusing solely on “bad news” – the crimes, political arguments, celebrity scandals and other occurrences that tend to show humanity’s dark side. Many readers complain that such news is especially unpleasant around the holidays, when the entire country seeks to focus on family, faith and the spirit of giving.
Well, we get it.
Since this edition of the Aspen Times Weekly will occupy the racks on Christmas Day, we decided it was our best opportunity to show that even the hardened cynics in the Times newsroom appreciate the “good news” that highlights generosity, volunteerism, charity and other positive human traits.
In this cover story, or package of stories, we have everything from the simplest community service efforts to a life-and-death story with a happy ending. There’s even one piece about a long-standing Aspen Christmas tradition, to give the collection a holiday flavor.
Happy Holidays, everyone, and here’s to a break from the bad news.
Wendell Iverson and his wife, Katie, look at life through a different lens these days.
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In fact, they’re just happy to still be living their lives together.
“Little things that used to be a problem aren’t a problem any more,” Katie says.
Says Wendell: “I’m just thankful to get up every morning, and take into consideration all the things I have.”
They’re especially grateful for the local emergency-response team that tended to Wendell when he went into sudden cardiac arrest outside of Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent on Aug. 21.
That day Wendell, who had no history of cardiovascular problems, was relaxing with Katie while waiting for a rehearsal of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Both are members of the chorus, which was making a stop at the Aspen Music Festival on its 25th anniversary tour.
Then, out of nowhere, Wendell’s face turned blue. As he gasped for air, Katie dashed to the ticket office to a get a defibrillator. No luck. But it so happened the chorus had a doctor, who ran to Wendell’s aid and administered CPR.
“He had pretty much taken his last breath,” Katie recalls.
All the while, filling the air was Verdi’s Requiem, a foreboding sign. But soon local EMTs arrived on the scene, placed Wendell on a gurney and rushed him to Aspen Valley Hospital. From there he was flown to University Hospital in Aurora.
Wendell, 70 at the time, was intentionally placed in a coma for three days at the hospital, where his temperature was lowered to 89 degrees to prevent cell and kidney damage.
He was subsequently placed in ICU, and was released Sept. 4 – nearly two weeks after his heart stopped beating.
“Usually 95 percent of victims of cardiac arrest outside of a hospital don’t make it,” Katie says.
The two feel fortunate that Wendell’s close brush with death came in Aspen, where local physicians, police, dispatch and EMTs responded so quickly and effectively.
“If this had happened anywhere else we don’t know if he would have made it,” Katie says.
The two showed their gratitude in October, when they returned to Aspen to thank the first responders who saved his life, at a ceremony during a joint meeting with Pitkin County commissioners and Aspen City Council.
Wendell’s after-care consists of taking pills for his blood pressure, and he is supposed to visit a physician every three months. He also has a built-in pacemaker and defibrillator. The couple, who reside in Arizona, went scuba-diving last week in Hawaii.
The official diagnosis is that Wendell has cardiomyopathy.
“It means I have a nice, big heart,” Wendell said.
And a new lease on life.
-By Rick Carroll
Alyssa Turner recalled this month how special an Aspen bakery made her feel while she served as an Air Force medic in Iraq in 2007.
Turner and her husband were both serving their country, but at different bases in Iraq. Despite the stress of deployment and a hectic schedule as a medic, Turner wanted to do something for her dad’s birthday on Dec. 4. Her dad, Larry Hagen, works in the air traffic control tower at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Turner recalled that he and his colleagues enjoyed the fresh-baked pastries from Louis Swiss Pastry at the Airport Business Center.
She researched the company online and called to place an order. At the end of the conversation, the man who took her order wouldn’t let her pay.
“No, no, it’s taken care of,” he told her.
Turner said she’s not an emotional woman, but this generosity really struck her. People in the military often feel isolated while deployed, she said, but this reminded her that people back in the States do appreciate her service.
“It’s hard to explain how sentimental things like that are,” Turner said. “I rarely get ‘thank yous’ for what I do in the Air Force, but when he said that to me, he made me proud of my service.”
The pastries were delivered to the control tower, and her dad was touched that she remembered him while serving in Iraq.
Turner is back in Colorado Springs now, attending nursing school. Her husband has been deployed to Afghanistan. When Dec. 4 rolled around, Turner called Louis Swiss again to place an order for her dad’s birthday. The same gentleman helped her and remembered her last call. Turner insisted on paying this time.
“After I got off the phone to make the order, my eyes teared up as I remembered that day back in Iraq when I spoke with Louis Swiss Bakery,” Turner said. “That gentleman made me feel special. The people that work with my dad ranted and raved about all the pastries that got delivered for my dad’s birthday.
“They are an amazing bakery, and the people that work there are something else.”
-By Scott Condon
The Baguettes would like nothing better than to fade away.
The group of local women came together last spring after organizer Lynda Palevsky of Snowmass Village read a letter to the editor about the growing number of individuals seeking assistance from the Carbondale food pantry and the struggle to keep the shelves stocked.
“That just surprised me – wow, this is happening in our valley,” Palevsky recalled.
She called the Aspen Community Foundation, which confirmed the need for a similar operation in Aspen. All that was needed, Palevsky was told, was a place to put a pantry and volunteers to run it.
“None of our neighbors should be going hungry,” she said. “That’s really what we’re about.”
Palevsky called friends who joined her cause; the 10 women dubbed themselves the Baguettes. A rent-free space at 465 N. Mill St. was provided by North Mill Street Investors and in June, the group opened an Aspen food pantry under the umbrella of LIFT-UP, which was already operating food pantries from Carbondale to Rifle.
Coincidentally, longtime Aspenite Jerry Rood, who ran a food-assistance operation out of Aspen Community Church, quietly phased out that effort last spring after 22 years.
The initial reaction to the new pantry was shock, Palevsky said. Many were surprised that affluent Aspen would need such an operation. But as word of its existence grew, so did both community support for the effort through donations and food drives, and the number of people coming in to pick up groceries.
The volunteer crew running the pantry now numbers about 20. Frozen meats, canned foods, pastas and sauces, soups, cereals, peanut butter, rice, coffee and tea are among the basic staples. LIFT-UP supplies items when donations dwindle.
When someone comes in, they are provided with three meals per day for three days for each person in their household, explained Martha Luttrell, an original Baguette.
“If you live in Pitkin County, you can come to us,” she said.
Luttrell recalled watching a woman sitting under a cottonwood tree outside the pantry door last summer. Luttrell ventured out to ask her if she was looking for LIFT-UP.
“She said, ‘I never thought I’d have to do anything like this. My husband and I lost our jobs on the same day.’ “
Volunteers hear similar stories virtually every time they work a shift.
The pantry fed 60 people in October and 107 in November, according to Palevsky. It appears December’s total will eclipse November’s mark. She’s hoping the numbers begin to drop next year, and the group looks forward to the day when the need for their service wanes.
“The Baguettes would like to go out of business,” Luttrell said.
Until then, the Aspen LIFT-UP is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon (it’s located in the back of the building that houses the Aspen Velo bike shop). The pantry phone number is 544-2009. Food donations are welcome. Monetary donations should be made to the Aspen Community Foundation (write Baguettes Advised Fund on the check) and sent to 110 E. Hallam St., Suite 126, Aspen CO 81611.
-By Janet Urquhart
Ask Julie Paxton about her years spent crooning with local quartet the Dickens Carolers, and she will regale you with a slew of anecdotes.
She will tell you about the time the group serenaded Diana Ross and family around the dinner table, and recorded a CD with the late John Denver. There was also a performance for Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon and Jack Nicholson, among others, at Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels’ party.
And who could forget the time they met Chevy Chase: “I think it was Christmas morning. He was in his pajamas,” Paxton said.
For about three decades, the carolers have delighted Hollywood’s A-list and the general public alike, from private gatherings and local hotels to pedestrian malls in Aspen and Snowmass Village, with their ornate costumes and an array of holiday melodies.
The carolers also visit local hospitals and senior centers to spread holiday cheer.
“Those kind of situations are a surprise. They don’t know we’re coming,” said Paxton, an interfaith wedding minister and music teacher. “People just light up. There are smiles on their faces. … It’s always been a ministry, just bringing the joy of the season to everyone.”
The group, which currently includes a local liquor store owner, a police dispatcher and a professional musician, embodies that compassionate spirit. Once, when a tourist planning to attend their performance broke a leg, the carolers staged an impromptu concert in the person’s hotel room.
While this holiday season will be the last for the Dickens Carolers – “It just feels like time. All things must come to an end, and we’ll see what happens next,” Paxton said – the music will not stop. Paxton, who serves as volunteer coordinator for music at AVH, enlists groups of local musicians (including her husband and fellow caroler Tom) for three hour-long concerts each week in the patient care unit.
Julie Paxton will also continue to take her private-lesson students to entertain the residents at a local assisted living center.
“Whatever happens, the seniors will love it,” she smiled. “I try to use music as a venue to connect with people, to bring people together.”
-By Jon Maletz
The holiday season is about giving, but charity happens every day of the year at the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation.
On Dec. 16, the foundation celebrated its donors, and the $750,000 in charitable grants and distributions given out to individuals and organizations in 2009. More than 400 people received direct medical assistance from the AVMF; more than 30 health and human service organizations were given grants and 54 individuals were given medical service scholarships.
All these efforts were recognized publicly during the foundation’s holiday “Celebration of Giving.” Several people representing beneficiaries shared their personal stories and offered testimonials about the foundation’s work.
Janet Earley, program director for the Roaring Fork Resource Center, told hundreds in the Hotel Jerome ballroom about a young boy who was injured playing football with his classmates at Basalt Middle School. He was knocked unconscious and, though an initial diagnosis was fine, a specialist eventually told his mother that he could lose his sight if he didn’t have surgery.
The mother was unable to pay for the procedure and the boy was uninsured. AVMF paid the bill, Earley said, and the boy is now functioning normally.
Markey Butler, executive director of Hospice of the Valley, described how AVMF not only helped to resurrect the organization, which cares for the dying in their final days, but how AVMF support has directly touched individual Hospice clients.
One 51-year-old woman was suffering from Osteosarcoma, and she wanted to walk on a beach and leave footprints in the sand before the end.
“It was this organization [AVMF] that made it happen,” Butler said.
And then there’s the 2-year-old with a disease known as Tay-Sachs that causes gradual deterioration of young children’s mental and physical abilities. Through AVMF’s financial support, Hospice of the Valley already has paid $50,000 toward the child’s care because the mother is single and has three children under 3 years old.
“Those stories never fail to move me,” said Sue Smedstad, AVMF’s community grants committee chair, who introduced the grantees.
Liz Stark, director of community health services, the public health agency for Pitkin County, said the organization is able to provide low-income women with breast and cervical cancer screenings at low or no cost, thanks to AVMF’s help.
“If these stories don’t get you into the holiday spirit,” said Smedstad, “then I don’t know what will.”
-By Carolyn Sackariason
Jan Marquis, owner of the Aspen Yarn Gallery, was pleased when Noodles by Kenichi opened downstairs from her shop in the new Fat City Plaza. A one-woman operation, Marquis loved being able to run downstairs, pick up a meal of hot noodles and be back in the store within seconds.
When she checked her receipts for October, Marquis had more reason to adore her new neighbors: Her business had doubled over the previous October, which she credits in large part to the foot traffic generated by the new restaurant. She showed her gratitude by doing something to warm the noodles of the noodle-makers. Marquis is hand-knitting hats for all the Noodles by Kenichi employees; she’s made five so far with another half a dozen to go.
Talk about warm and fuzzy.
The hat project spreads goodwill in multiple ways. Marquis, whose space is above street level, is spreading the word about her business. She is also spotlighting a new product: PolarKnit, a polar-fleece material that she says is the easiest yarn to care for: “If they spill fish sauce on their hat, they can just run it through the wash,” she said.
Most of all, the hats have helped turn a once-struggling commercial building into a community. “I feel like small-business owners need to help each other out in this neighborhood,” said Marquis, who bought the Yarn Gallery two years ago. “No question, Noodles has had an impact. Their being there has helped me.”
When Fat City Plaza opened earlier this year, it was for business reasons: The cavernous, underground space had resulted in a series of failed restaurants. Chopping it into small, cozy shops has created a more dynamic business environment – and an inviting mini-community.
Fueling it all is Noodles by Kenichi. The neighbors – a denim boutique, a jewelry store, a medical marijuana dispensary – feast not only on the restaurant customers, but on the test recipes and surplus dishes that the noodle shop shares around the building.
-By Stewart Oksenhorn
Peter and Jony Larrowe have long been civic-minded, and they aren’t slowing down, even at ages 95 and 83, respectively.
The Larrowes are among the adult volunteers who help the Buddy Reading Program at Basalt Middle School. Every Tuesday, they settle into comfy chairs in separate parts of the school library and listen as the fifth-grade buddy they are paired with reads aloud.
Last week, as Christmas vacation crept closer, Peter sat quietly as young Hector Arce chipped away at a story about a family making a living from the sea. Hector did a good job, occasionally stumbling on a word that would give many fifth-graders pause. Peter waited patiently, interjected when necessary and quietly explained to Hector what the word meant.
Jony had an equally reassuring if slightly more interactive style with reading buddy Rosa Martinez. She mixed in pronunciations and meanings of the words a little more liberally to the shy girl.
After listening attentively for about 25 minutes, the Larrowes asked their buddies to summarize what they’d read in a sentence or two. The Larrowes then printed the sentence and used scissors to cut out the individual words, then scrambled them. Hector and Rosa were asked to piece the sentences back together, which both did quickly with a sense of pride.
The Buddy Reading Program was created during the 2001-02 school year to bolster students’ reading skills. School librarian Valerie Black said a similar program worked elsewhere with younger students. She figured it would work with fifth and sixth graders, particularly those learning a new language.
The school received a $13,000 grant from the Aspen Valley Community Foundation to stock a room in the middle school with materials for readers who weren’t quite as accomplished as other fifth graders. Those materials continue to come in handy.
For seven years, Basalt High School students helped with the Buddy Reading Program. Adults were recruited this year. Peter heard a pitch for help at a Basalt Lions Club meeting and signed up. Jony joined as well. Both are accomplished writers who love to read.
They have met with their buddies for only a few weeks but Peter said he’s already witnessed improvement in Hector’s reading. And that’s exactly why he helps.
“I just enjoy it and I feel I can give back,” Peter said.
Jony said she never really had much time to volunteer when she was younger because she was raising kids and operating a ski lodge. Now she is pleased to address an important need.
-By Scott Condon