‘Guided by the holy spirit’
December 13, 2006
Many Roaring Fork Valley residents are still procrastinating in their Christmas preparations, but the folks at one of the area’s longest-running charity organizations have been hard at work for more than two months getting ready for the busiest time of the year.This week will be the culmination of a large part of that work, when the Lift-Up organization distributes hundreds of holiday baskets and donated gifts to families that would otherwise see very little on their tables or under their trees.Other aspects of that work will include serving food at the valley’s only soup kitchen, selling low-cost but serviceable clothing to ward off winter’s chill and offering emergency services and assistance to stranded travelers.Started on a shoestring budget and largely staffed by volunteers, Lift-Up has been meeting the needs of hard-luck families and individuals since 1982, when the sudden end of Garfield County’s oil shale boom left untold numbers of workers out of work and, in some cases, out on the streets.Since then, the organization has grown physically and fiscally. With a new headquarters in Rifle, satellite offices in every town from Parachute to Carbondale, and a 2006 budget of $1.1 million, it’s no longer the same tiny group of caring individuals.
According to Jacki Allen Benson, the organization’s first paid director, it all began in the early 1980s, when several international oil companies were pouring resources into the area from Rifle to DeBeque in an effort to figure out how to extract “oil” from deep within certain rock formations. Hopeful workers came from around the United States, but some didn’t have the requisite skills to find jobs. Others couldn’t find housing and found themselves in dire straits.The plight of those destitute migrant workers prompted the clergy in several area churches to band together and look for ways to help, Benson said. She herself was hired when a Denver church kicked in a $500-per-month grant to help the fledgling operation get on its feet.”We became a volunteer organization,” she recalled. At the time Benson was Lift-Up’s only paid employee; she served legions of unemployed who asked for help and, after a time, offered to become volunteers rather than just recipients.
Lift-Up stands for Life’s Interfaith Team on Unemployment and Poverty.”The whole object was … these people who were unemployed would volunteer their time … so they wouldn’t become buried at home,” said Benson, who still tears up when recalling the widespread economic and emotional depression, and occasional suicides, that marked the oil shale bust.Some time during Lift-Up’s first year, either in the summer of 1982 or ’83, some of those same out-of-work volunteers came up with what Allen called “the first true fundraiser that we did.” A small army of volunteers marched from high up Parachute Creek to the Colorado River flood plain, then west to Rifle and to Lift-Up’s headquarters at the time, raising not only a little bit of money but also the spirits of those involved.Benson recalled that Lift-Up embarked on a number of ambitious projects in those early years, ranging from health and dental clinics to holiday food distributions and networking to locate housing for those who needed it.”I always thought it was just kind of guided by the Holy Spirit,” explained Benson, who calls herself “a very religious person.” For example, she said, the holiday food baskets were inaugurated one autumn day when a local employer brought in 20 turkeys he had purchased for his employees’ Thanksgiving feasts, but which went unclaimed.Benson, seizing on the opportunity, put together a program to get the turkeys out to those in need, and a program was born.Benson worked as director of the organization for 15 years, and then served on the board of directors for a couple more years after that, before she left and went to work at her husband’s commercial printing business in Gypsum, The Old Gypsum Printer. She still helps out when asked, she said, but decided it was time for a younger generation to take on the responsibility and earn the satisfaction of good work well done.”It’s so rewarding,” she remarked, “a dream job, really.”
One of Lift-Up’s many beneficiaries who decided to help out is still with the organization – Jeffrene Fowler, services manager and Lift-Up’s longest-term current employee with 13 years under her belt.”I started out as a client; went from a client to a volunteer and talked myself into a job,” Fowler recalled with a grin, standing in the new headquarters’ Emergency Services building at 800 Railroad Ave., next to the recently finished HQ building. And she was not the first of her family to get involved, she said; a nephew who had recently lost his eyesight was among those who marched from Parachute to Rifle, and worked as a Lift-Up volunteer for a time.Fowler is in charge of seeing that all five offices are stocked with the necessary food, supplies and other goods that make up its basic mission, as well as helping out with the holiday baskets, emergency services, medical equipment such as wheelchairs and crutches, “whatever is necessary,” Fowler continued.”When you see a little kid come through and say, ‘Thank you for helping my family’ – that makes it worthwhile,” she commented.
Then there’s the matter of housing for those in distress, such as when fires recently destroyed the homes of families in New Castle and Carbondale, or the woman who was living with her two children in a U-Haul van after fleeing an abusive relationship. Current director Mike Powell said housing is less a part of Lift-Up’s mission than it has been, but it does still occur. When it does, he dips into a special fund for emergencies and unusual needs, or calls for assistance from area churches and other nonprofit organizations.Powell, who was a juvenile justice case manager for the Youth Zone organization before taking over at Lift-Up about four years ago, has been the motivating force behind some considerable changes, starting with the new headquarters building in Rifle.He went to the board in late 2003 or early 2004, he said, and won agreement that the organization had grown to the point where it needed its own home and could no longer shuffle from location to location. Lift-Up had operated out of numerous spaces, including a donated office in the American Soda industrial plant in Parachute, a church in Glenwood Springs, and most recently a 1,200-square-foot modular building near the Garfield County offices in Rifle that the county has since demolished.The new headquarters itself testifies to the depth of local support for Lift-Up’s work.Powell enlisted the help of local real estate broker Sally Brand, who discovered that the former John Haynes automobile dealership on Railroad Avenue was available and bought the property to get it off the market until Lift-Up could afford to buy it. Powell said Brand, who runs the Savage Land Co., sold the land to Lift-Up at a cheap price, donated her time to act as construction manager for the new, 1,700-square-foot building, and used her influence to get construction materials at rock-bottom prices.Powell said that the organization paid only around $500,000 to buy the land, build the headquarters and remodel the old automobile dealership shop next door, thanks largely to Brand’s help. But he also credited the “very generous” city of Rifle, which waived development fees to help the project along.Powell has also engineered a cost-cutting reorganization to avoid duplicate efforts among the various satellite offices, and plans to build or acquire another thrift store building in Parachute.His ultimate goal is for thrift store income to cover the organization’s entire overhead, which in 2006 approached $400,000 in what he termed the “cold cash” budget. Among other costs, that pays for four full-time employees and one part-timer, he said, who oversee a volunteer force of 40 to 60 for most of the year and up to “a couple hundred” at holiday times, and such things as utility and mortgage payments.The rest of the 2006 budget of $1.1 million, he said, represents “in-kind donations” and value placed on more than 112,000 hours of volunteer labor. And even if the overhead is covered by income from the thrift stores, he said, “that doesn’t mean we won’t need donations any more, because we always will.”Powell also signs up to 1,000 thank-you letters each year to the organization’s many donors – a duty he accepts happily.If he achieves his financial goals, he said, all donations will go directly toward meeting what he said is an increasing level of demand, rather than being siphoned off to pay for the cost of doing business. He said the Rifle Thrift Store brings in between $4,000 and $10,000 per month in revenue, an amount that he hopes will rise significantly once a new store is opened in Parachute.
Lift-Up’s current mission is a little different from its original one, Powell said, and demand for its work continues to grow.”Our primary focus is to prevent hunger,” he explained.
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There are five Food Pantry operations in Garfield County, along with the Extended Table soup kitchen in Glenwood Springs. Lift-Up estimates it handed out approximately 1,500 holiday food baskets for Thanksgiving, and will do roughly the same number for Christmas.Powell also expects to distribute Christmas gifts, collected at “Angel Tree” locations throughout the region, to more than 4,000 kids. Those locations included schools in the Aspen area, although he said he doesn’t expect many recipients will come from Pitkin County.One of the upvalley collection points is Aspen Country Day School, where nine-year headmaster John Suiter (who was recently elected to Lift-Up’s board of directors) has collected toys for the organization throughout his tenure at ACDS.”I just thought it was a neat thing for the kids to do, to get them out of the envelope a little bit,” Suiter said this week as he watched kids help Powell load toys into a trailer for delivery to Rifle. “I hope we can get more people from Aspen involved.”He noted that other local charity events and organizations, such as the Empty Bowls fundraiser held at Bumps restaurant, regularly donate to Lift-Up, adding, “I really think it’s one of the great charities around here.”The organization also provides prescription drug assistance to those who can’t pay by themselves. That service was dropped for a couple of years due to a shortage of funds, Powell said, but will be revived next year. And Lift-Up still will provide vouchers for clothing at area thrift stores and vouchers for transportation, whether for travelers just trying to get somewhere down the road or for locals trying to find work.
At Lift-Up’s Thrift Store, according to manager LuAnne Herman, she sees “anywhere from 10 to 200” customers a day.A self-described “thrift-store junkie,” Herman, who holds a master’s degree in public administration, said she was an example of one who rarely, if ever, shopped at the store in its previous location, convinced it was meant to serve “only people who were in need.”But the new store, located on the ground floor of the recently constructed headquarters, is “kind of moving into a whole new area. It’s bigger, more open, more airy,” she said, and it’s attracting a burgeoning clientele as “the word gets around.”With one paid helper, Waylon Hampton, and a “lead volunteer,” Dawn Ruelaf, Herman and her crew sort the goods donated by the organization’s philanthropic network, train a growing corps of volunteers drawn largely from the store’s clientele, and work together to redesign and improve the store layout. She wants to make it still more inviting, and accommodate a new hardware and tools section.Such improvements should bring in more customers, Herman said, which should provide greater revenue, and “it all goes back into Lift-Up. The more sales that we generate here, the more food assistance we can help people with.” She said the store brought in more than $8,300 in November.In his four years, Powell said, “demand has gone up on an average of 5 percent or so per year” for Lift-Up’s services.Last year the Extended Table soup kitchen served about 11,000 meals, up from roughly 8,700 the year before. He surmised that a new anti-panhandling law passed by Glenwood Springs Town Council triggered the increase.
All three of Lift-Up’s directors, past and present, concede that the organization may get scammed occasionally because it refuses to demand that its clients undergo background checks before they get help.Steve Carcaterra, who ran the organization from 1997 to 2002 and was instrumental in getting the Extended Table started, said that has been the philosophy from the beginning.”We tried to view ourselves as a kind of safety net,” he explained. “And yes, sometimes we probably did get used. But for everyone who used us [to obtain undeserved help], there were probably four or five who really needed it. It’s not an organization that tries to get ahead of problems and fix things. We’d kind of err on the side of generosity.”John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.