How many Lift-Ups are there?
December 13, 2006
Anyone interested in charitable work in the Roaring Fork Valley, whether as a practitioner or a lay observer, knows about Lift-Up, a nonprofit operating primarily within the borders of Garfield County.But how many realize there are two other organizations of the same name operating in neighboring Pitkin and Routt counties, and the three are unrelated except by name?Garfield County Lift-Up operates a variety of programs and facilities with a budget of more than $1 million, but the upvalley variant, which basically operates in Aspen, is much smaller and has a much more tightly focused mission.And according to the man in charge, it may disappear if he were to decide to retire.”I do not believe in enabling people,” said Lift-Up Aspen director Jerry Rood, explaining that his philosophy is, “We’ll help an individual up to three times a year,” and after that they’re on their own. He said he helps around 300 people per year.
Rood describes himself has having spent 13 years as the “town drunk,” starting in 1973 when he was living in a tent on the back side of Red Butte and working odd jobs around town.But about 20 years ago, a local conservative activist, the late Dick Fenton, decided that something needed to be done about Aspen’s small but determined population of homeless and helpless. Enlisting the support of the local Episcopal priest, Robert Babb, Fenton put in $2,000 of his own as “seed money,” rounded up contributions from other well-heeled locals and put Rood in charge of doling it out as needed.”Dick took a chance on me,” admitted Rood, who by then was well-known in local church circles, having gotten sober and cleaned up his act. Rood started out buying bags of groceries to hand out, but much of the food was not of any use to its recipients and ended up in the trash. He kept it up for about 10 years before opting for another system – issuing vouchers for food, transportation, clothing and whatever else a transient or down-and-out local might need.He operates out of the Aspen Community Church, where he also functions as the secretary and property manager, pulling double duty in the same space. He said he has a board of directors, “but it hasn’t met in three years.”The organization began spending about $15,000 to $20,000 a year, in private donations and church grants, and he said he still mails out around 300 fundraising letters every year, which pull in an average of $15,000.For the rest of the $50,000 or so that Lift-Up Aspen now spends every year, including Rood’s salary of $25,000, he wrangles grants from governments and nonprofit organizations. He also manages a Salvation Army account that pays for prescription medicines for those who need them. The account, he said, is maintained at about $1,500, drawn from about $14,000 per year in Aspen donations to the kettles outside City Market.
Rood works closely with Pitkin County Community Health and Social Services officials, as well as the Aspen Police Department and the sheriff’s office, but said “it’s all very low-key. That comes from Dick Fenton’s influence.”He once paid the priest at St. Mary Catholic Church $10 per transient who stayed in the church’s basement, which amounted to 60 to 70 people per year, but he said the church hasn’t requested funds in some time.He also once put up transients at the Copper Horse lodge, courtesy of 1980s Ritz-Carlton developer Mohammed Hadid, who owned numerous lodging properties around town. But that arrangement didn’t last long, he said without regret.”It filled up every night. I was just being a maid,” he recalled.Rood is not sure he approves of discussions to build a homeless shelter, citing his oft-noted philosophy that “if you built it, they would come.” In keeping with his general line of thought, he said, “If you deserve Aspen, you”ll make it. You either make it in Aspen or you don’t live here.”He sometimes rejects requests for rental vouchers, and has been called a “demon” by one woman for his self-admitted “hard-assed ways,” but he “sticks with it” based on his own principles, he said.
He admits he occasionally gets scammed by people who don’t really need the help, and who use vouchers for things they’re not intended for.”I find myself far less Christian, far less charitable” as time goes along, he said. “The older I get, the more I wonder how much responsibility we do have for another human being.”But he also noted that former aid recipients have thanked him for his help. “They have made it. They are functioning citizens in Aspen now.”I’m sure if I were to quit, this thing would die,” he concluded. The downvalley Lift-Up organization may well fill the gap, Rood predicted, but he has no plans to quit in any event.Editor’s note: It should be pointed out that another Lift-Up, in Routt County, is similarly unaffiliated and lower-key, according to Mike Powell of the Garfield County Lift-Up.