Project Hope: Nonprofits wrap services around beleaguered El Jebel family
Special to The Aspen Times
Organizations that assisted Lupe and her family
• The Buddy Program – http://www.buddyprogram.org
• Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork School District – http://www.frc.rfsd.k12.co.us
• Tom’s Door – http://www.tomsdoor.com
• Valley Settlement Project http://www.valleysettlementproject.org
• Aspen Community Foundation Emergency Assistance Fund – http://www.aspencommunityfoundation.org
Editor’s note: This is the first of four installments in a series of stories created jointly by The Aspen Times and the Aspen Community Foundation. Project Hope aims to raise awareness of all the emergency services available to needy families in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Everything changed for Guadalupe Toledo-Roque on June 11.
Known to friends and family simply as Lupe, she had been shopping at Wal-Mart in Glenwood Springs for groceries and shoes. She needed a new pair of comfortable shoes in order to add another 20 hours per week to her housekeeping job at the St. Regis Hotel in Aspen in order to support her son, Willy.
Willy had graduated from Basalt High School less than two weeks beforehand, and he was preparing to attend Colorado Mesa University in the fall — the first person in his family to attend college. Lupe was extremely proud of her son and was determined to support his post-secondary journey however she could.
But, at around 10:30 p.m., as she drove east on Highway 82 with her groceries and new shoes, disaster struck. She was en route to Lazy Glen to drop off a friend who had accompanied her on the shopping trip, but as she rounded the Emma Curve, a westbound BMW driven by an inebriated 20-year-old man crossed the median into the eastbound lanes and struck her Jeep Cherokee head on.
So badly mangled was her car that it took first responders 45 minutes to extricate Lupe. She broke two ankles, her hip and five ribs that night. Since then, she has endured six surgeries to repair the damage, and a seventh is expected.
Perhaps even worse than the physical trauma of the wreck was the impact to her family life. As a single mom with three children — Isaac, 4, Monze, 14, and 18-year-old Willy — Lupe was holding down two jobs and working six days a week. Her injuries rendered her incapable of working either job, so her college-bound son was forced to suspend his education and replace his mother as the family’s breadwinner.
“I always wanted Willy to do all the things I was never able to do,” Lupe said recently through a translator. “When the accident happened, in reality, all the pain I went through was nothing compared to crushing Willy’s dreams, when he’d put so much effort into graduating.”
Lupe spent several months in a wheelchair, first at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood and later back at home in the El Jebel trailer park, before graduating to a walker. She still attends physical-therapy sessions twice per week, and though she walks unassisted around her home, she has not yet been cleared to drive again.
Meanwhile, Willy is working in the delicatessen at the El Jebel City Market to support his family. Willy’s Big Buddy, Palmer Hood of El Jebel, has been right by Willy and Lupe’s side throughout this crisis.
“Willy realized right away that he needed to help out. He didn’t know if his mom would be OK or not,” said Hood, who recently won the Buddy Program’s 2015 Hero Award. “He had to get his mom out of the hospital first. He had a little brother and a little sister at home he had to look after, and he did.”
Today, Willy’s earnings pay for most of the bills and groceries, but it was only through the help of several local charitable organizations that this beleaguered family has held it all together.
The safety net
The support system kicked in on the Monday after the accident, when Hood’s son Justin (also a Big Buddy and a friend to Lupe’s family) called Sole Lowe, the Buddy Program’s community program director, and explained what had happened. Lowe immediately called her contacts at the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork School District and the Aspen Community Foundation.
“That’s something we do a lot at the Buddy Program; it’s not just putting kids with a mentor,” Lowe said. “We do a lot of support; we wrap services around families in need.”
Within a few days, Lowe had commitments from the Family Resource Center and the Community Foundation for emergency funds to cover rent, bills and groceries for three months while Lupe tended to her physical health. Palmer and Justin Hood helped assemble a network of extended family and friends to support the family with meals, chores and other services.
“I’m very grateful because, thanks to these organizations, my family had a roof,” Lupe said. “I’ll never be able to repay what Justin and Palmer have done for Willy and all the support they’ve given him.”
Other organizations were involved, too. Tom’s Door, an interfaith program serving the needy, provided rental assistance, and the Valley Settlement Project in Carbondale helped to pay for some of Lupe’s physical therapy bills.
“I think it’s important for the community to know how closely these organizations work together,” Lowe said. “One of the things that was so rewarding for me was that immediate response from these organizations.”
Questions still remain for the family. Lupe’s medical bills now total around $300,000, and it’s unclear how it will all be paid. It’s also unknown when she will be sufficiently strong and stable on her legs — one is now slightly shorter than the other — to return to work.
For his part, Willy has deferred his admission and scholarships at Colorado Mesa University until fall 2016, and he hopes that his City Market work experience might translate to a future job in Grand Junction near the university.
“He’s thinking ahead, and he’s made a plan to further his education,” Hood said. “He has a good moral compass. He’s always willing to help with anything. And the work ethic is there.”
The Aspen Community Foundation and The Aspen Times are collaborating on a series of stories collectively titled “The Hope Project.” The Emergency Assistance Fund has been established at the Aspen Community Foundation to help families like Lupe’s in times of need and to support the agencies mentioned in this article.
Roaring Fork Valley natives Emily Ridings and Nikki Ferry have come full circle when it comes to dance. Both studied dance with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (ASFB) as kids, continued their training with other prominent schools, and now return this weekend, as ASFB presents “The Nutcracker” at Aspen District Theater.