Aspen Times Weekly: 100+ Women Who Care — making a change | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: 100+ Women Who Care — making a change

by Jeanne McGovern

Giving Back. That's what childhood friends Emily Weingart Farrell and Mandy Welgos, along with longtime local Robin VanDomelen, had in mind when they created the Roaring Fork Valley chapter of 100+Women Who Care. Indeed, their mission was simple: give women of all ages and walks of life the chance to give back to their community. "We know there are many ways of giving, but 100+ Women really made sense to us because it's simple and direct …and it works," says Farrell.

And work it has: Over the past four years, 100+ Women Who Care has donated tens of thousands of dollars to a handful of local charities (see box).

The concept is simple: A group of women commit to donating $100 each four times a year, or a group of four women join together as a team to reach the requirement by donating $25 each time.

The group meets quarterly, checkbooks in hand, to decide the beneficiary. Any Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit is eligible; the process of choosing the charity begins with members placing their anonymous suggestions in "the hat." Three are chosen at random. At which point, the member who nominated the drawn charity gives a brief explanation of why she chose it. The membership then votes, a beneficiary is selected, and dozens of $100 checks are written out. At the following meeting, a representative from the winning charity tells the group how the money was spent.

100+ Women Who Care was founded almost a decade ago in Jackson, Mich., and is now in place in several cities across the country. Farrell's mother started a chapter in her Ohio hometown, prompting Farrell, who is a counselor at Aspen High School, to take action in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Since its inception, the nonprofit has done more than take action — it's spurred the bonding of a group of women with a shared passion for community.

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"What's been most surprising and rewarding to me is the sense of community these meetings create," says VanDomelen.

Farrell and Welgos agree: "There are so many ways to give back in this valley, but we are amazed at how women have embraced 100+ Women Who Care," says Welgos.

In fact, the founding trio believe the premise of 100+ Women is what makes it succeed.

"It's so easy — one hour, a small financial commitment…anyone can give back this way," says Farrell. "And what we are able to give is so important to these organizations."

To date, most beneficiaries are small nonprofits, where a gift of $5,000 goes a long, long way.

"For these groups, the check we give them really does make a difference. It's truly a grassroots effort," says VanDomelen.

And it's an effort that resonates with the women who are part of 100+.

"Every time we meet it's a learning experience; we learn about our community — the women and the organizations, which is what 100+ Women is really all about," says Farrell.

On the following pages are profiles of three Roaring Fork Valley nonprofits who have benefited from 100+ Women Who Care: Aspen Youth Center, Windwalkers and English in Action. Their stories — and the stories of similar organizations — are what makes 100+ Women so important.

Windwalkers: Helping the those in need reach new heights

"Mom and the oldest daughter drown in tears. Dad doesn't understand. But it becomes tragically clear, two of their children were sexually abused.

"These little things eat at the family…like a cancer. But a light shines at the end of the tunnel. Windwalkers. A whisper, a nudge. This little thing – equine therapy – matters more than Mom and Dad could ever imagine. They see their children grow up and through their pain. Their self-confidence sprouts; they watch them heal."

— excerpt from a letter to Windwalkers

Windwalkers, a family-oriented equine-assisted therapeutic learning and therapy center, opened its doors in 2005 to help two families — like the one who sent the letter above: The parents do not know what to do; the family's trust is lost, self-confidence gone and the things that are supposed to bring joy don't anymore. Since then, the nonprofit organization has helped more than 2,000 Roaring Fork Valley residents and visitors.

Therapeutic riding is a unique kind of therapy benefiting individuals with all kinds of challenges from physical and emotional to a mental struggle or learning disability.

A staff of six has helped a young man with Down syndrome, a 43-year-old recovering from a spinal-cord injury and a senior citizen recovering from a stroke. Youth mentors and countless volunteers have also made an impact on kids, from a 3-year-old girl with spina bifida to a child who was pushed to take his first steps.

"We get (these kids) on the back of a horse and we see them reach for the sky," development coordinator Gabrielle Greeves said. "These kids come out of their bodies, and we do make their dreams come true."

Windwalkers offers multiple programs, from therapeutic individual riding session to group sessions, as well as counseling and a summer camp. There is also a program where teens who participated in Windwalkers as children come back to serve as youth mentors.

Students build social skills, learn to understand teamwork, gain a sense of independence and acceptance while being on the back of a chestnut colored mare — Gunner, Primrose or Diamond help children and adults improve their muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development and emotional well-being. They also rebuild relationships and improve connections between family members and society.

Windwalkers, which is located in Carbondale, is one of many therapeutic riding facilities around the country. Over the years, the organization has touched the life of not just one person but the lives of several — and the program continues to grow.

"It's not just about people with disabilities and people with challenges," director Gary Bender said. "We help people at the end of the day. That's what is all about."

— Abigail Margulis

English in Action: Teaching communication skills, building communities

As members of the U.S. Congress argue and posture over immigration reform, a quiet but effective midvalley organization works to resolve the problems created when people from different cultures mix.

English in Action has taught English to adult immigrants since 1994 — first as an arm of the Basalt Regional Library District and, beginning in 2005, as an independent entity. In 2011, the El Jebel-based nonprofit became the first recipient of a 100+ Women Who Care grant in the Roaring Fork Valley. At the time, EIA was expanding its staff in an attempt to serve more people. Now, with the help of 160 volunteer tutors, the organization serves roughly 265 immigrant students each year, giving them the language skills they need to navigate American society.

With no advertising and a staff of one full-time employee and three part-timers, English in Action has a waiting list of 100 non-English speakers. Most of the students are from Mexico and Central America, but students have come from 20 countries, including Morocco, Russia and China.

Executive director Lara Beaulieu says EIA's work has two key aspects. "First, we help people develop communication skills, which are essential for them to participate in the community and follow their goals, whatever they might be. The second thing is we help build relationships among people of different cultures and backgrounds."

In many cases, EIA has forged deep and lasting bonds between immigrant students and U.S.-born tutors, who meet regularly to practice language skills. At first, the tutor shows up to teach and impart knowledge to the learner, but over time tutors tend to learn valuable lessons as well.

"My heart is wider and my eyes are wide open after having this experience," says tutor Sara Garton, who has worked with her student, Yasmin, for four years. "Every time I come back from a lesson with Yasmin, I've gotten something from her."

— Bob Ward

Aspen Youth Center: Offering Local kids life lessons

The Aspen Youth Center just wrapped up its summer after another successful season, bringing in more than 2,500 kids to the facility during June and July.

"I go to the center five days a week during the summer," said 9-year-old attendee Parker. "I wish it were open on the weekends, though, so I could spend more time with my friends and staff."

The center opened its doors in October 2001 as a nonprofit organization that is free of charge for anyone in grades 4 through 12.

"Our mission is to provide a safe, kid-friendly place for kids to connect, learn and grow, with the hope that the kids will acquire independence, teamwork, and make friendships," said Keith Berglund, executive director of the Aspen Youth Center. "Parents also appreciate it because it is a safe place to send their kids after school or during the summer when they are working or can't be with them."

The center offers a variety of activities, field trips and community-service opportunities. Some of the field trips the kids take include a hike up to Maroon Lake, a whitewater-rafting trip, a road trip to an arcade called Bananas in Grand Junction, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at Theatre Aspen and a trip especially for girls, called "Girl Power," to the Aspen Art Museum. There, they do an art project and look at an artist's show.

"'Girl Power' made me realize that no matter what you look like, you are still beautiful," 13-year-old Monse said.

The activities offered at the center include everything from dodgeball and trivia to cooking and sewing classes.

"We bring in sewing instructors from the community to help the kids learn how to sew pillows and clothes with sewing machines," said Lindsey Palardy, development manager of the Aspen Youth Center. Not surprisingly, dodgeball is highly worshiped by kids of all ages at the center.

"My favorite activity is dodgeball because I get to run around and hit people with balls," Sandra said.

What is so special about the activities is that there is something for everyone and useful life lessons for all.

"Even in cooking class, you aren't just making food for yourself to eat, but you are making lunch for all the kids at the center, and you are learning to set up and clean up after yourself," Palardy said.

How is it that the Aspen Youth Center gets to provide all these programs and services for free? An annual fundraising benefit, grants, the community's contributions and individual donations make this all possible.

"Our benefit each year is called 'Spell What?' which is a local celebrity spelling showdown to get people up on stage to have fun," Berglund said. "The audience participates by purchasing cheats to get a player they like back in the game. We are recruiting spellers now. It takes place at the Hotel Jerome on the night of Feb. 6."

Through the benefit, the Youth Center hopes to bring in 25 to 30 percent of its budget.

"The way to support is by being an audience member," Berglund said.

A unique aspect of the Aspen Youth Center is called AYC Bucks, which the kids earn through activities that benefit the community or themselves. The kids earn the bucks through the difficult "Fit and Fun" exercise class, the Teamworks program with the Buddy Program staff, which helps kids learn teamwork initiatives, and a program called Community Crusaders to get kids out doing volunteer work.

One way the kids can use their bucks is on field trips to lower the cost. The kids can pay for half of the field trip using real dollars and the other half with AYC bucks, depending on how much they have earned. Another thing the kids can use their bucks on is at the Aspen Youth Center store to buy knickknacks.

"I have 68 AYC bucks that I will use to go on the Grand Junction field trip and in the store to buy toys and hats," Kayla said.

"Something that I have learned is that you don't always have to win and to always have good sportsmanship no matter what," Lance, 10, said.

Not only is the Aspen Youth Center a place for kids to go and have a great time with friends, but it is also a place to learn life lessons that will stay with them forever.

— Caroline DeRosa