Faces of the Pandemic: When phone line becomes front line for COVID-19 financial aid

A local nonprofit has helped dole out $2 million in economic assistance in the Roaring Fork Valley since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

It was a hectic and heroic three months for a handful of individuals who at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic put thousands of dollars into working families’ hands, many of whom lost their jobs or got sick with COVID-19 and couldn’t work.

“It was 12 hours a day, seven days a week, that was the pace of work,” said Dr. Barbara Freeman, founder and team leader of LaMedichi Savings Club.

LaMedichi has dispersed millions of dollars that predominately came through an emergency fund set up by MANAUS, a local nonprofit that focuses on social justice through community organizing.

And organize they did. About a half dozen ambassadors of LaMedichi spent hours and hours each day talking on the phone with people in their Latino community, listening to their stories, their plight and building a relationship with them, which is a fundamental principal in community organizing.

The result has been a $1,000 grant to each family, with $950 of it going directly to them in cash and $50 into an app-based savings account administered by LaMedichi, a project of MANAUS.

The savings club was set up in 2018 and now has 1,500 members who can save whatever amount their budget allows and they can earn rewards.

Freeman explained that LaMedichi was established for people to prepare for medium- and long-term needs, and giving an underrepresented population an opportunity to gain some financial acumen in how to save and why it’s important.

But COVID created an immediate need for people to feed their children, pay the rent and keep the lights on.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to

So through LaMedichi’s partnership with the nonprofit, Valley Settlement, also a project of MANAUS, average, ordinary citizens in the Roaring Fork Valley picked up the ball and ran with it.

As they were establishing processes and qualification guidelines for the grants, they also were fielding hundreds of requests that came in each day.

They became an efficient machine, Freeman said, responding to people within two or three days and getting money into people’s hands within a week of applying.

When the local economy shutdown in March and stay-at-home orders were issued, people lost their jobs at restaurants, construction sites and in hotels.

“Most of the people who got help from the MANAUS Emergency Fund are women who clean houses, hotels and for companies, and many work in restaurants,” said Ingrid Zuniga, one of LaMedichi’s ambassadors. “A lot of them are single mothers with full-time jobs … there has been a huge impact to them.”

Zuniga estimated that she has talked to 1,000 people as part of the grant process.

“Every single person has said ‘we have been in this country X number of years and we’ve never asked for help,'” she said. “I approved a woman who said to me, ‘I’m so happy you listened to me and didn’t judge me.'”

Zuniga said the Latino population feels vulnerable and that’s one reason they don’t ask for help.

“They say, ‘we don’t deserve it’ or they are scared to ask,” Zuniga said. “We have to tell them we are not a government organization.”

All of the ambassadors are Latino, so applicants feel comfortable opening up to them because they know they understand.

“People are informed in their home language and they appreciate the empathy and being listened to,” Freeman said. “All of the ambassadors are from the community and they have those stories.”

Ambassadors hear about the suffering from not only the pandemic but also cancer, death, family issues and mental health on top of economic pressures.

“There is so much happening right now,” Zuniga said. “We have too many stories.”

Freeman acknowledged the difficulty of she and her team members listening to so much sadness and desperation, but they care so deeply for one another that somehow they get through it.

Zuniga said she and her team members frequently share with each other their concerns, and are mindful of when it’s too much to carry other people’s burdens.

“We talk to each other and ask how we are feeling,” she said. “It’s not easy listening to these hard stories but by sharing with each other we can let the problems go and out of our heads.”

Zuniga shared a story of a woman from Parachute who called LaMedichi three weeks ago and said she is a cancer survivor but the disease had returned. Her husband is in construction and does not speak English, and their son is autistic.

“I went to another ambassador who has a special needs kid and I asked her, ‘can you take this case?'” Zuniga said, adding her colleague can be much more helpful because she knows more resources specific for that family. “It’s not about you get $1,000, bye. It’s about listening and being there. We try to give them confidence and they can trust us.”

The emergency fund grants are meant to be a financial bridge to get to the next month for many families, but Freeman said she worries that as the pandemic wears on, people are falling way behind.

“My big fear is that a lot of people are behind on rent and medical bills, and have mounting debt,” she said. “As we emerge from this we hope people start regularly saving.”

Freeman said between 8% and 10% of the savings club members are starting to consistently save.

“A lot of people have withdrawn because they need it,” she said.

In the valley’s Latino population, 60% of them can’t come up with $200 for an emergency, based on a local survey done by LaMedichi.

“That leaves them really vulnerable” to payday outfits or loan sharks, Freeman said, adding many people have already borrowed from family members who are tapped out. “They are selling things, defaulting.”

The emergency funds coming in and administered through LaMedichi will last through January.

The MANAUS Emergency Fund is funded by several sources, including individual donors, the Aspen Community Foundation and through two grants from the Colorado COVID Fund, the latter of which Freeman applied for.

Along with the Denver-based Left Behind Workers Fund, LaMedichi, in collaboration with other local partners like Valley Settlement, Aspen Family Connections, English in Action, Midvalley Family Practice’s Healthy All Together and the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork Schools, has doled out $2.5 million, $2 million of which was locally distributed.

“It’s a big deal, it’s deepened relationships and it does take the whole community,” Freeman said. “We are going to need each other going forward.”

Barbara Freeman, founder and team leader at LaMedichi, a savings club for the Latino community in the Roaring Fork Valley, at work.