Guest column: How to help when disaster strikes |

Guest column: How to help when disaster strikes

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

The Aspen area is often tinder-dry at this time of year and at risk of wildfires. We may be lamenting all the rain we’ve had this summer, but we are lucky we aren’t experiencing wildfires similar to the ones happening in California right now. Fires have torched thousands of acres, thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes and the governor has declared a state of emergency.

When natural disasters strike around the country and world, many of us are compelled to help. Think of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal or, closer to home, the flooding that hit Colorado’s Front Range in September 2013. Up and down this philanthropic valley, when disasters occur, people seek out information, organize fund drives, write checks and, when they can, physically lend a hand in the relief effort.

Typically, whether it’s a wildfire, a flood, an earthquake or something else, the immediate needs are met by organizations such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, along with first responders, churches and individuals who are compelled to contribute as a result of news and social-media coverage.

Long-term recovery, which is more about helping disaster victims to rebuild and move forward with their lives, is often more complex and expensive. All kinds of assistance are needed for individuals, families and institutions. Small-business restoration is another major focus. This kind of long-term follow-up is vitally important when needs are still great, but the disaster in question is no longer top-of-mind for most individuals.

Two local nonprofits come to mind that are doing great disaster-recovery work. Haiti Children, formerly named Mercy and Sharing, is providing care and education to abandoned, orphaned and disabled children in Haiti while providing jobs, workforce training and clean water to villagers in the country so devastated by the earthquake in 2010. Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education, reach their full potential and contribute to their communities and the world. The organization’s Aspen chapter has identified 66 schools to start rebuilding in the Nuwakot area of Nepal, which was hit hard by the recent earthquake.

Community foundations also can play an important role by pooling local support, convening people to identify solutions and keeping the impacted communities’ needs top-of-mind after individuals’ enthusiasm wanes.

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Aspen Community Foundation established the Community to Community Fund, a special fund to pool local resources to support communities where disasters have occurred. One hundred percent of donations to the fund are used to support recovery efforts.

The Aspen Community Foundation looks beyond the immediate crisis for medium- and long-term recovery efforts (rebuilding homes, schools and other infrastructure; mental-health care and case management; etc.) that require significant dollars and receive far less attention than the immediate relief needs of the communities.

The fund worked with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to direct $153,455 — $94,155 from individual and family donors and $59,300 from the city of Aspen’s Fat Tuesday fundraiser — toward infrastructure and human-service needs in storm-affected areas of the Gulf Coast.

The Community to Community Fund responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The Aspen Community Foundation collaborated with Partners in Health and its Stand With Haiti Fund to deploy needed support. Then in September 2013, the Community to Community Fund pooled local gifts in response to the devastating floods that affected 24 counties in Colorado — primarily Boulder and Weld counties. The Aspen Community Foundation partnered with several of Colorado’s largest private and community foundations, including the Rose Community Foundation and the Colorado Association of Funders, to create the Colorado Funders Flood Recovery Fund. Rather than supporting immediate relief efforts, the Colorado Funders Flood Recovery Flood focused on longer-term community needs. Ultimately, the pooled gifts were primarily utilized for grants to organizations working to rebuild the infrastructure of the impacted communities.

The Community to Community Fund pools local support and underwrites recovery efforts as needs arise in the wake of a disaster. Aspen Community Foundation staff can study a disaster situation, provide information about the disaster and help determine where to send a donation to make the greatest impact.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.