Giving Thought: A rapid-response team to fight social injustice

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

The Roaring Fork Valley is characterized by extraordinary economic disparity. For those of us who have lived here for many years, it can almost seem normal that 10,000-square-foot Aspen mansions coexist with the crowded, rented mobile homes farther downvalley.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought those disparities to light all over again. The low-income residents of the valley lose the jobs that can’t be performed remotely from a laptop, and their kids can’t attend “virtual school” from a home without access to the internet. And the problems tend to mount, one on top of the other, when there’s not enough money to make ends meet; how do you handle a medical emergency or car repair when you’re barely making your rent?

Fortunately, numerous nonprofits in the region snapped into action when the pandemic hit, each organization with its own skills and areas of expertise. Years before COVID, Carbondale-based Manaus began developing a smartphone app that enables its users — mainly low-income immigrant families — to build a money-saving habit along with financial and digital literacy. Through the LaMedichi app, users can save and borrow money, and become members of a savings and credit club.

When the pandemic hit, however, the LaMedichi team adapted the app to direct emergency financial assistance to struggling families. A team of bilingual “ambassadors” was key to this and other outreach efforts.

“It allowed us to find people who needed help, put $950 in their checking account, and reserve $50 in a new LaMedichi savings account,” said Sydney Schalit, executive director of Manaus. “The app, thanks to (LaMedichi team leader) Barbara Freeman’s leadership, was able to flex into being a rapid deployment vehicle.”

As of early February, Schalit said, a whopping 1,773 families received financial assistance this way, and another 850 got help through a collaboration with the Denver-based Left Behind Worker fund. The numbers include individuals and families from Aspen to Parachute, and east on Interstate 70 as far as Vail. This was primarily a philanthropic effort, deploying charitable donations to help needy families who, in the words of Manaus itself, “do not have access to public or traditional funds.”

The rationale behind LaMedichi continues to focus on self-reliance and financial literacy, skills that will benefit low-income, Spanish-speaking families into the future, whatever it holds. As Schalit said, “the pandemic is the emergency today but tomorrow it could be appendicitis or a flat tire.”

And Manaus’s work doesn’t end with LaMedichi, she added. “I think of Manaus as an incubator for possible solutions to social justice issues,” Schalit said. “We listen to the needs and desires of the community, and we help them solve their own problems with the support of other people and organizations.”

Among those other programs and priorities are the Housing Innovation Project, which seeks to preserve and expand the region’s stock of affordable housing through various means, including the creation of resident-owned, mobile-home communities where the occupants collectively own and manage the property.

“Most of the people who lost jobs as a result of COVID were already living two or three families to a mobile home,” Schalit said, pinpointing housing affordability as a bedrock issue in this high-priced region.

She also mentioned the Equity Action Project, an initiative to build racial and ethnic equity among the region’s nonprofits, community organizers and other stakeholders. Acknowledging that the vast majority of the region’s charitable organizations are staffed and led by Anglos, Manaus and other entities, each in its own way, are seeking to diversify.

“The pandemic just made it so we were unable to keep those blinders on.” she said.

Still another inequity brought to light by COVID-19 was access to the internet. Schools were forced to shut down but education had to continue. “Everybody went online,” Schalit explained, “except the families that don’t have access to the internet.”

Manaus is working with the Roaring Fork School District and Garfield County Libraries, among others, on a “hot spot mobilization” to enable families to check out portable internet hot spots, or transmitters, and thus participate in virtual learning.

Whether it’s internet access, housing or personal finances, Manaus, its ambassadors and sister organizations are all ears, and they’re ready to respond.

Said Schalit, “One reason we’ve been able to serve so many people is we’re pretty rapid fire.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


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