Giving Thought: Building community is key in times of crisis

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

From the ruptured supply chain to the growing ranks of the unemployed, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc with Americans’ lives, and the need for helpers, caregivers and everyday heroes is ever more apparent.

Most of us are trying to do our part by sheltering at home, wearing masks and/or gloves during our few trips into public spaces, and generally taking care in all of our activities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That in itself is vitally important to minimize the spread of the virus.

Today, however, I want to thank those among us who are going a bit further — not only to prevent more infections, but to provide help and direct support to those whose lives have been upended by the pandemic.

“We spend a lot of time talking to people,” said Graham Frontella, a property manager with roughly 100 rental units in the Rifle area. “It’s important that they feel heard. Do you really have what you need? How many days of supplies?”

Frontella is a landlord, and he’s quick to say that his family-owned company is “not a charity.” But he also takes a uniquely human approach to his work, and views each of his tenants as clients. So, if a tenant has lost a job, or a family member, or the transmission of the family car, then Frontella will try to help. He’ll work with his tenants to settle rent issues.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Frontella and his crew have regularly checked in with tenants in an effort to ensure nobody goes without their basic needs. One family might need a box of diapers or a certain medication. For someone else, it could be a plumbing or electrical repair or, yes, a few rolls of toilet paper.

Every tenant, and every situation, is different.

“We grew up farming and ranching on the Western Slope, and we’ve always shared what we had, whatever it takes,” he said. “We’ve been going hard for weeks.”

It’s a similar, all-hands-on-deck situation at the El Jebel Mobile Home Park, where Robert Hubbell, manager of Crawford Properties, says his many tenants are either “working overtime or they have no work at all.” Hubbell and his team use email blasts and social media to get information out to tenants about financial relief, food distributions and other sorts of assistance.

“We’ve had to hit the pause button in order to work with everybody on a case-by-case basis,” Hubbell said. “We’re not charging any late fees. We just have to work with each family and hopefully we’ll all get through this.”

The overall situation evolves constantly as tenants find or lose work, and as the rules change regarding government assistance and food availability. When asked how he’d sum up the current approach to business, Hubbell said, “Community and teamwork. We all just have to work together.”

A shining example of those tenets occurs every Thursday at noon in the parking lot at Basalt Middle School. Dozens, even hundreds, of cars and trucks line up in orderly queues that stretch onto nearby streets, but they’re not dropping children at school. They’re picking up food provided by Food Bank of the Rockies and distributed (with gloves and masks) by Aspen Skiing Co.’s events team.

Beginning in March, when the grip of the pandemic was first felt, food distribution has been a high priority in local relief efforts. As more members of the workforce were laid off, the cries for help increased and the systems to meet those needs mushroomed accordingly in organization and sophistication. Last Thursday’s food distribution was the essence of efficient, medically appropriate, social-distanced community service.

“As the need grew, we worked with the schools to get set up in Basalt,” said Hannah Berman, Skico’s sustainability and philanthropy manager. “And it’s just grown every week. At this point, we’ve fed more than 1,600 households.”

The Aspen-Snowmass ski resorts were closed in mid-March, but Skico’s events people have transitioned smoothly from concerts and banquets into this new, philanthropic variety of food service.

“As the largest employer in the valley, we feel like we are the community,” Berman said. “We’ve always been a company that tries to take the long view.”

Frontella, the Rifle property manager, echoes that sentiment.

“The overarching goal for us has always been to build community,” he said.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.