Giving Thought: Community starts with families

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Ask 10 people to define “success,” and you’ll get 10 different answers. But all might agree that when a family is successful, the chances are vastly greater that the children will succeed, too.

That notion is a core tenet of Aspen Family Connections, a family support center created in 2016 by Pitkin County, Aspen School District and several local organizations and community members. Executive Director Katherine Sand is visibly energized by helping local families solve problems and thrive.

Aspen Community Foundation: What have you learned over the last year and a half?

Katherine Sand: We’re a resource center, a hub, a place where people can be connected to local services and providers they need to make their lives better, or their children’s lives better. A year and a half ago, I didn’t even know if our phone would ring. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect is how warmly people have responded. They’ve been so open and prepared to ask for help.

We all encounter challenging times and situations in our lives, but asking for help can be extremely difficult. People here sense that we’re warm, we’re not judgmental, we’re extremely confidential and we’ll do whatever we can to help people help themselves. Our goal is really to help families be sustainable; we don’t need to be a permanent part of anyone’s life.

Whether you’re looking for a counselor or math tutor, or you have deep, complicated issues that require support or case management, it makes no difference to us. The word “community” really means families existing and co-existing. A good community cares about everybody. Everybody has importance and value, both parents and children. Instead of focusing on one person, we always try to focus on the family unit.

ACF: Describe how you work with community members.

KS: There are really two strands of activity where we interact with families. The first is our family meetings. They can be simple or complicated, large or small, but we meet face to face and connect a family with whatever resources they need. Sometimes it’s straightforward, just two people at the table, and other times we’ll work with the family to put a team together and there will be a lot of follow-up.

Most people here live quite stressed and isolated lives. They’re busy and active, skinning up mountains before work, and they may have two or three different jobs. We try to offer a warm and supportive place where they can just come and share whatever they want to share, and we’ll help get them where they want to be. Those meetings are our main tool.

Our second strand is what I’ve called “Family Matters,” which aims to be a universal prevention program. We’ve had more than 30 events and workshops about things that concern parents and families — vaping, managing technology use, body image, keeping kids safe online. It’s basically “skilling people up” to do their parenting work.

ACF: What are some of the most compelling topics?

KS: My favorite workshop this year was on what kids are doing online. I called it “Put Your Phone Down,” which may be the most commonly used phrase in the English language. We invited a panel of 11 kids, ranging from fourth-graders to high-schoolers, and we asked what they’re actually doing on their phones. The truth is we adults really don’t understand what they’re doing, and we don’t understand their social lives. It was fascinating — for example, the degree to which kids’ self esteem depends on things that people say to, and about, them on Snapchat.

With increased technology use, I fear many children have really lost their peripheral vision. Their focus is that device, and when that device is there, nothing is more compelling. My kids know more about politics, culture and gossip than I do, but I question whether they know what’s going on immediately around them.

Vaping is another interesting one, because few people really understand it. It’s a largely unregulated industry, and the country is ambivalent because vaping is marketed very successfully as a way of stopping adult smoking. But it’s also training wheels for nicotine and marijuana, and its use in Colorado schools is very high.

ACF: What most excites you about this work?

KS: One of the things that gets me up every morning is the openness and willingness of people and organizations in this community to help. Nobody has ever told me, “Sorry, can’t do it.” They’ll always say, “Yes, what can we do to help?”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.