Giving Thought: From poverty to self-sufficiency Copy

Recently, we’ve devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. This week, we’re speaking with Marian McDonough, the Western Slope regional director of Catholic Charities for the past eight years. Her office in Glenwood Springs works with vulnerable populations in our region to alleviate poverty and promote self-reliance.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please explain what Catholic Charities is and what you do for the needy in our area.

Marian McDonough: Catholic Charities is an arm of the Archdiocese of Denver that focuses on preventing homelessness and encouraging sustainability. We like to think of ourselves as a safety net for the most vulnerable populations. We have three main programs: Emergency Assistance, Transitional Housing and Community Integration Services.

Emergency Assistance is direct financial assistance for things like rent, utilities, prescriptions and other things. Typically it’s short-term or one-time assistance to help someone in need through a crisis.

Transitional Housing is a longer-term program that involves rent assistance and more intense case management, so that people are sustainable at the end of our involvement with them. We help them with resumes, job applications, getting a GED, job training, interview skills — whatever it takes to get them to their goals.

Community Integration Services works specifically with immigrants, who represent about 35 to 40 percent of the people in our valley. We help them with issues like wage theft, or title theft when they’re buying trailers. Often they have employment visas or they may be permanent residents, but the language barrier prevents them from conversing with landlords or employers and advocating for themselves.

ACF: How does the onset of winter affect your caseload?

MM: We probably help about 1,700 individuals a year, and about 850 of those are kids who we help keep housed. Over the course of the year, we see an average of 20 to 30 people per week who are seeking some kind of assistance.

Winter, at least in November and December, can be quiet for us. Seasonal jobs are increasing as the ski mountains open, the homeless shelters are opening for the season and people are very generous during the holidays, so there are lots of opportunities for food and gifts. It’s also a time that families come together and support each other. Come January and February, however, those initial supports go away and utility bills go up, so we typically see more requests for rent and utility assistance.

In offseason, we always see an increase in requests for service, mainly because of the number of seasonal jobs that go away in offseason. The first time we see someone in a quandary over their seasonal employment, we’ll start a conversation with them about planning for next season. If they come back to us again in the fall, we’ll suggest they take a financial literacy or budgeting class with us.

ACF: What trends are you seeing on the Western Slope that you’d like to highlight?

MM: The housing crunch is the biggest issue we’re seeing, and it’s been this way for a long time — just the lack of affordable units for the working class. It’s not just your fast-food workers. It’s your schoolteachers and office workers, anyone who’s not getting the higher-end salaries in the valley, especially those in a single-parent situation.

Plus, with rents on the rise, more folks are moving to Rifle and Parachute. Commuting to Aspen from that distance is time-consuming and costly. We try to talk to folks about that. They may have a good-paying job in Aspen, but when you add your time away from your kids, what you’re paying for day care and what you’re spending on gas, it doesn’t necessarily balance out. Yet when Aspen is where the jobs are, and western Garfield County is where you can afford to live, you might not have a choice.

ACF: Please tell us something that you see in your work that most Roaring Fork Valley residents don’t know about.

MM: First, our community is very caring and very giving. There’s a constant sense of community building — how do we help those who are less fortunate? How do those with more help those with less?

Another thing is the amount of people we help who then want to give back. Right before Thanksgiving there was a gentleman from Carbondale who we helped last year. He said, “You helped me when I needed it, and now I want to do something for others.” He cooked six Thanksgiving meals and we were able to feed six families with those meals. It was a wonderful gesture, and that’s one of the things we try to instill in people.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.