Giving Thought: Nonprofits adapt to demands of the pandemic

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Imagine you run a nonprofit that relies heavily on volunteer labor to accomplish its mission. Most of your volunteers are local seniors, but they’re all sheltering in place during the pandemic.

What do you do? The short, oversimplified answer is “improvise.” Adapt. Raise more money. Recruit new volunteers. And, along with your staff, work even harder.

COVID-19 has challenged all of us in various ways, forcing us to change our routines and find new methods to accomplish things that once seemed automatic. The nonprofit world in particular has responded to an explosion of societal need in an environment where we have to maintain physical distance from the very people we’re trying to help.

LIFT-UP, which runs food pantries in every town from Aspen to Parachute, was especially hard hit by the pandemic, which closed its Rifle thrift store (a major source of revenue for the organization) and scared away 90% of its trained volunteers. Both of these challenges emerged in March, during the initial week of the statewide lockdown, and Executive Director Angela Mills admits the organization was caught by surprise.

“Scaling up in real time to not only expand a business but completely redo how we do business did take a bit,” Mills said recently. “We have been able to add three full-time positions and four part-time positions to keep up with demand and client/volunteer relations.”

In addition to the logistical challenges, LIFT-UP volunteers also were accused of discriminating against Latino customers. Mills didn’t personally witness any such behavior but has acknowledged “weak links” in the training regimen and is striving to ensure the organization improves as a result of the criticism.

“LIFT-UP has added civil rights training for all staff, board members and volunteers,” she said. “We are working to add food justice, food equity and diversity training to our programs as well.”

So, like many of the region’s nonprofits, LIFT-UP has managed, despite multiple obstacles, to adapt and improve through the pandemic. The organization will hold special holiday distributions Monday through Wednesday in the following locations:

• 2 to 4 p.m., Monday at Third Street Center, Carbondale and Glenwood Church of Christ

• 2 to 4 p.m., Tuesday at 201 E. First St., Parachute and Rifle Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

•2 to 4 p.m., Wednesday at Cristo La Roca, 880 Castle Valley Blvd., New Castle.

In other good news, LIFT-UP’s Aspen food pantry has reopened to customers who book appointments to pick up a food bag; the Rifle-based organization’s other food pantries will reopen by appointment in 2021. A drive-thru location in Basalt is slated for January as well. Visit for more information.

Just up the road in New Castle, the nonprofit River Center works to address myriad unmet needs with programs involving food, financial assistance, workshops, job training and holiday gifts for low-income kids. Executive Director Heather Paulson said River Center’s primary service area is New Castle and Silt, but the COVID crisis has spurred the small organization to reach out beyond its usual borders.

“People are still struggling,” Paulson said of the economic situation. “A lot of people are not back to work full-time. Some are paying their rent but they’re falling behind on other things.”

Like their struggling families, River Center and other nonprofits are stretched, too. So, if Paulson and her two staff members can’t help a family with direct financial assistance, then they’ll refer clients to Colorado Low-income Energy Assistance Program, a state program that helps low-income households to pay their winter heating bills. They also have handed out City Market gift cards, which enable people to offset their overall expenses and stretch limited funds.

Currently, the River Center team is preparing and handing out nearly twice as many “meal monkey lunches” in local schools as they usually do. But with fewer volunteers to prepare the food, the menu has changed to more pre-packaged, non-perishable foods.

“We are still trying to incorporate as much fresh produce as we can, but at times we’re limited,” Paulson said.

To help struggling families in New Castle and Silt purchase holiday dinners, River Center has offered to provide City Market gift cards. Accepting the offer were 121 households, or 339 individuals. How’s that for Christmas spirit?

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.