Giving Thought: Providing COVID relief outside the organizational box

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

What do you do if you work in a family medical practice, but your patients are coming in with problems that aren’t even medical in nature — no job, no money, no food?

Of course, you expand your menu of services to meet as many COVID-related needs that people bring to your door. At least, that’s a simplified version of what happened at Midvalley Family Practice in Basalt over the past year, with the involvement of the nonprofit Healthy All Together (HAT).

“We began seeing people in their cars and then in a tent in our parking lot,” said Jarid Rollins, a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of Healthy All Together. “Eagle County provided a tent and supplies — both personal protective equipment and testing. People were starving for medical care. We fielded over 100 calls a day for advice on home care.”

Healthy All Together was founded in late 2019 with the intent to help people with opioid addictions and substance abuse problems. But the organization had barely gotten off the ground when COVID-19 hit the valley and forced virtually everyone to change their plans.

“What COVID-19 did was to show the inequity in the midvalley around access to housing and access to health care. Those issues were showing up right at our doorstep,” Rollins said. “We kept our doors open when others were closing their doors, more people started to show up and the need kind of exploded.”

First was a desperate need for COVID testing, but while administering the tests, Rollins recalled, the doctors, nurses and other staff members at HAT and Midvalley Family Practice would routinely ask patients how they were doing and whether they had enough food.

Needless to say, HAT referred many patients to other organizations that could lend support in various ways, but they also began providing other services themselves — food and rental assistance, for example. Many patients came in for a COVID test and walked away with an unexpected bag of food too. The organization even sponsored a coat drive and handed out 300-plus coats to families in need.

Rollins remembers a particular day when a nurse was opening a batch of COVID-19 test results. Seven out of 15 tests came up positive and they were all from different towns and neighborhoods, he said, “meaning that seven families were touched by COVID, stress and financial hardship.” The nurse broke into tears. It was a key moment where Rollins and his colleagues asked themselves, “are we just going to provide the tests and tell them ‘good luck,’ or are we going to engage (with these families) in a holistic and responsive way?”

Of course, they chose the latter, which then required outreach, fundraising, grant applications and partnerships with other organizations including the Family Resource Centers of the Roaring Fork School District, Manaus, the Aspen Community Foundation and others.

“There were certainly times when it felt disorganized,” Rollins said. “There was a lot of urgency. It was just something that evolved organically.”

A collective sense of unity and purpose, however, carried the enterprise forward with the confidence that they were doing vital work at an important time. “We had nurses, therapists, front-desk staff, patients and board members committing time and money to the community,” Rollins said. “It was motivating and kept us going through the year.”

While the first half of 2020 was characterized mostly by the bread-and-butter economic problems, the fall and winter have brought forward more mental health issues such as loneliness, isolation and anxiety. Throughout this evolving crisis, however, Rollins said patients have been greeted with understanding: “You are not alone, and there’s no judgment here,” he said.

This is certainly a success story, and an example of what good will and community can accomplish. But struggle, grief and exhaustion also are a major part of this local picture and the overall global legacy of COVID-19. Thanks to all the health care providers, mental health providers, first responders, case workers and donors of time and money who have helped this community respond to the pandemic.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.