Giving Thought: School resource centers help keep region’s families afloat

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

As students are settling into a new school year, it’s an opportunity to take a look at how schools throughout the Aspen-to-Parachute region are supporting students and families.

Educators know that kids are more successful at school when the situation at home is stable and secure.

Bearing this truth in mind, the Roaring Fork School District established its Family Resource Centers in 1995. The idea was to assist students and their families to address any problem — financial, emotional, medical or anything else — in order for the child to show up on time and be ready to learn. Today the RFSD has a bilingual, bicultural family services liaison in every school to help families remove any non-academic barriers to a student’s success.

Sometimes, the liaisons work directly with families, but often the liaisons refer students or families to other providers. In 2018-19, 1,164 specific services or needs were provided to families, including food, medical or dental care, mental health support, rental assistance, clothing or help with Medicaid applications. More specifically, 114 students were designated homeless and received support.

“In order for a student to be successful in school, they need a stable home life,” said Sarah Fedishen, family services director for the district. “We need to engage the whole family to address their basic needs.”

And family disruptions aren’t confined to the lower and middle portions of the Roaring Fork Valley. In 2016, Aspen Family Connections opened its doors at Aspen Middle School to fill a similar role there. Aspen’s affluent reputation might lead many to assume that nobody in Pitkin County needs help, but the reality is different. Aspen’s higher-than-normal rates of substance abuse and mental health problems are well-known, but residents of the upper valley experience unemployment, divorce, bereavement and illness just like people everywhere.

“Life is complicated, and we see the full range of human conditions and economic problems because Aspen is a very expensive, difficult place to live,” director Katherine Sand said. “As soon as something affects a family, you see those effects playing out in their children.”

Now, a similar operation has opened its doors in the Garfield 16 School District in Parachute, the western extremity of Aspen Community Foundation’s service area. It’s good to see this concept of school-based resource centers catching on, because we’ve seen the positive results from Glenwood to Aspen, and we know there’s a need across the region.

Of course, each city or town from Aspen to Parachute is unique and the services provided by family resource centers are tailored to meet the needs of each school community. Recently, the Garfield 16 school-based Family Resource Center partnered with a local church to give away 116 pairs of new shoes to students.

“When we can provide some of their basic needs, we start to build a culture and a climate of ‘this is my community, my school district. They know me, they care about me, and I belong here,’” said Claudia Flores Cruz, director of the school-based center. “It all starts by providing things like food, safety and love.”

Anyone who drives Highway 82 during morning or afternoon rush hour understands how the Parachute-to-Aspen region is interconnected. Much of Aspen’s workforce commutes daily from western Garfield County, and Aspenites often travel to Glenwood or Rifle for everything from car repairs to clothing to building supplies.

We are all connected by the fibers of our regional economy, where the high cost of living and seasonal fluctuations in weather and work make for a transient population. Like it or not, we’re all floating in the same regional boat, and we need to look out for one another.

“We’re all vulnerable, every single one of us,” Sand said. “It’s one big community, and the more we think about it that way, in terms of service and relationships, the better.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.