Caring for the community: Snowmass Chapel program offers one-on-one care for people in distress |

Caring for the community: Snowmass Chapel program offers one-on-one care for people in distress

Emily Garcia and her mother and caregiver Cecilia Rios pose for a portrait.
Kelsey Brunner/Snowmass Sun

Cecilia Rios believes there are angels in her life.

Some of these angels are the people who supported her when she uprooted from California to Aspen over seven years ago in search of a better special education program for her daughter, who has autism and epilepsy; some are the people who helped Rios ensure her daughter’s education continued at a special needs school out-of-state after the teen faced a handful of legal obstacles and traumatic experiences, Rios said.

But for Rios, there is one angel she feels has helped create a lasting, positive impact on the life of both her and her now 21-year-old daughter, Emily Garcia, for years to come: the woman she was paired with through the Snowmass Chapel’s The Caring Connection program.

“At first I was skeptical,” Rios said of the program, which she utilized for about a year after Emily was transferred to school out-of-state and she became depressed. “But it was so amazing to have a friend I could trust. It was easier than talking with a therapist and it wasn’t therapy but it was nice to have that person to lean on in my time of need.”

For over four years, The Caring Connection program has paired locals trained to listen and support those in need with their peers struggling to persevere through negative or dramatic life changes, like Rios.

The program is rooted in the Stephen Ministry series, an international organization that guides congregations in providing one-on-one, Christ-centered care to people going through a difficult time.

But according to The Caring Connection’s care coordinator, Sue de Campo, the Snowmass program goes beyond religious affiliation and aims to help anyone and everyone in whatever way works best for him or her.

“Our scope is limited. We’re not able to help people who need professional psychiatric care, but we can help people going through a sudden life change,” de Campo explained. “A lot of people don’t need a psychiatrist; they just need someone to talk with.”

Since 2016, de Campo said she’s been trained as a caregiver herself and has supported two locals through The Caring Connection program over the past four years.

She said she typically meets with her current care receiver about once every two weeks, and the pair partakes in a variety of activities, like grabbing coffee, going on hikes or spending time however works best for the receiver, de Campo said.

“It’s an honor when someone shares their heart with you, … and it’s unfortunate how people feel reluctant to let themselves be known because there is such relief in that,” de Campo said, noting she has found this relief herself. “Being a caregiver is a reminder of how valuable life is and how transforming it can be to open up and get help when you need it.”

As of this month, de Campo said 22 people had been trained as caregivers through the Snowmass program, helping more than double that number of care receivers over the past four years.

More recently, de Campo said a support group for moms with teens in treatment programs has become a safe space for over 14 local families as part of The Caring Connection program. There’s also a scholarship opportunity for people who need help accessing professional therapy resources through the program, made possible by a recent grant award from the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund.

“I’m very proud of this program because it meets a need. No one else is doing this, which is why we are,” de Campo said. “No one should have to be alone in crisis and people do care. It just comes down to making that connection.”

While The Caring Connection doesn’t intend to replace therapy or counseling, the program’s care director, local clinical psychologist Heather Kaplinski, feels it is an effective way for locals interested in giving their time to help their peers in a free, confidential and high-quality way.

She said the group of Snowmass Chapel caregivers meets every few weeks to continue their education and to offer each other support as listeners, and acknowledged that she’s noticed a positive, more cohesive ripple effect throughout the entire Snowmass community.

“This program is based on a well-researched structure that has positive outcomes and is adaptable to a person’s needs and wants,” Kaplinski said, referring to the Stephen Ministries curriculum. “There is power in creating these ongoing relationships which end up being very different than other relationships in a person’s life. … It really allows a person to walk through a difficult journey with someone beside them, however long it takes.”

For Rios, this is similar to how she saw her caregiver — a person who supported her during the difficult journey of living without her daughter under her roof for the first time.

After talking with her caregiver and experiencing depression for about a year, Rios said she decided “enough was enough” and went through the training to become a caregiver herself.

When Emily graduated from school this past year and moved back to Aspen, Rios said she looked at finding a caregiver for her, too. But after spending some time searching for a match, Rios said she realized she was the best caregiver fit for her daughter, and has been working with her through the chapel program ever since.

“Everything I’ve learned I’ve applied to my relationship with Emily and it’s changed things amazingly,” Rios said.

Outside of being a caregiver for Emily, Rios also has taken her caring connection skills to parents across the Roaring Fork Valley through La Esperanza de Emily, an initiative she started to help Latino families advocate for their children with special needs, and to ensure all children with special needs are treated with dignity and respect.

Rios said she hopes to make La Esperanza de Emily its own nonprofit in the coming months, and is dedicated to sharing her and Emily’s stories to help and empower other local families and young adults with special needs.

First through The Caring Connection program and now with continued help from the Snowmass Chapel, Rios said she feels supported in her efforts to do more for others in need up and down the valley and is grateful to be a part of the village congregation.

“The Snowmass Chapel doesn’t just open its doors to us, it opens its heart,” Rios said. “I feel a connection, like Emily and I are in the right place.”