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El Pomar Fellow Experiences CAF IV's Impact on Her Hometown Firsthand

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Stephanie South

I grew up on the Western Slope, and, believe it or not, I did actually live on a street with a name that contains a letter and a fraction.

I don’t live there anymore, but my parents do. And that smaller but rapidly expanding region still holds a very dear place in my heart. Fortunately, every so often, through the Regional Partnerships program at El Pomar, I have the opportunity to travel home to Grand Junction. My most recent trip across the mountain was a stark reminder of how hard things are there—and how hard people are working to address the complex needs.

The reason for my visit, which served as even more proof that I have a very cool job, was the delivery of Colorado Assistance Fund grants to the local recipients. After one eight-hour road trip through our beautiful state, a lot of good music, and two stops—one in Hot Sulphur Springs and one in Hayden—I arrived at my parents’ house.

Now, I knew things had gotten bad in Mesa County. I had been talking to my parents about their own struggles. I had also been reading the local papers.

On March 31, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran an article about how the recession was affecting Mesa County residents, specifically with regard to the necessity of food pantries. It spoke of people who were already in living in poverty before the economy took a turn for the worse, and how those people were now seeking additional help as the downturn continues to worsen. But the article touched on something else as well—a new demographic in need and how the stagnant economy was affecting the middle-class Americans in Grand Junction. Some residents make too much money to qualify for programs like the Low Income Energy Assistance Program or Medicaid, but are not currently bringing home enough to keep food on the table. Those residents are also heading to community entities to find assistance and make ends meet.

A few days later, the Denver Post also ran a piece on the Western Slope, focusing not on basic needs but on unemployment. Grand Junction, which only recently fell behind Pueblo by 0.1 percentage of a point, has the second highest unemployment in Colorado—11.5 percent. The average annual wage in Mesa County is $9,000 a year less than the statewide average, coming in at $36,400. The oil and gas fields have laid off many of their workers. Construction has stalled. Foreclosures are up.

Again, not all of this was news to me. My parents, who own their own successful business, are now doing jobs out of state. But this trip home continued to open my eyes.

On April 8, representatives from five of the six nonprofits that received CAF IV grants gathered in the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce’s lower level conference room to receive checks and recognition for the work they are doing in the Grand Valley.

The organizations were recommended for grants by El Pomar Foundation’s Northwest Regional Council, an advisory board of community leaders representing seven counties in northwest Colorado. Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the

Northwest Regional Council, emceed the grants presentation and said she knows the impact the Colorado Assistance Fund grants will have on the community.

“Northwest Colorado has been hit hard by the recession, and three years of high unemployment are taking a toll on our residents,” said Schwenke. “El Pomar’s Colorado Assistance Fund is vital in assisting our most critical nonprofits to meet record demand for their services by providing operating dollars when they need it the most.”

Kids Aid, a new but rapidly growing nonprofit in Mesa County, was founded with the mission of helping kids enjoy their childhood fully, and, in an effort to eliminate worries about basic necessities, this organization provides backpacks of food to children in 37 schools in District 51 each week.

During the 2010 – 2011 academic year, Kids Aid has provided 1800 backpacks of food to children each week, which is a 28 percent increase over the previous school year. The increase, according to Executive Director Mike Berry, is attributable to the economic downturn, and the corresponding expansion of the backpack program within District 51.

“The economic downturn has impacted the size of donations to us from both individuals and local businesses,” said Berry. “So money is tight, and food prices are going up. We've been told by the food bank where we purchase the majority of our food to expect a 30 percent rise in prices over the course of this year.”

For Kids Aid, a Colorado Assistance Fund grant from El Pomar Foundation will offer additional and unexpected support during hard economic times and will help the organization continue to accomplish its mission. For the rest of Mesa County, the work of nonprofits, especially Kids Aid and the other five CAF IV recipients that are working to meet basic needs will continue to improve the lives of residents in less than ideal days. And for me, this trip home will  not only continue to remain a fond memory but a reminder that the opportunity to carry on Spencer and Julie Penrose’s legacy by being a part of the Fellowship program is both the best first job I could have asked for and a distinct honor.

Other Northwest CAF IV recipients included: Marillac Clinic; Grand Junction Rescue Mission/Lighthouse Gospel Ministries; Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, Inc.; Hilltop Health Services Corporation; and Homeward Bound of the Grand Valley, Inc. In total, 13 Northwest Region nonprofits received $75,000 through CAF IV.