Your eyes tell one story out here on the southeastern plains.
They see the boarded-up buildings, the trash, the broken-down farmhouses with their vacant, busted-out panes staring out at their replacements — trailer homes once beloved for their newness, now even more decrepit than their predecessors.
Your eyes pick out the long-closed storefronts by the stained plywood on the windows, and the newly vacant stores by the hopeful "for sale" signs. The few places scraping by have the old farmers' trucks parked in neat rows outside. No one is walking the streets.
In short, you see what's obvious here: poverty and need, cast against a pale, gray sky. The rusted trappings of rural America screeching and protesting their way into the Colorado-red dirt.
You see the poorest county in the state.
But you can look at Crowley County all day and never really see it, unless you call upon your imagination.
Let the mind wander a little, and you can travel back in time to the childhood of 77-year-old Evelyn Wishert. To the old farmhouse on 365 acres, just down H Road outside the little town of Ordway. There Evelyn is cooking the midday meal, "dinner" they called it then, and Evelyn is so tiny that her mom, dad, brothers and sisters can't see her over all those cucumber, tomato, beet, melon and alfalfa crops. So she's standing up on the root cellar, waving a white dish towel. And the smell of fried potatoes is wafting out of that old house.
"Everybody was happy," Evelyn says with a laugh. "They got a lot of fried potatoes."
Back in town, all the old churches and schools are still standing. The houses of loved ones are fresh-scrubbed and alive with the sounds of children. And the town is bustling with young people and soldiers.
"Sugar City used to be such a nice little town; Ordway did too," Evelyn says. "You could go to town on Saturday nights and you couldn't find a park — or even Saturday afternoon — you couldn't find a parking place anywhere. I mean, it was just booming all the time."
Way out to where the Arkansas River cuts through a mess of trees, as far as Evelyn's young eyes can see, there are sugar beet crops stretching their leaves toward the sun. They are waiting to be harvested, to be turned into soft white granules at the old factory up the road in Sugar City.
And then shipped to stores, purchased by mothers and grandmothers, and nestled into sugar bowls across the nation.
Lynne Telford sits in the back of the tiny sedan, her fingers skipping over her iPad as the car rumbles down the long, skinny, bumpy stretch of country road. She calls out the numbers to the car full of women.
There are 1,260 "food insecure" people in Crowley County, which has a population of around 6,400.
Of those who are food insecure, 72 percent are eligible for SNAP (food stamps), though not all will get them.
The per capita income here is $18,299, compared to the 2009 U.S. Census' national average of $27,041.
Telford's blond head bumps up and down. A cow wanders listlessly into the road, scaring the driver, Melissa Marts, and causing Telford to lift her eyes as the car stops suddenly.
It's hard to believe that this is only one county over from El Paso, and that nearly everyone here has connections of some sort to Colorado Springs. Compared to this tiny settlement, the Springs might as well be New York City.
Sugar City doesn't have much to show for itself. A giant grain silo with peeling paint. Streets with rows of mostly neglected old houses, punctuated by the occasional trailer. At one end of town, a grand brick and iron gate guards an empty field. The sign says, "No trespassing."
People in this town are hungry. But this isn't the type of place where you advertise your woes. And it isn't a big enough place to have a soup kitchen or a bunch of tailored charitable offerings. Until recently, if there wasn't enough money to put food on the table, you planted seeds in your backyard, you slaughtered one of the chickens, or you just let your stomach grumble. Even now, if there's not enough money to buy the kids Christmas presents, then there just isn't anything under the tree. If there is a tree.
Telford and Marts, both of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, are here to help. For Telford, who only recently was named CEO, it's also about learning more about the people Care and Share serves — about putting faces with all those numbers.
"You know," Telford says, "if you were to ask me what it's like to be hungry, I don't really know. And I'm interested to listen to these families that are really struggling and get a better sense of the people that we're ultimately serving."
Care and Share, you might recall, is based in Colorado Springs. When the widespread panic of the Great Recession hit a few years ago, the bank got a lot of attention. Steadily growing demand paired with lower donations meant that it was hard — and still is — for Care and Share to feed all the hungry kids and families.
And, of course, the bank isn't feeding everyone. Not close to it. Telford and Marts, the chief programs officer, note that there are 162,420 hungry people in southern Colorado, which equates to a need for 27,135,865 charitably provided meals every year. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, the bank produced 8,903,938 meals. They want to do more.
But it's hard to reach everyone. Especially when Care and Share serves the five hungriest counties in the state: Crowley, Bent, Costilla, Saguache and Dolores.
So several years ago, Care and Share started setting up "mobile food pantries," which would organize food giveaways in rural places like these. They take place once a month in parks and churches, at fairgrounds, and in public health office parking lots.
"We're also really trying hard to work with the groups that [are] doing the mobile food pantries and trying to get them to open up like a real brick-and-mortar pantry," Marts explains. "Because one of the downfalls of a mobile food pantry is, you know, if people can't show up on that day, or if somebody does need food at a different time during the month, they can't get food."
Nevertheless, the mobile pantry has been a popular model here in Crowley County. And more efforts have followed.
Last fall, DeEtta Goettel, pastor of Ordway United Methodist Church, gathered her youth volunteers and began a "Send Hunger Packing" program. The Care and Share-based program sends kids home from school every Friday with enough food to feed their families for the weekend. In Ordway, an average of 35 elementary schoolers (out of about 200 total) participate every month.
A few weeks ago, Goettel started a Summer Feeding program through Care and Share, providing free lunches for poor kids while they're out of school. About 70 kids are served every week.
Also recently, Julie Haynes, the wife of the pastor at River of Life Church in Ordway, began offering an emergency food service out of the church.
To provide for all these programs, Care and Share delivered 402,234 pounds of food to Crowley in fiscal year 2011, or 287.52 pounds of food for every person living in poverty there. That's well above the 32 pounds per person recommended for the average person living in poverty by Care and Share's parent organization, Feeding America.
The food hasn't brought back these towns. But it's filled some bellies and imported glimmers of hope, pride and dignity. The people here aren't just eating the food; they're volunteering their time to better the programs that deliver it, and maybe even better their community. And that activism has, in turn, ushered in a new age of ideas and plans based on the idea that Crowley is more than just wasted farmland. The idea that maybe a rebirth is possible, if everyone chips in.
The end of paradise
One hundred years ago, this area was booming.
All those plains near the Arkansas River were ideal for farming, especially since the Colorado Canal — originally, and rather ambitiously, envisioned to stretch all the way to Kansas — ended up dead-ending in Sugar City when the money for the project ran dry. What's more, by the late 1880s the Missouri Pacific Railroad was building tracks through the area, drawing in the crowds.
In 1911, the northern section of Otero County separated from the rest to become Crowley County, home to 870 people.
In those early years, water was easy to come by, and Crowley became known for its sugar beets and the National Beet Sugar Co. factory that opened in Sugar City in 1900 to process them.
But Shawna Lee Terrones and Darla Wyeno, of the Crowley County Heritage Center, explain that water waned over the years. Times were tough through the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the droughts of the 1950s. By 1967, the popularity of sugar beets had been surpassed by sugar cane — some industry professionals have believed cane sugar is better for baking and caramelizing — and the sugar factory closed. Around the same time, the old tomato cannery shut its doors.
By the 1970s, the costs of farming had increased, and many of Crowley's farmers were reaching retirement age. They began to sell off their water rights to booming municipalities that offered good prices. As the water disappeared, dry farmland was reseeded with grass for livestock.
Now, swaths of once-lush Crowley County have been reduced to a sagebrush desert. And the people here today, say they like that it's so quiet.
The Treus live in a big, white, two-story house on Sugar City's Nebraska Street, which was home to a town banker back in the boom days. The paint is peeling, and Dave Treu, the family's sturdy patriarch, says it took four Dumpsters to haul all the trash out of it. Then they had to fix the flooding in the basement. It'll take another year, at least, to finish restoring this place.
Before coming here, the Treus lived for years on Colorado Springs' east side, scraping by on the modest salary Dave brought home building tract homes in the suburbs. Some months he found plenty of work; others were dry. When the housing bubble burst, times got really tough, and the bill collectors kept calling.
For six months, the family "just made utility bills and the rent, and was falling behind on everything."
Then Dave heard about this house. The owner, who lived in Colorado Springs, wanted someone to fix up his old family home after his parents died. He hired Dave last August to work, in exchange for free rent and utilities.
So for now, this is home to Dave and his wife Patricia, plus their youngest of four, 17-year-old Davelynn, and three of their grandkids, ages 12 to 14. An older daughter, the grandkids' mother, stops by occasionally when she gets breaks from her college classes in the Springs, along with another grandson.
And then, of course, there are the animals: three dogs, two doves, six cats, 20 chickens and five ducks.
The yard plays host to garden pots that Patricia has rescued from area trash cans. Each of them bursts with flowers. The birds live in a spacious coop in the back, near a slouching shed. And the better part of the yard is Patricia's garden, her squash and tomatoes broad-leafed and healthy. Patricia grows each plant lovingly from seed, just like her hero, "just like Michelle Obama."
On the back porch, an American flag catches the wind.
"I wish all kids would learn what it is to be without," Patricia says with a note of tenderness.
The kids, for their part, seem happy. Their grades have improved since coming here. Nick Morgan, 14, is starting football this fall. David Morgan, 13, says there are fewer mean kids here than in the city. And Davelynn just likes that she can go out and wander around, without fear that someone might harm her.
"I like it 'cause it's nice and quiet instead of ..." Davelynn says, then stops short.
"... police cars every five seconds," David finishes her sentence.
"Yeah," Davelynn says.
But the future is uncertain for the Treus. Their home is only temporary, and when the work here is done, Dave will have to find something else. He says he's thinking of working odd jobs around town, patching drywall or replacing door knobs.
"We want to stay here," he says.
For now, there's a little money coming in each month from one of the Treus' daughters. It's enough, with the help of the food pantries and their fresh chicken eggs, to keep meals coming. But the girls still ration their shampoo, and the bill collectors keep calling.
"I don't answer the phone," Dave says. "Or — whoops — I don't get that letter."
Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, Dave says, but in the mid-'90s, Patricia got sick. Her liver was failing, and the doctors said she wouldn't live much longer. The medicines they prescribed just made her sicker.
They went to a naturopathic doctor and started Patricia on a regime of vitamins. For years, they forked over $800 a month.
"We had other places for that money to go," Dave says. "But that came first."
Patricia's still on some of the vitamins. Her liver has largely recovered.
She's still here. And to Dave, at least, that's what matters.
When people in Sugar City "go into town," they go to Ordway, the county seat and home of a few restaurants, the newly revamped high school, and the area's only grocery store, K.J. Foods.
As is true anywhere, people in Ordway end up here for different reasons. For Carmen Perez-Ochoa and her husband Jose Ochoa, it was love. Her family moved from Kansas when she was in high school in the late '80s. He was here visiting relatives when he spotted her. She must have been 19.
They married, and ended up raising five children here. Their small pink adobe home is now guarded by a fence and arched gate, both completely covered in vines. It looks like the Secret Garden.
Inside, the house is alive with pet dogs and a lizard, kids and grandkids, even friends' kids. Carmen is used to the chaos and used to the hungry mouths she feeds with her homemade beans, enchiladas and sopas. She supplements the food with what she picks up from the pantry, where she volunteers.
"When you're giving out the stuff, you know it's not from you," she says. "But it feels good."
Carmen says she likes it here because of the quiet and because the house is paid off. But her husband, the family breadwinner who works as a veterinary laborer, wants to move.
Like 21 percent of Crowley County's residents, Carmen and Jose are Hispanic. And while Carmen doesn't touch on it deeply, she says it's difficult to belong to a minority in a small place.
Her aunt, Josefina Galarza, who lives just down the street, echoes that sentiment. In fact, the older woman holds out little hope for the future of these towns, even though she appreciates the recent surge of charity and the way it's helped her and her family.
For Josefina, it's simple: Nothing has changed enough here to alter the course of her life. She says she's been less than thrilled with the opportunities she and her children have had. Josefina worked for years as a certified nursing assistant, only to be injured on the job. Now she's retired and ill, and her grown daughter, Ricarda Gonzalez, who has a little girl of her own, is working in the same field, as a CNA.
CNAs are common in Crowley, because a local care facility will pay for residents' training if they work for the facility after they graduate. The other main option for young people is working at one of the two prisons that welcome you as you drive into Ordway. Ricarda says the CNA work is OK, but she's thinking of moving her family elsewhere.
"I think I can get better pay in other towns," she says flatly.
In a place like Crowley County, a person with even a little money, or a little education, can live as one of the city's elite.
A house costs as little as $15,000, and the city is more than accommodating to any business venture that could bring in revenue. Here, you can camp free of charge. If you want a road closed so you can shoot a film, the county commissioners will make it happen without headaches or much paperwork. If you want to set up an Internet retail business, you can buy your warehouse space for a song.
People say they love it here for the lack of crime, and the way people still talk to their neighbors. They say the schools are quality, with just 15 kids in some classes, a chance for high schoolers to earn an associate college degree before they graduate, and a concentration on technical learning. (All children middle school-aged or older are assigned a laptop.) They talk about churches that are active in the community.
The county is also along the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which means bike tourists are a familiar sight. So are the bald eagles that each spring come to the lakes, which offer great fishing.
Mark Cloer, the county's economic development director, likes to quote a radio program that he says once referred to Crowley as "the Mayberry of the West." It's just 45 minutes from Pueblo, he says, and yet you don't need to lock your door, and can "look up and see the stars at night."
If Cloer's name sounds familiar, it's because he not long ago was a state representative for state House District 17, representing Colorado Springs' southeastern side and parts of El Paso County. In December 2006, he suddenly quit, citing the health needs of his youngest son.
Cloer says he moved here to bring his son into the fresh country air. And it seems to have worked: The boy is doing better, and getting plenty of exercise. Cloer's children like the freedom they have here, and the fact that there's so little to be scared of, unlike their old neighborhood in the Springs, where police helicopters were a common sight.
"No child should have to grow up like that," Cloer says. "Here, they don't have to."
Cloer says he thinks more people will want to come once they hear about it. And he's hoping to get the word out. There's Crowley County Days in July, and the town's centennial celebration coming in fall. He's even hoping to have a film festival by 2012.
Once people see Crowley, Cloer hopes, they'll stay. The county is setting up a building where new businesses can have offices cheap. And there's a revolving loan fund for small businesses. It's not much, but if a business needs a few thousand dollars to get off the ground, it can probably get the loan from the county, with a very low interest rate.
As County Commissioner Frank Grant says, the government "attitude" is to be ready and willing to help you make your dreams come true. If only you'll invest.
Psst. Psst. Psst.
Life is breathed into Pastor Eddie Nicandro's failing body through the tank at his side. It's been this way for years. This body, this "vessel" as he might call it, has been failing the Baptist preacher since the late '80s, when he was diagnosed with a rare disease that causes his cartilage to inflame and weaken.
That was the first problem, but certainly hasn't been the last. He can't produce insulin, he has cardiovascular problems, and he can't breathe without this machine. He's been in and out of ICUs and ERs for decades. Sometimes, seemingly without warning, he'll simply pass out.
He is 55.
Pastor Eddie says God made his body weak to make his spirit strong.
"The more I am sick," he says, "the more I have that passion of serving Him, rather than sitting down and feeling sorry for myself."
Go door-to-door in Crowley, and you will hear Pastor Eddie mentioned regularly. He's the one who brings God and food into many of the poorest homes. He's the one who stops by to munch on Evelyn Wishert's homemade banana bread, and to make sure she has enough to eat, herself. He's the one who brought Josefina to stay at his home, closer to her doctor's office, when she was at her sickest. He's the one who got Carmen and the kids to volunteer at the food pantry, and to take some food home to supplement what Jose can afford.
Pastor Eddie grew up in the Philippines, where he was raised by his older sister after his parents divorced. He became a Baptist preacher at 17. A few years later, he met and married a woman who happened to be a U.S. citizen. The couple had two boys and a girl.
When the kids were still young, Pastor Eddie traveled alone to America, to become naturalized. He had already earned a degree in psychology, but that meant nothing in a country whose language he could barely speak, so he worked several low-level jobs at a time, mostly at convenience stores and gas stations. After about a year, he joined the Army, hoping to make a career out of being a military chaplain.
His family joined him in Germany where he was stationed, and things seemed to be on the right track finally. But a few years later, his disease set in. He retired from the Army on a disability, and moved to Colorado from California, searching for cheaper real estate. The family settled in a suburban house on the Springs' south side.
But the pastor has not been able to sit still. Since his "retirement," he has helped found three churches in the Springs, including the International Christian Fellowship, which meets off South Circle Drive, and where he still pastors.
"It's a wonderful, small Christian church," he says. "They are all like my kids."
Still, a few years ago, he was so sick he announced that he was retiring from the church. A friend, sympathetic, took Pastor Eddie on a fishing trip to Crowley County. There, the pastor talked with the people at the bait shop, heard about the cheap real estate, and thought that Sugar City would be a perfect place to buy a small vacation house where he and his wife could enjoy retirement.
They bought a place just down the street from the Treus. But it didn't take long for Pastor Eddie to realize how desperate the poverty was.
"I said, 'Boy, I think they need some help here,'" the pastor remembers.
And so, one day in fall 2008, he walked into Care and Share and announced he wanted to feed the people in Sugar City. For a while, he was purchasing some of the food with his own money — some of Care and Share's food is free, the rest is available at a deep discount to charities — and carrying it into town in his own vehicle with the help of some friends and Crowley County Commissioner T.E. (Tobe) Allumbaugh.
But it became clear that arrangement wouldn't work out indefinitely when one day Pastor Eddie passed out in the Care and Share parking lot. So now Eddie gets help from the organization with transport of the heavy stuff. He's also been getting financial help from friends, family and charitable organizations.
He's also gathered volunteers. He went back to pastoring at the International Christian Fellowship, and his church family now drives down to help with the monthly pantry. So do his kids, and volunteers from the Baptist and military communities. Pastor Eddie has also recruited volunteers in town. Josefina comes when she's well enough. Evelyn and Patricia are always there. Carmen and the kids are regulars.
Pastor Eddie hasn't stopped there. After hearing of the need in neighboring Otero County, he started a food pantry in La Junta. And he got the city government to rent him an old building for a penny a year to start his Hands of God Ministry in Sugar City in 2009. That church has grown from three people to 53.
Now Eddie is working to bring volunteer doctors and free medicine to Crowley; he's on the lookout for a new, permanent building for Hands of God; and he's training a young veteran to replace him as pastor there, when he gets too sick to do it himself.
And Pastor Eddie is very sick. Someone else has to drive him to Sugar City, which he still visits at least once a week.
But here, in his Colorado Springs home, below the clear plastic tubing of his oxygen machine, he is smiling. Upstairs, his young grandson is chattering. His newest grandchild, a two-week-old baby, is snuggled in his wife's arms, drinking a bottle.
In Sugar City and Ordway, the people are thinking of him, worrying about him, loving him. Life is good.
"The people in Crowley County," he says, "they can see how much I love them."
The long view
Evelyn Wishert leans over the counter of her rooster-themed kitchen in her neatly kept repo trailer. The rain hits the roof in rhythm, and adds moisture to Evelyn's little garden. Pictures cover the walls, alongside neatly rowed figurines.
It's a bit lonely here. Evelyn's husband Bud died in 2004. Her three daughters visit sometimes, but they have lives of their own. She doesn't mind it, she says, but she was nevertheless pleased to meet Pastor Eddie when he walked by her yard several years ago.
"I was out in the garden and we got to talking, and so he invited me to church and I went to church, and that's how it is," she says. "He comes down and he stops and we have coffee. Oh, he's a great person. Him and his wife both are just great, great people. You can never ask for anybody better."
Crowley County has bookended Evelyn's life. She was born here, and raised on her dad's farm, along with seven sisters and brothers. They all worked the fields, and if the kids got all the farm work done and her father didn't have to hire help, he'd pay them, and they'd run into Ordway and fork over dimes for heaping bags of candy and gum.
She got her first real job when she was 14, and by the time she was 25 she was working in the office of Bob's Potato Chips in La Junta. That's when she met Bud.
The couple had a good life together, if not an easy one. He worked the Texas oil fields earlier in their marriage. Then he worked ranches. They made their home wherever Bud found work, and over the years they raised three girls.
In the late '90s, they came back here. It wasn't the same place. The beautiful old stone gates that once guarded the track by the old schoolhouse now bear nothing but that "No Trespassing" sign.
"I go by there and think, 'Gosh, that schoolhouse used to sit over there, and all they've got is the track and they don't even take care of that,'" she says. "But that used to be, that used to be our, well we more or less called it a baseball field."
And there's the old church down the road. Her father helped build it. Her father, who lived just long enough to see the farmers begin to sell off their water rights in the '70s. He used to say, "They're gonna be sorry."
"All the places are gone," Evelyn says. "They're all tore down and all, I just don't know. It's sad when I go uptown and I see — I'll say 'So-and-so lived there, and so-and-so lived there,' but it's not there anymore."
Still, Evelyn smiles. Every day, more or less, Pastor Eddie calls. He needs her help volunteering at the pantry. He wants to know how she's doing or if she'll be at church. And while she has her doubts about whether her grandchildren's "lazy" generation has what it takes to bring Crowley back, she does think that what's happening here is "wonderful."
"Everybody says, 'How can you just be happy all the time?'" Evelyn says. "Well, you just are. I'm not a grumpy person.
"You know, my husband used to say, 'Evelyn, I don't know about you, I can't understand why you're happy every day, and I'm always down.' And I said, 'Because you're not paying attention.' Well, you've gotta have the good Lord in your heart. And that's me. I've had that ever since I was a kid.
"We would go, after our supper was done, we'd go out and then we'd sing hymns. My mother would read out of the Bible and we'd sing. My dad would play harmonica. He fixed us a great big swing in between these two great big old cottonwood trees. I never laughed so hard in my life, but anyway, he didn't put one of the chains like he should have. And he went out and sat on it, and it flipped him."
Evelyn laughs hard.
"... But anyway, that's the story of my life. Oh, I could tell you a whole lot more."
What it means
Below the poverty line: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues new Federal Poverty Guidelines annually, and those standards are used to determine whether someone is "living below the poverty line."
Many government services like SNAP (food stamps) and public school lunch subsidization base eligibility on whether a family has income that places it below, or within a certain distance of, this line.
In 2011, a family of four has to make $22,350 or less to qualify as below the poverty line in 48 states and Washington, D.C. (Alaska and Hawaii have different standards.)
Food insecure: According to Feeding America, someone who's food insecure has a lack of access, at least some of the time, to enough food to sustain a healthy life. This would include a lack of access to nutritionally adequate foods. Many food insecure households have to make "trade-offs" — deciding whether to pay for food, or rent or medical bills, for instance.
In 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture found that 14.7 percent of U.S. households were food insecure for at least part of the year.
Care and Share by the numbers
Hungry people in Southern Colorado: 162,420
Supplemental meals needed to feed those hungry people every year: 27,135,865
Meals Care and Share provided to hunger relief programs in the last fiscal year, ended June 30: 8,903,938
Pounds of food provided by Care and Share in the last fiscal year: 11,575,120
How to help: Donate time, food or money. Care and Share is located at 2605 Preamble Point and is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekdays. You can also call 528-1247 or visit careandshare.org.
Crowley County by the numbers
Population: An estimated 6,400 people in 2009
Percentage living in poverty: 25.3 percent in 2009
Percentage food insecure: 19.7 percent in 2011
Per capita income: An estimated $18,299 in 2009
Sources: U.S. Census, Feeding America