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High Plains Helping Hands addresses hunger and poverty from the roots up

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Helpers plant seeds for the next organic produce crop. - DAVID EDSON
  • David Edson
  • Helpers plant seeds for the next organic produce crop.

Ten years ago, High Plains Helping Hands began its work out of a storage unit in Peyton, where it distributed food to locals in need. Visitors now would hardly recognize the organization, which has grown in every sense of the word.

In its permanent location, on the grounds of Mountain Springs Church, Helping Hands boasts a clean and comfortable waiting room for those who use its food pantry, a fully stocked storeroom with everything from packaged pies to fresh vegetables, an outdoor garden area and an aquaponics greenhouse — all geared toward giving individuals in its service area (20 ZIP codes) a fresh start.

On twice-weekly distribution days, coffee and wrapped pastries await those coming to use Helping Hands' services. One woman, Jenny, who has been using the food pantry for three months, says people pack this room each week on food-sharing days, but the volunteers and staff who fill orders and hand out the food don't show the stress. "It's fantastic customer service," she says. "Staff here is friendly."

And these friendly faces can heal just as well as a full meal. Executive director David Edson says people often praise their volunteers. "They feel more compassion. More love. And we just have more to offer, is what they say. And we really have a heavy emphasis on fresh food."

The organization's garden beds, part of their Fresh Start program, overflow in spring and summer with fresh, organic vegetables to be distributed. In the greenhouse, they grow everything from basil to tomatoes to bibb lettuce, and even chard — an unfamiliar leafy green vegetable to most, sometimes distributed with recipe cards — year-round.

Helping Hands initiated the Fresh Start program, including its garden and greenhouse, in 2016, but fresh food is only one aspect of the program, which also provides employment opportunities. Job-seekers can work in the gardens for a few months to earn a steady wage, and when they're ready Helping Hands puts them in touch with one of its 21 local and national partners like Xerox and Home Depot, which can provide long-term employment.

Edson explains the origin of the Fresh Start program: a family he met that had fallen on tough times. Sitting in Edson's office, this family told him that, after their fourth child was born with a life-threatening condition, they had to sell their house and cars to pay medical bills. "The dad looked at me and said: 'We're at a point right now where we're having to decide between providing life-saving medical care for our baby or feeding our three other children.'"

Families like this, and those who find themselves in similar circumstances, make excellent candidates for the Fresh Start program, Edson says.

"Transforming a life," he says, "taking somebody from a hardship or homelessness, or someone who's never had a job, or anything, and then helping them have a fresh start on life ... it's inspiring."

In January 2019, High Plains Helping Hands will change its name to The Fresh Start Center, to more accurately represent their goals. Edson says they want to attack the roots of hunger and poverty. "Not just giving people food, but giving people hope. There's a great quote: 'To plant a garden is to [believe in tomorrow].' And I think that's what we do."

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