Westside CARES staffers laugh a lot as they talk about what they do. It's the easy laughter of people who enjoy working together toward a common goal.
But this staff is serious about helping people survive tough times. Whether those west siders need basics like food or just crave a friendly hello, they'll find it at Westside CARES or the six food pantries in the area that it supplies.
"It's important for Westside CARES culture that we don't talk about 'clients.' We use the word 'neighbor,'" says Steve Brown, Westside CARES executive director. "I think it embodies a west side spirit but it also invites a spirit that comes from our faith communities. Their traditions are strongly embedded in neighborliness and hospitality."
Brown, an ordained minister, leads the nearly 30-year-old, faith-based agency in the principle of loving thy neighbor as thyself. But no questions about religion are asked when someone knocks on the door.
'In crisis mode'
Westside CARES serves those who live west of Interstate 25, south of the Air Force Academy, east of the Teller County line and north of Fort Carson. Families may go to the organization's main site, in the basement of Bethany Baptist Church, and get vouchers for a four-day food supply up to six times per year. Pantries are housed at Sacred Heart Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, Church in the Wildwood at Green Mountain Falls, and Community Congregational Church of Manitou Springs, along with community centers on the west side and in Stratmoor Hills.
In 2011, 7,378 families received food.
The nonprofit also teaches people to grow and cook their own food, through a container gardening program and take-home kits filled with whatever ingredients are in abundance, plus recipes that use them.
"It's kind of a back-door way of teaching people how to stretch their food dollar without expecting them to come to a class," says Deb Mitguard, community resource coordinator. "Because our people are really in crisis mode most of the time."
If people need toothbrushes, laundry soap, diapers, any of the basics, Westside CARES can help. If they can't pay for prescriptions, they'll receive assistance through Penrose-St. Francis Mission Outreach and nurse Linda Anderson.
Need bus tokens to get to a medical appointment or a job interview? Check. Need help getting a birth certificate? Check.
A total of 21 partner churches, augmented by countless others in less active roles, supply volunteers who assist the five staffers, a nurse and interns. Westside CARES also collaborates with Goodwill, which donates clothing vouchers worth $5,000 every month. (They're typically gone in about two weeks.) And it works with Colorado Springs Utilities to distribute funds from Project COPE (Citizen's Option to Provide Energy) to help with utility bills.
"I love that, because Colorado Springs Utilities could just do the COPE funds directly out of their office," says Dorothy Alvarez, program associate. "They could just say, 'OK, you have a late utility bill, let's talk about this.' But they require that those people come to a service like Westside CARES or Ecumenical Social Ministries.
"We get people in our office that have no idea that there are food pantries, no idea that there are other services available. And if they don't have money for their utility bills, they may not have it for other things."
Again making her co-workers laugh, she says, "This is a wonderful gateway drug."
Fire and fatigue
Westside CARES is also among the organizations disbursing the Waldo Canyon Fire Assistance Fund, built from donations that flooded in after the June disaster. Families can go to the agency with a statement from their employers and receive replacement wages for time lost from their jobs.
"We've given it out in $40 and $50 increments," says Maryann Stadjuhar, assistant executive director. "I had a husband and wife come into my office with their two kids, each worked at the same place, and together [their wages] didn't come up to $300 for that week. I do not know how they were doing it."
Has the post-fire wave of compassion left residents with donor fatigue?
"That has been a worry that I have tamped down and tried to pretend that it's not really a worry," Brown says. "There's capacity in this community to meet all of the typical needs, as well as the holiday needs. But we're all kind of holding our breaths to see what's going to happen by the end of the year."
In mid-November, the staff and volunteers were putting together Thanksgiving baskets and gearing up for the Christmas Adopt-a-Family program. They rely on west side schools' counselors and social workers to nominate families needing help, and the community at-large to make it possible.
"We're eager to help more people be more generous during the holiday season by participating in our Christmas Adopt-a-Family program," Brown says. "We need more people, organizations, households."
They remain optimistic — hence the laughter — but the need always exceeds the supply.
"There's a tsunami of holiday generosity and of holiday needs that washes over this community every year," Brown says. "We just try to keep our noses above water."