- Bridgett Harris
- Jim Bergeron has volunteered 15 years with TLC, as one of many long timers.
Home sales and new businesses may be thriving in the Tri-Lakes region, but the benefits from the growing economy don't reach everyone in the community. In Monument and the surrounding towns, there exists a hidden segment of the population living in poverty — families and seniors who struggle to put food on the table and who are often just one emergency away from financial disaster. When these people fall on hard times, there's one place they can turn to for support: the nonprofit resource center Tri-Lakes Cares.
Established in 1984, Tri-Lakes Cares serves as the area's sole human services agency and food pantry, providing multiple programs to help improve the lives of economically disadvantaged citizens and support their success. Monument may be growing, but it still experiences typical "small-town" discomforts, particularly its lack of easily accessible human services. The El Paso County Department of Human Services is located more than 15 miles away in Colorado Springs, with no public transportation to or from the city. As a result, Tri-Lakes area residents without a reliable form of transportation are left without access to vital services such as food assistance, affordable health care and other necessities.
"We may have a Kohl's now," says Tri-Lakes Cares Executive Director Haley Chapin with a laugh, "but we really are more like a semi-rural town."
Tri-Lakes Cares solves these challenges by offering a "one-stop shop." Need emergency help paying a utility bill? Supplementing the pantry? Finding medical services? They're here to serve, also providing weekend snack packs to children whose families are food-insecure, aiding seniors with groceries and hygiene products, and offering assistance in filling out applications for Medicaid, TANF, SNAP and other benefits. And that's just a snapshot of their work in the community.
In 2015, the organization spent $1.7 million on programs and support, including family stabilization, running their fully stocked food pantry, emergency relief such as rent and utility assistance, and thrift shop operations. But they didn't do it alone. More than $800,000 of those expenditures were covered by in-kind goods and services from local businesses, nonprofits and other donors. They currently operate with 11 paid employees (half of whom are part-time), 200 regular volunteers and an additional 100 volunteers who work on special projects throughout the year.
Jim Bergeron has served as a volunteer since 1991. He recalls when the organization consisted of a few food staples and donated clothes, and he marvels at the growth he's seen from its once humble roots. He credits the success and longevity to the heart of Monument's people. "We have a wonderful community here," he says. "It's nice to help people out and see everyone coming together."
Jim's lengthy time in service is the norm. Many of the volunteers have been at the agency for a decade or more. It's a trend that Chapin has worked hard to continue since starting with the organization seven years ago. She had worked in the nonprofit sector for eight years prior to joining Tri-Lakes Cares, and says she fell in love with the heart and passion she saw in the volunteers and employees. She also admired the focus on not only solving the temporary problems of poverty and economic hardship, such as needing food or help with rent, but also on working to eliminate them altogether through educational programs.
One of its current programs, Getting Ahead, aims to help people in poverty develop the skills and resources they need to create a more stable life. Participants learn how to assess their personal experiences with economic hardship and create solutions that foster self-sufficiency. Instructors at Tri-Lakes Cares voluntarily attend in-depth training to be able to facilitate the workshop with empathy and understanding.
Programs such as Getting Ahead can cost as much as $1,000 per person, which is why the agency's greatest need is typically unrestricted monetary donations. "We can change lives long-term, but it costs more to do that," Chapin explains. "There's a hesitancy about giving cash to nonprofits, but it's really the best way to let us capitalize on what we're good at."
Chapin points out that while the cost of such programs may be a larger investment in the beginning, teaching self-sufficiency costs less overall. The organization's most recent annual report notes that 72 percent of Getting Ahead graduates reported greater stability after the program, which translates into a reduction in need for services.
Through a balance of support, education and empathy, Tri-Lakes Cares has created a blueprint for meeting the challenges of poverty in small or isolated communities. "With the work that I do, I have the ability to help others," says Chapin. "And knowing that helps me sleep a little easier at night." Visit tri-lakescares.org for more.