Western Colorado Community Foundation: Identifying Issues, Developing Solutions

Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of SPOKE+BLOSSOM

Summer is childhood’s dreamtime, a three-month idyll, a respite from schoolwork, with long days made for simple pleasures. At least that’s the ideal. For many children, especially in Mesa County where 50 percent of K-12 students receive free or reduced lunch, summertime is a hungry time.

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CAT MAYER

Five years ago, the board of directors of the Western Colorado Community Foundation (WCCF) identified summertime hunger as a critical issue. While eligible children receive breakfast and lunch during the school year, and the successful Kids Aid Backpack Program provides food on weekends, these programs are tied to schools.

Searching for innovative solutions, WCCF came upon the idea of summer food trucks delivering meals to children in their local neighborhoods and parks. While food trucks are not a new concept, having been successfully used in cities like Denver and in rural areas, it was a new approach for Mesa County. And it was a solution that would create a unique partnership between WCCF and School District 51.

In 2015, WCCF provided School District 51 with funding to purchase a food truck and the Lunch Lizard took off. In its first summer, this brightly colored vehicle, adorned with a cartoon collared lizard, served over 4,000 lunches at five sites to children ages 18 and under. Last summer, three Lunch Lizard vehicles served almost 40,000 meals at 17 stops along three routes and at six school sites.

To address summer hunger, WCCF used a four-part leadership model that can be replicated for future projects: identify a need, investigate solutions, bring in appropriate partners and take action to address the need.

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TURNING ATTENTION TO THE ENVIRONMENT

Based on the success of the Lunch Lizard, the WCCF board of directors recently identified a new area of need: conservation, outdoor recreation and the environment.

When Executive Director Anne Wenzel joined WCCF in 2001, the foundation had assets of $1 million. Today, WCCF’s assets, comprised largely of donor-directed funds from seven western Colorado counties (Mesa, Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Montrose, Ouray and Rio Blanco), tops $75 million.

In 2017, WCCF distributed $3.5 million in grants and scholarships. Yet of this amount, less than one percent went to environmental, outdoor recreation or conservation purposes.

“Here in western Colorado, we have beautiful landscapes, a wonderful climate, outdoor recreation and outdoor opportunities. We have funders who care about these things and plenty of nonprofits working on conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental projects,” explains Wenzel. “Yet we need a way to connect these groups.”

This realization led to the creation of a new WCCF fund, with contributions from eight founding donors, including Barb and Ed Chamberlin.

“My husband and I are passionate about preserving Western Colorado outdoor spaces for current and future generations to enjoy,” explains Barb Chamberlin, who is also a member of the Community Foundation board.

THE CONSERVATION, OUTDOOR RECREATION AND ENVIRONMENT INITIATIVE

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Chris Herrman, a long-time conservation professional and fundraiser, joined the WCCF staff in December as the conservation, outdoor recreation and environment initiative director.

Herrman is charged with identifying and connecting appropriate groups within WCCF’s seven-county reach, many of whom are narrowly focused on individual areas of interest.

“A lot of groups working in this space are small, all volunteer endeavors,” says Herrman. “They tend to work in silos. Because of thisinitiative, I’m able to fly at 30,000 feet andidentify who needs to talk to whom.”

Last year, 30 grants were made by WCCF donors to organizations that fall under the conservation, outdoor recreation and environment umbrella. These grants included funding for the Palisade High School Endangered Fish Hatchery, a challenge grant to fund trail and amphitheater improvements on Colorado National Monument, and a donation to Colorado Canyons Association to purchase rafts for river- based environmental education programs.

The Community Foundation board and staff are currently exploring issues and identifying areas where a modest amount of fundingcan catalyze a new initiative with significant community benefit. Potential areas of focusinclude expanding outdoor recreation activities for youth to provide an active alternative to screen time and reducing food waste, an effortwhich addresses hunger and saves landfill space.

Notes Herrman, “As the population of western Colorado grows, the Western Colorado Community Foundation can help insure good stewardship of our limited natural resources, the lands we love and the place we call home.”

For more information, contact WCCF’s Chris Herrman at 970.243.3767.

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Kristen LummisFeature