The pandemic put a tremendous strain on nonprofit organizations, and Volunteers of America Colorado was no exception. Yet thanks to a dedicated staff and 18,037 volunteers, VOA has been able to continue—albeit with some tweaks— the services upon which so many Coloradans depend. Or, as marketing and public relations director Vanessa Clark said, “We’ve come up with some very creative ways to carry on.”
VOA’s start came on March 8, 1896, when Ballington and Maud Booth stood before a large crowd in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City and announced they were launching a faith-based movement to nurse the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit those in prison. Ballington, whose parents founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865, and Maud, daughter of an Anglican rector, named it God’s American Volunteers. Ballington’s father had dispatched the couple to America in 1887 to become national commanders of the Salvation Army, but they severed ties with it after Ballington grew resentful of his father’s autocratic manner and insistence that funds from American donors be used to support the Salvation Army’s work in the British Empire.
Shortly after its founding, God’s American Volunteers was renamed Volunteers of America as the Booths— along with a nationwide network of volunteers and support including the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller and William Jennings Bryan—vowed to “spread justice and compassion amidst poverty and pain by going wherever we are needed and do whatever comes to hand.”
Volunteers of America Colorado also began 125 years ago, providing aid to those in need in Boulder, Leadville, Pueblo and Denver. In the fiscal year ending June 31, 2020, more than 154,000 Coloradans were served by the 51 VOA programs that continue Ballington Booth’s belief that VOA’s work “isn’t all about bread and shelter. The underprivileged, the weak and the unfortunate need more. They need sympathy, the warmth of fellowship and the instilling of courage.”
In Colorado, said president and chief executive officer Dave Schunk, “VOA supports many diverse populations by addressing their unmet needs through programs that empower them to become self-sufficient and reach their full potential.”
Even—or especially—in a year like 2020. It was a year when COVID-19 brought a halt to in-person fundraising events such as Western Fantasy, Service with Style and Red Wine & Seafood, which are usually key sources of income for the organization that operates on a $30 million annual budget. Western Fantasy per- severed by pivoting to a virtual event in 2020, bringing in $750,000, down from 2019’s $1.3 million.
“From the pandemic to riots to wildfires, 2020 was a relentless year,” Schunk said, adding, “I was struck by the resiliency and the generosity of a community beaten down but not broken. The hearts of our sacrificial donors, volunteers and employees were stronger and that spirit of determination was remarkable to witness and serve alongside.”
VOA Colorado operates, he said, with the belief that “Unique challenges require unique and thoughtful solutions. Our programs across Colorado look different because each community is distinct. We recognize the senior who needs assistance with her grocery shopping in Fort Collins and the student in Aurora who has never been to summer camp. We support Denver’s homeless veterans who have been underserved, and prepare preschoolers challenged by poverty to be successful in elementary school and beyond.”
VOA programs fall into four categories: housing and shelter, hunger services, volunteer services and community support services. Each, Schunk said, is designed to “touch the mind, body, heart and ultimately, the spirit of those we serve.”
FILLING TUMMIES AND SOULS
“Our oldest and best-known program is Meals on Wheels,” said Lindi Sin- ton, VOA’s vice president of program operations. “Over the course of a year, our volunteers deliver 2,300 meals per day to homebound seniors. Our drivers take the packaged meals to designated drop-off sites where volunteers load them into their cars and deliver them to each recipient. Pre-pandemic, the volunteers often would go inside to chat with the recipients, which is almost as important as the meal itself because the volunteers were a true lifeline for the homebound seniors. Often, they were the only person-to-person contact they had. But with COVID, we are masked up, knock and step away as the recipient takes his or her meal. We don’t go inside.” Sinton also said that the pandemic brought a switch for Meals on Wheels volunteers. “Since a lot of our volunteers are older and thus more at risk for the virus, many of them dropped out. But then we were inundated with younger people who weren’t working and were looking for something meaningful to occupy their time.” In addition to Meals on Wheels, VOA operates City Harvest, a food recovery program benefiting local food banks and pantries, and 29 dining sites throughout the metro Denver area. With in-person dining paused because of COVID-19, those who are hungry can pick up a pre-packaged to-go meal.
A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS
VOA is the largest provider of affordable housing in the state, Sinton said. “We meet our clients at all stages of their housing needs, whether they be seniors, veterans or families.” Options include five homeless shelters (three in Denver and two in Durango); emergency housing for families at the Family Motel on West Colfax Avenue; adaptive units at the Gerard Place Apartments for those with disabilities; and permanent accommodations at the 71 apartments in the Boulevard One Residences in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood. There, low-income individuals like single mom Alycia (whose last name is not being used at her request) can live in a safe place with nearby services. Alycia not only has a roof over her head, but a job as a peer navigator at the Denver Public Library, where she helps others in her former situation find work and other resources.
LENDING A HELPING HAND
Helping people to thrive is a top priority for VOA, and whether it’s providing counseling to vets at the Bill Daniels Veteran Services Center or sending out handyman volunteers to help seniors make small but essential repairs to their homes, VOA gets the job done. When its Early Childhood Education Center in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood had to close because of the pandemic, staffers there were quick to see that not only were the kids missing out on their schooling, they also were missing out on meals. And so began the Friday drive-through food pick-ups that are now open to the entire neighborhood, not just the ECE Center families.
Joanne Davidson was introduced to Volunteers of America in 1994, when Sharon Magness Blake and Jean Galloway met with her to discuss their plans for establishing what would become VOA Colorado’s signature event, Western Fantasy.
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