Kaitlin Johnson is the Rural Network Director at Colorado Association of Funders. Click here to learn more about Kaitlin and check back for more stories of Kaitlin’s travels around the state.
Early this August, I embarked on a 580-mile journey to the Western Slope to meet funders based out of the area and to learn about the initiatives taking place in the region.
My first stop was a visit with Tamara Tormohlen, Executive Director for Aspen Community Foundation. We joined up with Valerie Carlin, Operations & Resources Director, to learn about the data they are using to track key metrics for their Cradle to Career Initiative. While the presentation and the many metrics being collected and analyzed were impressive, they were nothing compared to the data wall that sits in the middle of their office. A floor-to-ceiling map of their coverage area shows key statistics, and lists of categorized data sources cover the remaining wall space. It is clear Aspen Community Foundation is committed to not only funding their initiative and creating change, but ensuring the metrics show the intended change is actually taking place.
I joined Kim Lewis, Grant Manager for Rocky Mountain Health Foundation, in a quiet coffee shop in Grand Junction. Although they have only completed one year of grants, the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation is excited to be serving a 22-county area and is actively seeking innovative processes to implement in its grant making and application processes because, as Kim questioned, “Why should all the innovation come from the Front Range? Why not Grand Junction?”
My next stop was downtown Grand Junction to meet with Kimberly Bullen, DOLA’s Northwest Regional Manager. Just a year into her job, Kimberly spoke passionately about the communities they are able to serve and the projects they are funding in her region. Though DOLA prefers to see themselves as a last-resort for grant dollars, their presence in the communities often makes them the first call when a new project is being considered in a town, and therefore, a great connector to other potential funders.
The following morning, I ventured to Western Colorado Community Foundation to meet with Anne Wenzel, President and Executive Director, and Tedi Gillespie, Grants and Community Outreach Director. Full of regional knowledge, Anne and Tedi spent an hour sharing their excitement about the Foundation’s growth and their leadership work. I learned about their Blue Print to End Hunger programs, STEM education for K-12 students, and an innovative, tiny-homes program in Montrose to support foster kids as they age out of the foster system.
After the relatively quick drive from Grand Junction to Montrose, I met with Sara Plumhoff, Executive Director for Montrose Community Foundation. Sara shared with me the opportunities and challenges associated with being a small community foundation, such as the need to be involved with everything in the community in order to know the key issues in town. Excited about the Foundation’s growth and its ability do more discretionary grant making, Sara is testing new grant focus areas to find what works best in her community. She is considering adding an agricultural focus in the next year or so.
My last day on the road was an all-day conference hosted by the Department of Local Affairs at the Montrose Fair Grounds. The Small Communities Housing Workshop featured a range of speakers and experts to help local community leaders understand and fund their housing projects. Irv Halter, Executive Director for DOLA, started the conference by reminding everyone that, “The first ingredient is local communities deciding they want to do something.” After hearing from city leaders about the work required to plan and finance a housing project (and after googling a few hundred housing-related acronyms), I realized that, in the end, it always comes down to the people in a community and the ones with the passion and willingness to take on hard projects and bring their communities along with them.
Traveling around the Western Slope for four days was an eye-opening and informative time. There are communities there that are thriving, and there are communities there that are simply surviving, but I am encouraged by the foundation and community leaders I met and have no doubt that we will continue to see beneficial, innovative work being done on the Western Slope.