A Caring Community
Kindness and dedication always at the forefront of shelters success
A torrent of brilliant sunshine floods the park as a yellow Labrador bounds after a tennis ball. The rambunctious retriever hones in on his prey and snatches it up with his mouth, gleefully galloping back to his master.
Nearby, Canada geese bed down on the grass, warming themselves in the afternoon sun where snow would reside most winters.
A short distance away, children’s delightful squeals can be heard from the swing set.
It’s mid-January and the park is abuzz with fun and good times.
But the parks of Cortez have a dark and tragic side. On many days, many of Cortez’s homeless population can be seen at the park.
Two people have died in the park nearly to the day over the last year. A combination of alcohol consumption and freezing temperatures claimed the lives of Mary Rose Shay and Michael “Tag” Garner.
Both died within sight of the Bridge Emergency Shelter.
“When something like this happens, the community realizes how important our service is,” said Sara Wakefield, the shelter’s executive director.
“It’s the community factor that has made the shelter so successful,” she added.
It’s the community support in the form of donations, volunteers preparing meals and working at the shelter, and much more that keeps the shelter open during the cold months from mid-October to mid-April.
Wakefield admitted that she worries about how the community will react after a tragedy.
The reactions can be varied.
Two nights following Shay’s death, a passerby saw an intoxicated man asleep on a bench, and roused him then brought him to the shelter.
Issues like homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness is an unfortunate reality for Cortez and many other communities.
“We have seen more donations coming in,” Wakefield said. “We’ve also had a few new volunteers who were moved and touched by the death.”
She said that regardless of how people react, a tragedy like Shay’s death has a far-reaching impact.
“It’s about the quality of life in our community,” Wakefield said. “Having someone die in our park affects everyone. It affects our morale as a community, it affects our image in the world, it affects the image of ourselves, our youth, it affects everything.”
MB McAfee heads the shelter’s board of directors and says that the community has always reached out.
“The Bridge could not have evolved into the organization we are today without the support of this wonderfully caring community,” she said. “I just finished writing over 75 thank-you notes to folks who donated money in response to our year-end appeal.”
For shelter volunteer Lew Matis, seeing homeless and intoxicated people in Cortez bothered him. But what bothered him wasn’t about those folks on the street; instead it was what he saw and felt within himself.
“I wanted to see if I could overcome a little discomfort I had in seeing people on the street and to see if I could see them as people, converse with them, try to understand their position, their perspective,” he said.
The 67-year-old Mancos resident has been volunteering for the past six seasons.
He helps out where he can. Serving dinner, cleaning up and chatting with clients.
His initial reason for volunteering was a desire and hope to have a larger impact and possibly make a bigger difference in people’s lives.
“I had to realize that I didn’t have the skills to offer any kind of counseling. Maybe I can be someone they can talk to for a while, but really I provide a little manpower and help where I can,” he said.
He’s satisfied with his role now.
“I thought I could be of greater help to individuals but when that didn’t prove to be true, I realized there was a role for me to play, but it was more of a support role,” he said.
Both Wakefield and shelter manager Donna Boyd say that volunteers are invaluable in the services they provide on a nightly basis.
Matis said he still feels his efforts are important and it remains tremendously satisfying. He sees first-hand the benefits and need of the shelter.
“This provides people who aren’t in a good situation a place to get a good meal and a place to sleep,” he said.
McAfee couldn’t agree more.
“Our mission is simple — shelter, food, and help to find self-sufficiency,” she said. “This has been embraced by the community and is carried out by volunteers and staff who honor the dignity of every client that comes through our doors.”
IT’S ABOUT CHOICES
Wakefield said there are many ways for the community to get involved.
“Some donate, some go to fundraisers, others volunteer at the shelter, provide office help, even youth have stepped up,” she said.
She hopes people understand that Shay’s death on January 2 is a tragic incident that in many ways is a harsh reality.
“Maybe for about five minutes last year, I thought it won’t happen,” Wakefield said about people freezing to death. “I realized very quickly that people will make choices that will put them in very dangerous situations and there’s nothing we can really do about that.
“I think the community understands the limit of what we can do.”
Wakefield said many of the issues facing the shelter are based in society in areas such as mental illness, substance abuse, alcoholism and poverty.
She’s been on the job going on two years now, and she knows that the shelter is a necessity for Cortez.
“This really is a service that’s needed. It might be different in other communities, but for Cortez, we need this service,” she said.
Staff member Cole McKinney agreed.
“I think if this shelter wasn’t here, the fatality rate in this town would be much higher,” he said.
A social worker, McKinney understands the challenges of dealing with things like mental illness and alcoholism. But he believes that the shelter makes a huge difference.
“I hope as a community we gain something from this (tragedy) and not let it be lost,” he said.
He knows that the community will always be the backbone behind the shelter.
“I’m an optimist. We’re a rural community in rural Colorado, and I’ve seen how the community has come forward in the past,” he said.
On his Christmas Eve shift, McKinney said people dropped off all kinds of cookies, baked goods, nuts and fruit.
Different organizations and churches have all made a difference over the years, Wakefield said.
Soup kitchens at Grace’s and Hope’s provide daily meals plus donating other food to the shelter itself.
Dolores State Bank donated a washer to the shelter in 2011, so clients can wash their clothes.
“We are growing as an organization and I think the community has a better understanding of what we do as well,” Wakefield said.
With an annual operating budget of more than $146,000, the shelter receives money from a variety of places.
This year, Wakefield said a new source of funding will have a big impact.
The Navajo Nation recently committed $30,000 to the shelter. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe was responsible for 11 percent of last year’s funding.
The $30,000 came from a grant applied for by the Navajo Nation through the Border-Town Initiative. Funding comes from the Department of Behavioral Health of the Navajo Nation, and goes to towns that border Native American reservations, Wakefield explained.
The money helps “assist with border-town issues like substance abuse and homelessness,” she added.
Shortly after the first of the year, Cortez resident Dexter Gill stopped by the shelter to drop off a box of food donations and took a handout with a list of items the shelter needs most. He belongs to a group called Four Corners 9-12. At meetings, members drop off food items, which are donated to the shelter.
“As a whole we see a need in our community and we feel that as part of our community we need to take care of our community, and not depend on federal assistance,” he said.
Wakefield knows that without community support, the shelter will be left out in the cold. But she doesn’t think the support will go away, even if the main support comes from a small segment of the community.
“Maybe (the support) is from just a sliver of the community but that sliver is what I see, and that is very heartening,” she said.
For McAfee, she has seen how the community support has grown over the years.
“We are honored that so many individuals see the value of our services and send us money to finance our operations,” she said. “It is overwhelming to open our mail and find checks of all sizes, often with notes of thanks and encouragement. I know that I speak for our board of directors when I say ‘thank you.’
“The Bridge has become an essential organization for the health of our community,” she added.