EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Over the last 30 years, the Vail Valley Salvation Army has fed and helped thousands of local residents in need, many of whom have come back to return the favor through volunteering.
Executive Director Tsu Wolin-Brown is one of two paid staff members at the nonprofit organization. She began her work with the Vail Valley Salvation Army as a volunteer when the Vail Valley service unit opened and kept volunteering for 21 years until she took on her paid role nine years ago. Her initial motivation to volunteer has not changed: She just wants to make a difference for people.
In its first year, the Vail Valley Salvation Army helped six local families who were struggling to make ends meet. The organization provided food baskets and clothing at Christmas. Fast-forward to the recent that hit in 2008, and the organization's food pantry had 1,245 visits. In 2009, there were 1,850 visits, and in 2010, the number shot up to 4,817.
Wolin-Brown estimated in 2011 that 400 to 450 families per month were seeking help. At that time, the organization's chairman of the board Dan Smith said they were buying food for the first time ever. Prior to that, the organization could meet local demand through its donated food.
Wolin-Brown now estimates roughly 500 families a month are seeking help.
"We know we can't be all things to all people and be their only food source, but it definitely helps," she said.
When the Salvation Army packed its annual holiday food baskets, Smith said 600 baskets is all the organization can physically do. He remembered the days when 50 baskets was enough for the community.
Wolin-Brown remembers the days when the local chapter didn't even have a case worker. She also remembers how the Adopt-a-Family program came about.
Someone called and said she wanted to find a needy family to donate Christmas presents for. Wolin-Brown said there was a family that was sleeping on the floor of an unheated trailer and this donor, who has always remained anonymous, bought warm pajamas, coats, mittens and hats for all of the children. She also bought a gift each for the parents. Then, she took the family a basket full of food for a nice Christmas dinner.
"The mom burst into tears," Wolin-Brown said. "She said, 'We've never had a Christmas like this.'"
It's just one story of so many that Wolin-Brown has heard or seen over the years. Another one is of a mother who once donated food and other items to the Salvation Army. After the recession, she found herself coming in because she needed food for her family, Wolin-Brown said.
And then there are the people who have been in need but have gotten back on their feet who come back to give or volunteer, she said.
"People who give can give money, they can give time - that's the beauty of a lot of what we do," Wolin-Brown said.
Whatever the reason for giving, Wolin-Brown welcomes volunteers and said this valley has no shortage of them. People like Donna Giordano, who has been volunteering for the past nine years, get joy out of giving back.
And people who have watched the organization grow are still around to help it continue to grow. The annual holiday food baskets event, for example, started 29 years ago in Sharon Thompson's garage. She still helps pack the baskets at Avon Elementary School, where volunteers now gather for the job since it has gotten so big.