When it comes to dedication, there are not many people who measure up to Tsu Wolin-Brown. The longtime local has spent more than 20 years volunteering for the Salvation Army and other local nonprofits in the valley, including the Eagle Valley Family Assistance Fund, Echo Ranch, the Family Learning Center. In June, she transitioned from being a full-time volunteer to her new position as Community Caseworker for the Salvation Army. In a county of incredible wealth, Wolin-Brown’s job puts her in touch in the less-visible poor and impoverished families in our community.
Caramie Schnell: Let’s start with your background; I know you and your husband, Rich, have been here for years…
Tsu Wolin-Brown: We’ve been here for 31-and-a-half years. Two weeks after I got here I met my first husband, who is still my husband, at a bar. I love it, you go to cocktail parties and say, ‘this is my first husband, Richard,’ and they’re like, ‘gosh, it is so great you guys still get along.’
My family used to move across the country like people move across the street. I was born in Virginia; daddy was a professor at William and Mary. We moved to California when I was really little and then back to Massachusetts and then back to California where I grew up.
I was a language major in college. When I got out of college I applied to Pan American World Airways to be a flight crew member, thinking, ‘Oh good, I can use my French and Italian and travel.’ Then they had big flight cutbacks in ’73, so my dad said ‘Why don’t you go to our sister school in Brazil and you can learn Spanish and Portuguese and teach Spanish and English?’ I was on my way there and I stopped here to see a sorority sister and I never left. It was one of those old ski bum things, but I didn’t ski.
CS: Do you ski now?
TW: No, I haven’t since Eric (her son) was six, because I lost him on the mountain. It was a horrible day – awful, awful weather, we kept stopping to warm up. On the way down, he said, ‘Mom I just want to do this one black face’ and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go around on the catwalk and I’ll meet you right there.’ He disappeared. I walked down to the Children’s Ski Center and Cissy Olson said, ‘What do you mean, you lost Eric? You of all people, you didn’t have a plan?’ I called home and told Rich, ‘I lost Eric.’ Somehow he got a call. Eric had walked into the ticket office and said ‘Excuse me, sir, can I please use your phone for a local call?’ He got on the phone and sobbing, said, ‘Daddy, I’ve lost my mommy and I can’t find her anywhere.’
After that Eric said, ‘Mom, please never make me ski with you again, ever,’ and I never have. He skis a lot, though, and his brother snowboards.
CS: What did you do when you first came to town?
TW: When I came here I started off being a lift operator and then Dick Dickson hired me to be a Vail hostess; that was an interesting experience. I didn’t really ski, so I would be hanging out with beginners and helping them and that created some animosity with the hostesses who were in the Back Bowls. They kept saying, ‘How could you hire her when she can’t ski?’ I’d like to get back into it, but frankly it takes a lot of time even to just go up for three runs and it’s expensive. I’ve gotten away from that. We walk; Jackson (her dog) and I walk 3 to 5 miles a day.
CS: And you have two boys?
TW: Eric is 24 and Harrison, who I call Baby H, he’s from New Orleans. I call him my ragin’ Cajun baby. Both of them are adopted. I lucked out. They were each six days old when we got them. For Eric, I had to move out of state for nearly a year. At that time, Colorado didn’t allow private placement adoptions so we had to go to Wyoming, where they were a lot more reasonable. We were really committed; we did what we had to do.
CS: Tell me about how you got involved with Salvation Army?
TW: We started doing holiday projects and Adopt-A-Family. We were using the Vail Religious Foundation as a fiscal flow through for the donations. And Cissy Dobson, who was one of my heroes, had done it through the Vail Religious Foundation. (Eventually) they said, ‘You’re a better match for Salvation Army.’
CS: What year was that?
TW: I’m thinking it was 1984. Eric was two when I had him start sorting cans for food baskets, poor kid, he’s gotten suckered in his whole life doing volunteer work. He couldn’t read, but he could figure out which was a fruit, which was a vegetable, which was a soup. It was then, or a little after, that we joined with Salvation Army and created the Adopt-A-Family in 1985. That started with a neighbor. One of my neighbors called and said, ‘Tsu, get me a needy family.’ I called social services and asked and he said, ‘We happen to have a family in a little trailer in Dotsero. The dad worked for the railroad but never managed to get paid and now he’s lost his job. They’re sleeping on the floor and they have two little kids and boy, if you could do Christmas for them, that would be awesome.’ We went and found furniture through our holiday project store, basics, not a lot, and some household stuff, and then this neighbor of mine bought each of the kids, coats, hats, mittens, a toy each, a book each and then a cologne for each of the parents and then got a basket and put all the makings for a holiday meal. We had the social worker deliver it and he walked in the door and he said the mother burst into tears and said ‘I’ve never had a Christmas like this.’ It was so neat. So the next year, we said, we need to make this opportunity available to other people who want to adopt a family. Last year it was up to 350 Adopt-A-Families. We have great families but they struggle. In this valley, it takes two to three jobs for a family to make it when the rents cost what they do. And we have the working poor, most of them can’t afford insurance and it takes them one medical problem to set them behind big time. In this valley, to meet the federal poverty income guidelines and still afford rent is very hard. VT
Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com.
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