Vail Valley Charitable Fund celebrates 25 years
The nonprofit has distributed $8.4 million to over 1,800 individuals and families struggling with the financial burden of medical crises
In 1995, Rohn Robbins had recently moved to Vail Valley and was working as an attorney. One day at the gym, he overheard a group of people in the lobby talking about the wife of one of the trainers, who was battling cancer.
“They were discussing ways that they could raise money for the family, things like bake sales, and I asked if I could join the conversation,” Robbins said. “I said, I think I can do better than a bake sale.”
Robbins knew that the touring cast of the broadway show “Miss Saigon” was in Denver at the time, and after a few cold calls to the company, he succeeded in bringing all 65 cast members plus crew to Eagle County to put on a variety show at Battle Mountain High School.
The sold-out show and 400-item auction raised $85,000 in a single night.
“It occurred to me that A: this is probably needed by other people in the community, and B: I guess I’m OK at doing this,” Robbins said.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
Thus began the Vail Valley Charitable Fund, an organization that Robbins officially founded in Sept. 1996 that has gone on to distribute $8.4 million to over 1,800 local families in its 25-year existence.
Community fundraising, with an emphasis on fun
On Aug. 21, the VVCF celebrated its 25th anniversary in style with a “Brew-au” — a combination between a beer fest and a luau that highlighted the two most important elements of the VVCF: community and fun.
“I’ve always wanted what we do to be fun,” Robbins said. “When people come to our events, they come because it is something fun to do, and they would come whether or not it was a charity.”
One of the most successful and memorable fundraising campaigns that the VVCF ever did was the Vail Undressed Calendar, another brainchild of Robbins. For many years, the VVCF put out a yearly calendar that featured well-known members of the local community stripping down to take tasteful nude photographs in scenic spots around Vail Valley. Unsurprisingly, the calendar was wildly popular and a huge boon for fundraising every year.
“That really put us on the map,” Robbins said. “When we started doing the Undressed calendar, everybody knew who we were.”
The VVCF continues to raise and distribute tens of thousands of dollars to the Eagle County community every year. The nonprofit’s primary distribution method is through one-time grants totaling up to $5,000 that help support individuals and families during a period of medical and financial hardship. Grant applications are reviewed on a monthly basis, and the 13-member volunteer VVCF Board of Directors determines recipients according to circumstance and need.
“A lot of the people we help do have insurance in one form or another, but that doesn’t address things like time off of work to take care of a sick family member,” Robbins said. “That doesn’t address expenses if that person has to travel to Denver and stay in a hotel; that doesn’t buy the groceries. A lot of what we cover is not necessarily direct medical expenses, but expenses that are related to somebody in the family being ill.”
Brooke Skjonsby is the current executive director of the VVCF, and she was originally introduced to the organization when a close friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer.
“They helped us put on a beautiful fundraiser for her so that she could focus on healing and not her surmounting medical bills,” Skjonsby said. “So many of us have been touched by medical crises or long-term illnesses, and this valley comes together to support people in such a huge way. I just got very intimately introduced to how incredibly powerful and impactful this organization is in the valley.”
On Sept. 12 of this year, the VVCF will be putting on a celebration of life for Mike Tennant, a community member who recently passed due to complications related to kidney failure. Tennant was treated at UC Health for 31 days, and though he was insured, the out-of-pocket expenses have been overwhelming for his family.
The VVCF is helping to put on the event, suggesting a $45 dollar donation for attendees, and hosting an online silent auction to raise money to support Tennant’s family during this time. Direct donations can be made at ColoradoGives.org/vvcf. It is just one more example of how the VVCF has supported hundreds of families over the years.
“We step in to support, lift up and help locals who have been handed a horrible medical situation of varying degrees,” Skjonsby said. “I’m passionate about the work we do because I know the impact that it has on people’s lives around me.”
New programs tackle dental care, physical therapy and breast cancer support in the valley
Over time, the VVCF has expanded its services to offer programs that address areas of prominent need in the valley. The first of these programs was Eagle County Smiles, which started in 2010 and offers low-cost dental care to children younger than 18. Forty-five percent of Eagle Country residents do not have dental insurance, and our county had the highest percentage of Coloradans who skipped dental care due to cost in 2019.
“There are issues that start very small, but can spiral into something way more,” Skjonsby said. “We help provide dental care across the spectrum, from a basic teeth cleaning to people whose mouths are full of cavities who need serious treatment.”
Over 800 children have been served by the program since its inception, and the success of the program motivated VVCF to initiate Eagle County Grins last year. The Grins program mirrors that of Smiles, providing dental care to uninsured adults in the Vail Valley who are 19 years of age and older with up to $1,500 dollars for treatment.
In 2019, 31% of applicants who applied for VVCF funding required physical therapy. In response to this need, the organization launched Eagle County Moves last year, partnering with Axis Sports Medicine and independent provider Mary Witt to provide up to 12 free physical therapy sessions.
The VVCF also recently brought the Vail Breast Cancer Group into its organization, with the mission to ease the financial and emotional burdens endured by women in Eagle County who are battling breast cancer.
Looking toward the next 25 years
As the VVCF celebrates the successes of its first quarter-century, Robbins and Skjonsby are looking at ways to make the fund even more impactful in the coming decades. For starters, they want to increase the maximum dollar amount for one-time grants from $5,000 to $10,000.
“While $5,000 is a huge help to a lot of people, for some it truly is a drop in the bucket,” Skjonsby said. “Their expenses are so out of control, whether it’s surmounting medical bills or they’re out of work and they can’t pay rent or put food on the table, so really increasing that maximum grant would be wonderful.”
In a serendipitous overlap with its anniversary celebration, the VVCF was recently selected as one of 200 finalists in the State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant program, a national competition that celebrates organizations addressing issues in their local community. The VVCF was selected as a finalist out of 2,000 submissions from around the country, and the contest now goes to an open vote. People can vote for their nonprofit of choice online, and if the VVCF gains enough votes to be in the top 40, it will receive a $25,000 grant from State Farm.
Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. today, and voters are allowed to register up to 10 votes per day. To cast your vote for VVCF, visit neighborhoodassist.com. The money from the grant will go toward supporting the Eagle County Smiles and Eagle County Grins programs.
Robbins is also starting an endowment in the hopes that it will allow the VVCF to support and expand its community grants and programs for decades to come. His journey with the charitable fund all started with an act of compassion for a stranger, and that is the type of community that Robbins wants to build and maintain in Eagle County.
“We really are all in this together,” Robbins said. “If we don’t help each other, there is absolutely no hope. If somebody falls down, you stick out your hand and you help them get back up. That’s just being a part of humanity. Even though you’re just making a little ripple in the pond, if we all make our little ripples, those ripples will come together and become a wave.”