Analisa Romano

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June 1, 2013
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Small town struggles: Low-income residents in Weld County's rural areas need some help, but mostly rely on each other

In Grover, population 137, the only grocery store in town is a teal, family-owned market on the main street, Chatoga Avenue.

Inside, Carey Morales, 29, stands behind the cash register ready to ring up everything from laundry detergent to artisan pocket knives and chat with customers about the recent moisture.

During a break in the steady stream of customers on Thursday, Morales said Grover, a small town surrounded by open space, is her dream.

“We moved here with a couple thousand dollars and a prayer that we would find a job,” she said.

At first, a job didn’t come. Morales and her husband were living on about $460 per month to support their three children, ages 9, 4 and 2, when they moved from Fort Collins last summer.

For a while, food stamps were a must, Morales said. Since then, she got the job at the market and her husband got a job working at a water treatment plant near town.

But she said she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to fall on hard times, especially living in a place where almost everything she needed was at least 26 miles away in the closest city, Briggsdale.

Nonprofits, businesses and government officials have long struggled with how to reach those who live in the outer limits of Weld County, questioning whether enough people could benefit from their services to outweigh the costs of traversing a 4,000-square-mile county.

According to the U.S. Census, more than 23 percent of families who live in Grover had incomes in the past year that fell below federal poverty guidelines.

In Greeley, it’s more than 15 percent.

Ault, Keenesburg and Fort Lupton similarly have Census data comparable to Greeley, with 14.8, 15.1 and 14.7 percent of families with poverty-level incomes in the past year.

Still, as the Weld County seat and most populous city in the county, it makes sense to base services out of Greeley, community leaders say. Last year, 11,916 cases from Greeley or Evans passed through Weld County Human Services, compared to 25 out of Grover or 122 out of Keenesburg.

Weld officials and nonprofits agree that more should be done to offer geographically comprehensive services to low-income residents in the county, but many aren’t sure where to start, and others are just beginning to find a model that works.

In some cases, the solution still may not be to bring services to the New Raymers and the Pierces of Weld. In southwest Weld County, small towns are doing better with a local system that coordinates with Greeley-based entities, while groups such as the Weld Food Bank are trying a hybrid of local and traveling services.

Most residents of Grover realize they aren’t going to have access to some of the same services as Greeley without driving 56 miles for it, Grover Mayor Matt Ososky said.

But those in the nonprofit world say those who fall into poverty don’t get to choose where it happens, and those who live on fixed incomes in rural areas face a number of obstacles that don’t exist in the city, such as lack of transportation and Internet access.

In Grover, Morales said, the town is a “small, closely-knit community,” where 15 people pull to the side of the road if you get a flat tire.

When she and her family were struggling last December, Morales said she found a white piece of paper on her car windshield. Folded inside was a $50 bill, the first of several anonymous monetary gifts from Morales’ neighbors to be sure that her family could still celebrate Christmas.

That’s when Morales said she began to believe in karma, and it’s part of why she loves her town.

“If you’re going to move, move to Grover,” she says with a smile from behind her cash register.

Finding the right solution

For organizations such as United Way of Weld County, it’s difficult to gauge how much and what kind of need exists in rural areas, and it’s even more difficult to serve them.

During Weld Project Connect last fall, a one-day, one-stop event for anyone who needs assistance, United Way offered a bus to pick up people from southwest Weld County, but only a handful of people took advantage, said Mark Tucker, spokesman for United Way of Weld County. He said it’s difficult to tell whether those in that area didn’t know about the service, or simply didn’t want it.

“The tough thing is not knowing if they are coming to Greeley for services or if the need is really as low as the numbers show, which is probably not the case,” Tucker said.

Because United Way’s purpose is to connect agencies and fill the gap where needed, it often doesn’t make sense to deploy services in the rural parts of the county, said Wilmerd Velez, director of United Way’s 2-1-1 and Community Impact programs.

“If there is not a service being done, we try to produce it in-house,” Velez said. “Does it make sense, and is it worth the investment in northeast Weld County? The answer is most likely not, because if there are 10 people who are going to use it through the year, that’s a big investment.”

Drew Depler, a facilitator of the Carbon Valley Network, a resource center for those who need financial assistance in southwest Weld County, said the local network he helped established five years ago has worked better than using services only out of Greeley.

The Carbon Valley Network coordinates local efforts but also communicates with agencies based out of Greeley. In March, the network opened a resource center staffed by volunteers two days per week as a place people could go as a first step for help.

Depler, a pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church in Frederick, said repairing the relationship among Greeley entities and those in southwest Weld was a major hurdle in establishing the Carbon Valley Network.

Greeley-based agencies work well and efficiently, Depler said, but he said some in the tri-town area were concerned that working with Greeley again would mean resources would shift away from Frederick, Firestone and Dacono.

John Kruse, assistance payments administrator for Weld County Human Services, said he, too, has heard criticisms that services are too Greeley-centric.

Ultimately, Kruse said, he would like to see Weld get out more to rural areas. The county does have offices in Fort Lupton and Del Camino, but he said the northern section of the county — also the most sparsely populated — is difficult and costly to reach.

Kruse said technology has helped some. Many GED programs are offered online, as well as human services forms and information for things like employment help and food assistance, while some jobs, such as with a call center, don’t require a commute.

But Depler said many of those living in poverty don’t have the option to move somewhere where it would be more convenient to get assistance.

“People can fall on hard times wherever they are at,” he said. “I think a significant level of poverty exists across the county.”

Feeding the hungry

At 9 a.m. last Monday, a well-oiled machine of local volunteers took their places beside a Weld Food Bank truck in Hudson and, beneath a blanket of mild sunshine, dolled out boxes full of cucumbers, carrots, apples and more to a line of more than 100 people that curled through a church parking lot.

A new program started by the Weld Food Bank in December, the traveling pantry brings fresh produce to cities and towns across Weld County. On different days, the truck visits places such as Keenesburg, Fort Lupton, Dacono and soon, New Raymer.

Perry Bell, a board member with the Weld Food Bank and a pastor for Destination Ministries, said the idea behind the food pantry was to reach out to areas where it hasn’t had strong partnerships in the past, and “feed the hungry.”

The pantry brings fresh fruits and vegetables — often one of the first things to be sacrificed when shopping on a budget at the grocery store, he said.

Bob O’Connor, director of the Weld Food Bank, said the traveling pantry is the perfect supplement to the organization’s system of more than 100 partnerships across the county.

“They don’t have the capacity for big freezers, we don’t have the capacity to travel all of the miles in Weld County,” O’Connor said. So, they settled on a supplement of fruits and vegetables — an arrangement he said is working.

Jeanne Leach, 57, said as she waited in line for the traveling pantry in Hudson the food she gets there fills the gap in what she and her husband can’t afford each week.

Leach said her husband has been out of work for four out of the last six years after owning a mortgage company, which he left shortly before the housing market crashed.

Now, Leach said, she is an online editor and teacher and takes whatever related odd jobs she can get. She said she found housing in Hudson through a friend in one of her online writer’s groups, and is living rent-free.

“That is the only way we could live,” she said. Leach said she visits the Salud Family Health Center in Fort Lupton for her high blood pressure and “came right away” when she heard about the food bank.

“It has really helped a lot,” Leach said.

A great irony of living in Weld County is the fact that it is one of the largest agricultural-producing counties in the U.S., but those who live in Weld’s less populous areas have very little access to produce.

“Even though we grow a lot of food around here, we can’t always afford to eat it,” said Erik Powers, a coordinator of the Sharehouse, a local food pantry in Nunn. “The ag industry operates on a very, very thin margin of profit,” meaning farmers and ranchers often can’t spare their products to donate, he said.

Because food is a prevalent need in every Weld County community, the food bank knew a traveling service would pay off.

Still, O’Connor said the food bank continues to use the connections it already has, including one with the Sharehouse, while the traveling aspect of its service acts as a supplement to existing need.

Depler said that seems like a good model.

“Some decentralization is a good idea,” he said.

‘Everybody knows everybody’

Jasmine Beltran, 30, and Vero Ojeda, 33, both from Chihuahua, Mexico, said after they went through the food pantry line they feel they have enough access to things like food stamps and employment help — there is a Weld County Human Services office in Fort Lupton, just 10 miles west of Hudson — but in terms of basic commodities, Hudson lacks “almost everything,” they said.

Even with the food pantry and a food bank based in Fort Lupton, Beltran said she often treks up to Greeley to shop in bulk at Sam’s Club. There are no recreation centers nearby for the kids to keep out of trouble, and the affordable clothes she finds at Walmart or at a second-hand store, too, are available only in Greeley.

For the low-income residents of rural Weld County who don’t have a car, it’s things like that they say could be a great benefit if brought to town.

Dusty Colton, the kitchen manager at the market in Grover, lives across the street from where he works. His wife had a stroke several years ago and the pair collects a Social Security check every month, but Colton, 54, said his paycheck normally goes to the credit he has on food purchases where he works.

Still, it helps to live in a town where “everybody knows everybody,” Colton said.

With no car, Colton said, he relies on friends to take him and his wife to town for doctor’s appointments. His landlord helped him build a ramp leading up to his mobile home for his wife, and he pays a little extra each month in rent to avoid the up-front cost of a $600 security deposit.

The owners of the Grover market are similarly flexible with anyone in town who might need a little help, Morales said.

Pinned on the wall next to her cash register, a smattering of receipts reflects more than $2,000 worth of credit that the store owners have given to town residents.

Mike Freeman, Weld County commissioner who represents District 1, the northern half of the county, said you don’t see that kind of thing in larger cities.

It’s why he said he suspects he doesn’t often hear complaints from his constituents that more services should be brought to their small towns.

“The calls that I get every single day are about the roads,” Freeman said.

When three-fourths of your community turns out for a football game, it’s easy to find help from a neighbor, he said.

But Freeman and others also noted that same closeness in a community can deter some who don’t want to ask for help, either because they are embarrassed or because of a prevailing Western mentality to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

That was part of the reason why the food bank’s pantry doesn’t have any income requirements, O’Connor said. And Tim Falk, a pastor at Highland Community Church in Ault, which participates in the Sharehouse program, said it’s what drove program coordinators to suggest that residents bring things like clothes or toys to share, if they can, so that it’s less of a “handout.”

Each week, the Sharehouse sees between 30 and 40 families pass through its doors, Falk said. He said the Saturday program has become an opportunity for people to visit with each other every week.

“A lot of people who live in these areas actually work in Greeley or Cheyenne,” he said. “It’s like a bedroom community, so there may not be as much of that neighborly action as you might think.”

Looking after each other

In Grover, the houses and mobile homes that line the gravel roads are small but well-kept. There is a park and baseball field, and kids on Thursday were riding their bikes down the main street like any Mayberry town.

For Colton, Grover was the perfect solution for his wife’s health. The country lifestyle is less stressful for her, and he said they live across the street from the fire department and paramedics.

Osasky, Grover’s mayor, said there are a number of things he’d ideally like to see in town. But realistically, he said the cost per resident for the town to provide anything on its own is simply too high.

Grover residents know that, Osasky said, and those who move there, move knowing they will have to drive more than 20 miles to get to the nearest gas station. And that’s OK.

“Pretty much, as far as social services, we look after each other,” he said.

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My Windsor Now Updated Jun 1, 2013 11:49PM Published Jun 7, 2013 11:40AM Copyright 2013 My Windsor Now. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.