La Plata County parents have formed a network, organized through the La Plata Family Centers Coalition, to deliver aid straight to their neighbors’ doorsteps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As more people needed resources during the health crisis, the nonprofit realized barriers, such as poor internet or unreliable transportation, prevented families from getting household supplies and financial assistance. So staff members gathered community volunteers to meet people where they are at – their homes.
“It was really obvious right away that some of our families really needed help. So we started in March (2020), and we’ve done it ever since,” said Denise Herrera, a parent leader in the program.
During the pandemic, parents have had greater job instability while children were sent home to work remotely. Some families dealt with sickness or even the loss of a family member.
But accessing help could be difficult. Some parents faced language barriers or felt uncomfortable asking for help, while others needed child care just to get groceries.
Without steady income, people were stuck without reliable transportation or enough money to pay for fuel, Herrera said.
“To put it in perspective, when I go to town (Durango) it’s a 60-mile round trip,” said Herrera, a resident south of Hesperus. “If you are out here and you need something, it’s a project and it’s expensive to get to town.”
The community volunteers, called parent leaders, live in communities around La Plata County where they can easily identify neighbors who could use assistance.
LPFCC, an affiliate of the Family Resource Center Association based in Denver, acts as a hub for household supplies. From there, parent leaders help deliver items such as food boxes, diapers and baby formula to families. They also connect families to resources, like opportunities to receive financial assistance on rent or utility payments.
Eight parent leaders have joined the network since it launched in March 2020. They serve four manufactured housing communities in La Plata County and 20 to 25 families in the Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School attendance zone.
“Each of us have different needs in our communities, and each of us have different things that we focus on,” said Herrera, who is also an administrative assistant with the Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School.
By delivering resources directly to families, the parent leader network removes some of the barriers families face, said Heather Hawk, LPFCC board secretary.
The program reduces the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for community members, eliminates transportation barriers and reduces stigma or concern about being identified as someone who needs support, she said.
“(We’re) really looking at a strength-based approach to getting those resources out without families having to come up with a way to get to the center,” Hawk said. “That’s been a big part of the pandemic response.”
When Herrera joined the parent leader program, she immediately began delivering food boxes and even homework assignments to the families in the elementary school’s expansive attendance zone.
Many pandemic support resources are web-based, so she prints and delivers forms for those with spotty internet access. Sometimes, Herrera just offers a listening ear to families. She often relies on the nonprofit’s accumulated knowledge about resources in the area.
“You’re not out here on your own trying to slay the dragon,” she said. “That’s the beauty of the network.”
Herrera said it was a responsive, grassroots program. When she informed the LPFCC of financial or household needs she discovered in her community, the nonprofit adapted and used its resources to meet those needs.
“If we can build up individuals and we can build up families, we can build from there. We can build the world,” Herrera said. “That’s the way I see things. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Herrera is one of two parent leaders hired by the LPFCC. She estimated that she spends 15 hours each week on her work with the network, but volunteer roles are flexible. Others spend two hours a week helping to deliver supplies, she said.
The family center hopes to grow the parent leader network in the future and potentially hire more leaders, said Mariel Balbuena, LPFCC executive director.
“Meeting (families) where they are and bringing a sense of humanity in times of crisis with this kind of approach – I think it’s remarkable,” she said.
The LPFCC serves about 130 families and individuals on a weekly basis through the parent leader network and other programs. Its Parents as Teachers program was awarded Blue Ribbon affiliate status in November, a national award recognizing it for high-quality family services.
Balbuena and Hawk said these peer-led programs empower community members to lead the effort to find solutions for the issues affecting them.
“The big takeaway for me over the last year is just seeing how much a small group of people can do when they’re connected personally to those they’re trying to help,” Hawk said. “I think that’s really powerful.”