How We Found ACS Community L.I.F.T.
When you’re volunteering in a new city, it is incredibly helpful to connect with a volunteer agency to help you find a great volunteer experience. To make the most of our trip to Colorado, we reached out to Metro Volunteers to help us identify the perfect volunteer opportunity for our time in Denver. With the help of Sally Hallingstad (Director of Events and Marketing) and Kristy Judd (Executive Director), we learned about the great work going on at ACS Community L.I.F.T. and signed up to help!
One of the first things you’ll notice at ACS LIFT is the team of long-term dedicated volunteers that have taken ownership over the programs and services at this organization. There’s an incredible sense of community among the volunteers and staff and it’s hard to know which came first – did the great atmosphere attract the right volunteers or did the right volunteers develop a wonderful work environment? Maybe it’s a little of both! Their volunteers stock and run the Santa shop, sort and inventory donated foods, develop complex databases, maintain and staff the thrift shop, and even act as CEO volunteer partner. Rebekah and I were so impressed with their commitments, that I’d like to feature some of their remarkable volunteers.
Ruthie Robertson’s grandchildren live in England and she rarely gets the opportunity to spend time with them. Instead of spoiling her own grandchild (as is every grandparent’s right) she decided to start bringing some Christmas cheer to the children of Denver. Just over eight years ago, Ruthie started making Christmas stockings at home and they’re beautiful!
That labor of love eventually turned into the Santa Store, where low-income families can select gifts to give their children at Christmas. Ruthie along with Shelley and Carol plan out the Santa Store and make sure it stays fully stocked for the four days it’s open. Ruthie explains that many people try to rush in on the first day because they’re afraid everything will be picked over by the last day, but Ruthie let me in on a little secret, “We save some of the best stuff for last!”
Their attention to detail is impeccable. Each homemade stocking is filled with toys, snacks, and topped off with a beanie baby. The Santa Shop runs for four days and at the end of each day they take inventory and go off to acquire more gifts. Ruthie clearly takes joy in bargain hunting for presents so she can stretch their small budget as far as possible. On my way out, I noticed that they even take the time to include the batteries for each gift because what would Christmas morning be like if your only gift sat silent and still because of missing batteries?
We also met husband and wife team Don and Jeanne. Don is a retired business owner and helps with unloading and sorting food while his wife Jeanne runs the thrift store. They’ve been volunteering together here once a week…for the last 13 years!
We also met Theresa, a retired mother of seven (!) kids who has been volunteering for 14 years with ACS. Now she volunteers everyday. She said that she can relate to the families in need because there were times in her life when she worried about how to feed her children. Now she has the opportunity to help other people take care of their families.
Rebekah spent a lot of time stocking and sorting food with the lively group of gentlemen who run that section of the operation. Most of the time, I was in a different room, but I could often hear Rebekah laughing from the other side of the building. She said that they were really particular about their system and they took it very seriously.
Rebekah tried to follow their strict guidelines and label food according to their high standards!
We got to talk with Quincy and learned that he is the informal watchman of ACS LIFT. Quincy lives across the street and loves the care that’s shown at ACS. He wants to help protect this incredible place, so he keeps a watchful eye on it from across the street, and when necessary he sets up shop on the property to protect it. At one point they were building new sheds and worried about tools and supplies walking off so Quincy got his hammock and camped out to protect everything. Quincy says his wife and daughter like to volunteer as well. Initially Quincy was reluctant to have his picture taken, but Rebekah was able to charm him.
Chris Hill is the Chief Operating Officer, but she gives so much of her time, that I think she counts as a volunteer. Her husband (who she calls Santa) is employed full time, but take a half day every Tuesday so that he can cook dinner to distribute to the homeless later that evening. Maybe with a little encouragement Santa would also volunteer in the Santa Shop!
I talked with Chris, CEO Michael Bright, and their Communications Coordinator Donna Webb about their volunteers and what they mean to the organization. How important are they? “Oh!” Chris exclaimed – she looked terrified at the thought. “We’d have to close our doors. There’s just no way we could do it without them!” Michael added that they want their volunteers to be empowered and from what I’d seen that system is definitely working. Michael joked that the volunteers boss him around – he’ll try to “help” by picking up a sack of potatoes and asking where it goes just to have one of the volunteer sorters tell him to put it right back where he got it from.
One of the other things I noticed about this group is that comprehensiveness and big picture issues are carefully balanced with an eye for detail. This approach is evidence in every aspect of their operation. Between Chris and Michael you’ll get a very comprehensive volunteer experience – Chris will show you how every area works and Michael will talk with you to find out what you’re really passionate about. He asks two questions: When it comes to volunteering, what’s important to you? What can I do to help you accomplish that?
My favorite part of the volunteer experience was working in the food pantry, where I had an opportunity to help the clients shop. The first family I met was a mom and a little girl. I rounded the corner and was greeted by a beautiful little girl sitting in the shopping cart. She had long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail and she had beautiful eyes. “Hola!” she shouted when she saw me. She instantly followed that up with “Como te llamas?” I wracked my brain for a second. Was she asking my name or was she asking how I was doing? After a second I said, “Sarah, y tu?” Her eyes got widened and she gave me a big smile. “Katie!” she yelled. I felt really proud of myself. I managed to ask a four year old her name without making a fool of myself. In the little bit of Spanish I remembered, I talked to her in very simple sentences while her mom shopped. She pointed to the tomatoes on the shelf and I asked “Como se dice tomatoes en Espanol?” – how do you say “tomatoes” in spanish. I told her I liked her shoes. I asked if she spoke English. Mostly, inevitably, she dwarfed me – I knew enough to ask simple questions, but not really enough to understand most of her answers. This little girl was already bilingual and I still work to master a single language. I helped her mom carry the groceries to the car and Katie followed along with us. “Adios” I told her as they were leaving and she said the same in return. Despite tough times for her family, she is such a happy little girl.
I also met a man named Angelo – one of the last food bank clients for the day. With Katie and her mom, I had been shadowing one of the other volunteers learning how the system worked. You can spend three points in the cereal/grains section, 4 points in the protein section, etc. When we got to Angelo, it was my turn to help him navigate the shelves and the point system. As it turns out, Angelo was a first timer too. We walked through the rows and I tried to be very very clear about how many points he could spend and how many points each item was worth because there was a situation I was dreading. I’m terrible at telling people “no” especially when I’d really rather say yes. So what I really wanted to avoid was a circumstance where a family reached for something and I had to tell them “no I’m sorry you can’t have that.” Maybe I over explained, but I was being very transparent and told Angelo that I was learning the system too. Angelo was about my age I think. He was very friendly and spoke perfect English with a very very slight Spanish accent. Under different circumstances, I think that we would have been friends. We laughed and talked as we worked our way through the pantry. When he was finished shopping, he looked at the cart and then back at me and said “I can’t believe how much food you’ve given me. Thank you so much! This is so much food. You are so generous!” I was taken aback. It wasn’t my food to give! I felt like I didn’t do anything to deserve his outpouring of gratitude. It made me a little uncomfortable because I felt like an impostor accepting his gratitude for offering him food that I didn’t buy or donate. I realized that him was trying to express his sincere gratitude and that I was getting in the way of that. I didn’t buy the food, I didn’t donate the food or organize it or sort it. There were probably dozens of people involved in filling his grocery cart and while I didn’t do all of it, I helped with a very small part of it. He wanted to express his gratitude and I was the only one there to receive it. I helped him carry the groceries outside and he asked that I place the packages on the ground. He had taken the bus and didn’t have a car to take everything home. He said he would put everything in his backpack to transport it. I looked at his backpack and then looked back at the boxes of food. I couldn’t figure out how on earth he was going to carry all of this food home in one trip and I started to worry that he wouldn’t be able to manage it. While I was nursing my own worry, I realized that he was thrilled. I was looking at it as a problem – how will he transport this stuff? But he was thinking about this incredible abundance and how blessed he was to have such a problem. Obviously he had not expected such generosity. If having too much food to carry was his biggest dilemma that day, he was very happy to have such a challenge.
How to Help
- Interviewers: Make life worth living by interviewing clients and giving away food, rental and utility assistance as well as food and clothes
- Options Food Bank: Unload and sort through the food, stock the shelves and assist the clients with their shopping
- Yesterday’s Treasures Thrift Center: Sort donations and mark them accordingly for resale. Personal shoppers assist customers with their selections.
- Health professionals: Provide primary care to adults every Monday and Tuesday nights on the CareVan (mobile medical van) And Primary Care at the 1st St Clinic on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.This progam is rapidly expanding to other days and venues to provide stop gap care to the disadvantaged and unisured. See the » Medical Services “Medical Services Page for more details.
- Drivers: Drive the CareVan to and from events; pick up food and furniture donations
- Medical Data Entry: Enter client data into the healthcare database
- Enrollment Counselors: Screening for patient participation & qualification.
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Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to come to ACS. Your wonderful comments brought tears to my eyes because this place is so near and dear to my heart and you painted such an accurate picture of what goes on day to day. God bless you as you travel around the country. You and Rebecca were amazing!
Thank you, Sarah and Rebekah, for this story; I love hearing about the magnificent work that our members are doing and to echo Chris’s comment, you relayed the story and ACS’s mission beautifully. Safe travels – come back to Denver soon!