LiftUp of Routt County marks 25th anniversary in year marked by skyrocketing need

Judy Winter sorts through a bag of donations Tuesday at the receiving room at the LiftUp of Routt County thrift store. Winter has worked at LiftUp since it first opened 25 years ago, but this was her first day back since the pandemic began. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT PILOT — Judy Winter looked at home Tuesday afternoon as she sorted through bags of donated items inside the receiving room at the LiftUp of Routt County thrift store for the first time in a year.

“I’ve been at home,” Winter said. “My daughter came out and got me last March and took me home to Minnesota for three months and then I came back in May.”

Winter is proud she was one of the first volunteers to offer to help when the store first opened 25 years ago, and for Winter, who is now in her 80s, LiftUp has provided her the opportunity to give back — at least until March of 2020.

“I wanted to help people,” she said from behind a mask. “We said we would do this as long as we were in town — I’m still here.”

Now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Winter has returned to her familiar routine that involves hours volunteering for the nonprofit, which has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic.

“This is one of the most challenging years that we have gone through in our almost 25-year history of trying to help people in Routt County,” said Bob Schuellein, LiftUp board president. “Obviously, COVID changed the way we operate. Our retail store, which is our largest source of revenue to help people in Routt County, was shut down throughout the year.”

The thrift store was closed for the first three months of the pandemic and only opened its doors for 29 days in January and February. The impact would have been devastating without the generous support of donors and granters who stepped up to help.

Lianna Luallin sorts through jewelry inside the LiftUp of Routt County thrift store Tuesday. Revenue from the store supports the nonprofit, which provides food banks and financial assistance programs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“It created tremendous pressure on us to come up with other sources of income, so that we could provide assistance to people,” Schuellein said. “Sue (Fegelein) and her staff did an outstanding job, and it’s really because the generosity of this community. Steamboat is probably one of the most generous communities I have ever lived in, in my entire life.”

That support continues with a new initiative, Drive for 25, that celebrates the organization’s 25th anniversary with a five-month, $25,000 matching challenge offered through a partnership between LiftUp and Yampa Valley Bank. The organization’s business partners will help jump start and market the campaign, which will focus each month on the four areas where LiftUp provides support — home, heating, health and eating.

“I think 2020 was a crazy year for everyone in our community,” said LiftUp Executive Director Sue Fegelein. “It was a year of learning how to quickly pivot repeatedly. The focus on the safety of our staff and volunteers has been paramount throughout, and I’m extremely grateful that we have been able to serve the community throughout COVID.”

Despite the thrift store only generating about half of its normal revenue in 2020, Fegelein said need is higher than ever and COVID has affected a wide range of community members — many of whom have never needed the food bank before.

“It just seemed to hit a large swath of the community at all different income levels,” Fegelein said.

The biggest increase in need was in the area of housing assistance.

Fegelein said LiftUp served 82 clients in 2019 awarding a little more than $50,000 in housing assistance. In 2020, those numbers more than tripled to 265 people needing $231,000 in housing assistance, which was far greater than the $55,000 the organization had budgeted.

LiftUp also changed the way it provided food to the community throughout the pandemic. The LiftUp food bank provided 3,625 shopping trips in 2019, and that number grew to 5,337 by the end of 2020.

Fegelein said the reasons people needed help shifted as the pandemic unfolded.

“In the beginning, it was mostly that work shutdown in Steamboat and the county and state rules that required people to stay at home depending on the stage,” Fegelein said. “Then by the end of the year, it was actually ‘I’m sick, I have COVID or I’m in quarantine.'”

Fegelein isn’t sure what the future holds now more and more people are getting vaccinated, but she said she has not seen a decrease in need.

“Since the beginning of January, we’ve already had over $100,000 in requests for housing assistance from 134 people,” Fegelein said. “It’s been up and down in the food bank, but March 1 was the busiest day our food bank manager has seen since she’s been here.”

It’s been challenging for Fegelein to see so many people hurting, but she said the community has responded with generous donations, which has allowed LiftUp to continue offering aid.

Dominick Chillemi checks out a coffee maker in the receiving room of the LiftUp of Routt County thrift store on Tuesday afternoon. The store provides income that is used to support LiftUp's food bank and financial assistance programs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“Seeing the number of folks who were suffering financially and in great need has been really hard,” she said. “I think folks are at a point now where they’re definitely facing some COVID burnout, whether it’s community members, volunteers or staff members. I guess the whole world has been enduring this now for over a year, and we’re grateful we’ve been able to do what we’ve been able to do thanks to our donors and our granters.”

She said help has come from a number of community organizations that have answered the call.

“We have working with city and county governments, the Council on Aging, United Way, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, Integrated Community and the Department of Human Services,” Fegelein said. “The nonprofits in the human service realm all came together. We were in communication with the school districts and churches. It was just such a group effort. None of us could have done it on our own, so it was impressive and heartwarming the way that our community was able to come together and ensure that everyone’s needs were met.”

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