Taking a stand: STARS volunteers speak out after more than 20 terminated
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an effort to raise ongoing concerns to the board of directors, more than 20 volunteers with STARS, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, never imagined speaking out would result in the revocation of their volunteer privileges.
“Everything we are doing is in trying to address the organization’s issues in a positive way to make it better,” said Christopher Godfrey, who would have begun his fifth winter volunteering with STARS if not for being terminated on Nov. 20, 2019.
STARS provides year-round adaptive recreational programs for people with disabilities. Volunteers accompany clients skiing, biking, climbing, horseback riding and hiking.
On Nov. 14, Godfrey and 38 other volunteers, former volunteers and former board members signed a letter addressed to STARS board members. Eleven of the 38 signatories chose to remain anonymous.
The letter addressed a number of issues — lack of governance, excessive staff and board member turnover, disregard for volunteer input, operational risk, declining volunteer numbers and a retaliatory environment against people who tried to raise concerns — that have been going on for years, Godfrey said. But things finally rose to a level under which “we could no longer remain silent,” Godfrey explained.
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For the 38 concerned volunteers, the tipping point came in late October when three board members were fired — first on Oct. 23 through a series of emails, which did not legally constitute removal from the board, and then, at a Nov. 4 board meeting when they were voted off unanimously through the proper procedures.
Godfrey said that was the final straw for many of the volunteers, who felt the three board members had been unjustly and unnecessarily removed for trying to do their jobs.
Susan White was one of the board members voted off. She was new, as was Becky Lewis, another board member voted off. Both were also volunteers. Keith Dronen, the third bora, had been on the board for six years and was the parent of a STARS client.
White joined the board in July out of what she described as “a real love for the STARS mission and the STARS community.” She felt she could be an asset as a retired CPA with expertise in forensic accounting, as well as in her experience serving for eight years on the board of a large nonprofit that worked with people with disabilities.
She describes being baffled at the unfolding of events that led to her not only being fired as a board member but also as a volunteer, when White put her name on the Nov. 14 letter.
The letter from the 38 volunteers lists seven primary concerns, followed by three goals — the first one focused on “effecting positive change so that STARS becomes a strong, healthy, sustainable organization that we all can support with our time, talents, and donations.”
The letter continues: “By working toward these goals, our concerns about operation instability, inadequate communication and a toxic work environment will begin to be addressed so that a productive, respectful relationship can be established.”
Godfrey said the volunteers wanted a meeting with the board to open a dialogue on how they could work together to improve the organization. They had all given STARS a significant number of hours, and for some, a significant number of dollars.
At that time they had no plans to go public, Godfrey said.
“We really wanted to proceed in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” he added.
On Nov. 18, the concerned volunteers group received a response to their letter signed by all seven of the current STARS board members.
The letter lauds the opening of STARS Ranch and the leadership of Executive Director Julie Taulman and states “the feedback we receive from both our youth and adult participants is overwhelmingly positive.” The board’s letter concludes, “We welcome individuals to utilize the proper channel for submitting constructive feedback or reporting instances of safety violations or concerns.” STARS Board President Gail Jensen then gave her email address, and directed safety concerns to be emailed to the volunteer coordinator or program manager.
A different turn
Two days later, on Nov. 20, at least 23 of the volunteers who had signed their names to the Nov. 14 letter received an email from STARS Program Director Mike Boone that read: “Over the past few weeks a group of STARS volunteers have taken planned actions against the better interest of the STARS mission and organization. According to ongoing correspondence from this group your name has been added to the list of individuals behind these actions. As a result, effective immediately, your privilege to serve STARS as a volunteer has been revoked. Furthermore, you are no longer welcome at the STARS Basecamp office. Ignoring this mandate will be considered trespassing and security will be notified. It truly breaks my heart that it has come to this, but recent events have left us no choice.”
Godfrey said he was shocked.
“It knocked a lot of us out of our chairs,” he said.
While he cannot speak for everyone who was fired, Godfrey said he has no knowledge of any “planned actions” by the volunteers, aside from the Nov. 14 email and an email sent anonymously to board members on Nov. 3 expressing the same concerns but in a less organized fashion.
“I was pretty devastated,” said Dana LaChapelle, upon receiving Boone’s letter.
LaChapelle has been a volunteer for six years, is a major donor and is the parent of a STARS client. Her husband previously served on the STARS board.
LaChapelle said she knows of no “planned actions” by any volunteers.
“I would never do something to hurt STARS,” she said. “It would be like hurting my family.”
The hardest part of not being able to volunteer was trying to explain it to Matthew, her 35-year-old son with Down Syndrome.
LaChapelle said she told him, “You know how when you were in high school, and all the kids decided they were not going to like one kid? Well, STARS did something we disagreed with, and they said, ‘If you disagree, you must be against us.’”
LaChapelle let Matthew decide whether he wanted to continue skiing with STARS, and for now, Matthew has decided he won’t.
“I want to volunteer again. I want to donate again. I want to be involved, but something has to change,” LaChapelle said. “And hopefully, this sparks the change that needs to happen.”
For Godfrey, the hardest part about being terminated is not being able to ski with his favorite client. They used to ski every Wednesday.
“I see him around town sometimes,” Godfrey said, “I can’t explain to him why I’m not skiing with him. He says ‘Where have you been?’ And I say, ‘Something changed, and I can’t do it anymore.’”
When volunteer, donor and former board member Don Eden first saw Boone’s email, he thought it must be a joke, especially the part about trespassing.
For Eden, the best part about being a STARS volunteer was the people — both the clients and other volunteers.
“The vets are amazing to work with,” he said. “Some of them you just grab hold of and hope to hang on. They go anywhere and everywhere and over stuff you wouldn’t think they would do. It’s amazing to see what some of these people can do.”
As to the suggestion they are acting against the best interest of STARS, “Our feeling is quite the opposite,” Eden said. “We only have the best interests of STARS at heart. We see things that need to be addressed, and somehow we need to get our voices heard.”
Eden said given the caliber and contributions of the signatories on the Nov. 14 letter, “The fact that there was no attempt at any type of communication with us is astounding.”
A survey was compiled to illustrate the combined impact of the terminated volunteers. Together, they gave STARS over 130 years of service, with an average of 2,800 hours of service each year. The list includes five former board members, seven Volunteer of the Year award winners and one Rookie of the Year. On the list, there are four volunteers with Level 1 Professional Ski Instructors of America certifications and three with child specialist certifications.
This winter would have been Linda Andrews’ seventh year volunteering for STARS.
A 47-year resident of Steamboat, Andrews said she only wants to see STARS thrive, but the concerns, in her mind, were very real.
“We were hoping as STARS volunteers to make things better,” Andrews said.
Andrews said the group debated about signing their names to the letter, but finally thought, it would add more credibility if the board knew who they were.
She calls the allegation they were acting against the mission of STARS “preposterous.”
“We haven’t done anything but write a letter,” she said.
Board responds to concerns
The Steamboat Pilot & Today sent an email on Jan. 20 to Jensen, Program Manager Mike Boone and Executive Director Julie Taulman requesting an interview about the terminated volunteers and their concerns. A response came back on Jan. 22 through a PR agent, who agreed only to respond to a list of emailed questions.
Asked about Boone’s letter and why the volunteers were terminated, Jensen stated in the written response: “Now more than ever launching the STARS Ranch has required that our board, staff and volunteers be completely aligned with our mission and committed to the participants we serve. Unfortunately, a vocal minority of volunteers chose this pivotal time for our organization to launch a negative campaign designed to disrupt fundraising and detract from our mission. Actions against the best interest of STARS included a harassing email sent to two of our staff members, and two separate disparaging emails sent to two different funding sources. We responded to the group of volunteers, but were unable to reach a resolution, and as a result and according to the guidelines in our volunteer handbook, the volunteer privileges of those individuals were revoked.”
But none of this makes sense to Godfrey, White, LaChapelle, Eden or Andrews. They didn’t communicate with anyone but the board, and certainly not donors. And they don’t know anyone who did.
And 38 people does not constitute “a vocal minority,” Godfrey said.
Jensen continued: “In this situation, we revoked the volunteer privileges from volunteers who chose to launch a negative campaign designed to disrupt programs for our clients as well as go after our funding sources.”
Again, Godfrey and the four other volunteers interviewed said they are not aware of any volunteers who went after “funding sources,” and Godfrey said he disavows anyone who did. They all made it very clear that their intention was not to hurt STARS but to make it better.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today did receive a copy of an anonymous email sent to STARS board members on Nov. 19 from an entirely separate group of veterans — current and former STARS clients — expressing discontent and detailing efforts to contact donors and federal funding agencies. This group chose not come forward with their concerns on the record.
As to the “tipping point” for the volunteers’ decision to speak out — the removal of the three board members — Jensen responded: “Our Board of Directors made the decision to remove three board members who were not aligned with the vision for the future of STARS.”
While White can deal with the “hurt feelings” of being fired both as a board member and a volunteer, what is really upsetting to her is the impact the loss of so many dedicated and experienced volunteers could have on operations.
“We don’t want to do damage to STARS,” she said. “We love STARS.”
From the minute she was voted in as new board member in July, White said she was bombarded by people raising concerns about the organization.
The board only meets every other month, and for the first couple meetings, White said she just listened. In October, she tried to bring up some of the issues she’d been hearing from volunteers and the community, and met with Jensen to confidentially express some of those concerns. White was asked to resign less than a week later.
During her short tenure, the board was “functioning as an advisory board and not as a governing board,” White said.
As to why they chose to put their name on the Nov. 14 letter, Godfrey, White, LaChapelle, Eden and Andrews pointed to the high rate of staff turnover as one of the gravest concerns.
“Every year for the last four years there has been 50% or more turnover of paid staff,” Godfrey said. “No enterprise, whether for profit or nonprofit can be healthy with that level of turnover. And no board can see that level of turnover and not address it. Then, when people have the courage to put their name on the concerns — we are retaliated against.”
Asked about the reports of high rates of staff turnover, Jensen replied: “Regarding personnel issues, specific information is confidential and cannot be discussed. We can tell you that staff turnover is a common challenge that many organizations in our community are facing, in particular because of the high costs of living. With that said many of our staff have been here for years and we are very proud of the staff that we have working at STARS.”
Jensen didn’t provide a number of current volunteers working with STARS when asked, but White believes there were fewer than 100 active and regular volunteers before the privileges of at least 23 were revoked Nov. 20.
“Our year-round and seasonal volunteer number fluctuate,” Jensen wrote, “but we have enough volunteer instructors to facilitate our current programs . . . To date we have not had any issues filling our lessons this season.”
Asked about any impacts concerning the fired volunteers, Jensen said there were “only a small number of current, active volunteers” on that list.
“Morale is high among STARS staff members as well as volunteers,” Jensen continued, “and we’re all very happy with the results from training and the commitment we have received from new and returning volunteers.”
Jensen also stated that no clients have been turned away for lessons due to a lack of instructors.
Executive Director Julie Taulman, who resigned from her position on Friday, Jan. 24, declined to be interviewed for this story but provided the following written statement on Wednesday, Jan. 22: “We are saddened by the actions that a few are taking to harm the reputation of this organization, but we are steadfast in focusing on serving our clients and ensuring that our donors’ investments are being spent according to their wishes or grant requirements. So far this year we have seen an increase in our year-over-year numbers for clients served and lessons provided, opened the new STARS Ranch, booked 11 groups for the winter, and hosted record-setting fundraisers.
“We have also launched new programs and have continued to serve our local participants via a variety of year-round programs from archery to Special Olympics ski training,” Taulman continued. “We expect that the opening of the STARS Ranch will increase the number of opportunities to serve adaptive athletes both locally and around the country. We thank all the donors that support this organization and the volunteers and staff that work tirelessly to provide life changing experiences for our clients.”
Through tears, Andrews read from something she had prepared in writing.
“All of us who’ve been dismissed from STARS — we are your friends, neighbors, parents and board members,” she wrote. “We love the people we work with. We love the program. We care intensely . . . I’ve always felt I’ve gotten back more for myself than I have ever given. Every family and their challenged family member — you look at them, and for me, they are a lesson in humility. I will always carry that with me even if I am not able to work again with them directly. We hope this program can and will get better and that we can be a part of it again.”
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