Yampa Valley Community Foundation celebrates Philanthropists of the Year
Of the several things in common between this year’s various Philanthropists of the Year recipients from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, many of them questioned whether they deserved the award.
The foundation has been handing out awards to philanthropists in the Yampa Valley each year since 1998 to recognize people who made a significant charitable giving, insightful leadership and volunteerism.
Many recipients encourage others to contribute by example, and many of this year’s recipients said other members of the community inspired them to do the work that earned them this year’s honor.
“This is an incredibly inspirational group of community members,” said Traci Hiatt, donor engagement manager with the foundation. “Their stories are each really uplifting.”
Individual Philanthropist of the Year: Gillian and Mike Morris
Gillian Morris moved to Steamboat in 1999 to be a ski bum for six months. Mike Morris came later in 2001.
The two of them have tried to move away a few times — once to Oregon for about a year — but each time they left, they felt they were leaving something special behind and they ended up coming back.
“We know where we’re happy,” Gillian said. “Now we know that this is where we’re staying.”
For each of them, it is the lifestyle, and the community has fueled their love for the valley. It is what fuels their work in the community as well.
“To be honored with Philanthropist of the Year, our first response was, ‘Are you sure we did enough?'” Mike said.
But the Morris’s did do a lot to support the community this year, especially during the pandemic. They supported a local family struggling through the pandemic and they sponsored a night of Family Bowl that gave free meals to families.
Gillian said one day after talking to a nurse about quarantines in the school she thanked the nurse for their help to understand the complex situation. The nurse told her a genuine thank you wasn’t something they had often received, with most of the people they talked to being unhappy to hear from them.
Out of this sparked the Thankuary idea, which was a Rotary of Steamboat Springs initiative to thank people each of the days in January. Gillian said people participated how ever they wanted with some people giving out a thank you card each day.
In all, she said they gave out over 1,000 cards to community members working in grocery stores, the post office and in health care jobs among others.
“It was the idea of making sure to remember your gratitude, especially at a time when all of us were scared and in the unknown,” Gillian said.
For each of them, their work in the community is fueled by the community itself, with them keeping their eye out for opportunities to help out. The community is full of kind generous people, Gillian said, and many of them are role models, giving them a lot of inspiration for their philanthropy.
“We’ve learned a lot from the other people in this town,” Gillian said. “We’ve only been here 20 years so this place was already an amazing community and village, and we wanted to be part of that.”
“You always hear that it takes a village,” Mike said, referencing raising their children locally. “We feel like we have a village here in Steamboat.”
Youth Philanthropist of the Year: Leona Thurston
After graduating in spring 2020, Leona Thurston was set to go to Colorado State University. But with the pandemic forcing many classes online, she changed her mind and decided to stay in the Yampa Valley.
Because she decided to stay and pursue an associate’s degree at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, Thurston was around when Advocates of Routt County was looking for a summer intern.
“Everything happens for a reason because if I didn’t stay back here, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do any of this,” Thurston said.
Thurston said this internship was exactly what she needed during the pandemic, because it allowed to be connected to the community and have a purpose. She said it was rewarding to see the impact Advocates have on peoples lives, especially as rates of domestic violence and sexual assault increased during the pandemic.
While working with Advocates, Thurston started working with Grand Futures on substance abuse prevention, brainstorming ways to educate youth about why they should stay away from using substances.
As Grand Future’s intern, Thurston is working to support the Youth Services Coalition by setting up the website and spreading the work about how children can get involved with their community.
Thurston just wrapped up work as a teacher for Steamboat Creates art camps and also participates in Pivot Points, which is an initiative to incorporate mental health and creativity to spread awareness about issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community.
“After working with Advocates in the beginning, I just got super passionate about a bunch of different subjects and just helping people,” Thurston said. “I was just so passionate about it that not doing it didn’t seem like an option, and if helping people was an option, then that is what I want to do.”
Born and raised in Steamboat, Thurston said her connection to the community has pushed her to want to get involved.
Thurston has also been involved in various leadership positions in 4-H, and is still the superintendent for swine and dogs at the Routt County Fair. This fall she is working with Partners of Routt County to be an in-school mentor at Steamboat Montessori.
“It is very passion driven, all the things that I have done,” Thurston said. “It doesn’t feel like work or anything, I really enjoy doing it.”
Business Philanthropist of the Year: Johnny B Good’s Diner
Kathy Diemer says that over the 28 years it has been open, Johnny B Good’s diner has been there to support the community. One of the reasons they opened the restaurant was to have an affordable option for families amid myriad high-priced resort town options.
“Our intention was to establish a place where families felt comfortable having their kids go,” Diemer said. “It is a place where kids, teenagers can congregate and feel comfortable and feel accepted.”
When the pandemic shut down the restaurant in March 2020, Diemer said they realized they had a tool that most people didn’t have that they could use to help the people in the community who were struggling.
They advertised that anyone unemployed or underemployed could come in for free soup and bread in the restaurant. Depending on the situation they would give more, sometimes even a full meal. Baked goods that could no longer be sold were donated to anyone who needed it.
“There was always plenty to give,” Diemer said. “Whatever we had that we were not needing to hold on to, we just made sure people had enough.”
Diemer said it is her faith in God that made it easy to step up and support the community. Once the staff was on board, Diemer said the giving helped them all stay in a positive, hopeful, giving place when working in restaurants was not at all normal.
“It was really hard on restaurant employees, this pandemic. They didn’t know when they would have work,” Diemer said. “I think giving to others was just an awesome way for us to all stay positive.”
Diemer said taking care of the community, especially its youngest members, has always been a priority for them. Even before the diner when she was a bartender at the base of the resort, she would have local kids come to her for hot chocolate.
Diemer and her husband, Mark, work with students in the middle school as part of an anti-bullying program called “It Takes Courage.” There they talk to students and tell them they are always welcome at the diner.
Through the pandemic, Diemer said what she has learned most was the depth of generosity throughout the entire community. She said she tried to keep track of all the people who supported them in what they were doing, but it quickly became too tall a task to manage.
“It’s amazing what our community is all about,” Diemer said. “You almost just have to ask and people come forward. That was the part I found more amazing than anything, was just how generous everyone was.”
Business Philanthropist of the Year: Snow Bowl Steamboat
Just as they were nearing the one-year anniversary at Snow Bowl Steamboat, the pandemic hit, they shuttered their doors and they were left with two weeks worth of food that was going to go to waste.
The first thought among staff at Snow Bowl was, “How could they prevent all of it from going to waste?” Thinking of people in a similar situation at them — out of a job when restaurants closed — they started serving meals to hospitality workers throughout the valley.
They named the initiative Family Bowl in recognition that the Yampa Valley was one big family and that they would all be there to take care of each other. They started handing out dinners every night with kitchen staff donating their time to put the meals together.
Some would take a meal every night, others wouldn’t take one at all, instead driving through to thanks and tip kitchen staff.
Donations from throughout the community poured in to sustain the effort longer. The initial fundraising goal of $2,000 was reached in the first couple days. Other restaurants sent food they were not going to be able to use. Local businesses and families donated cash to the effort.
The Steamboat Springs School District partnered with Snow Bowl to distribute bag lunches for the next day when they handed out dinners. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. joined in to give out meals for those who lived closer to the east side of town.
“Having grown up in Steamboat, it was humbling, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking,” Meryl Meranski, owner of Snow Bowl, said about Family Bowl.
Meranski said it can be hard to see past the bubble people live in, in Steamboat sometimes, but Family Bowl was able to reach local homeless people or those who were living out of their cars.
During Family Bowl, they served 21,698 meals, but the effort has led to more work. Snow Bowl partnered with the United Way to hand out Thanksgiving dinners. They partnered with Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors to hand out meals for Christmas.
Now Snow Bowl is partnering with the Routt County Humane Society to hold Dog Bowl on Sundays, which includes adoption events, service work and educational sessions.
“Our little idea of let’s feed service industry employees for a couple weeks turned into three months of nightly meals provided to anyone in the community who needed one,” Meranski said. “Family Bowl impacted so many more people than the original idea could have contemplated. We are just proud and overwhelmingly grateful.”
Legacy of Philanthropy Award: Jim “Moose” Barrows
Jim “Moose” Barrows said he hasn’t really thought much about what legacy he has left in Steamboat. He helped mold ski racing, was teammates and friends with some of the most famous names in skiing and a new chairlift at Howelsen will continue to bear his name when it is finished this winter.
Barrows’ family moved to Steamboat in the 1950s, and he remembers when a lift ticket at the resort was less than $5. Growing up, everyone always took care of everybody else.
“I grew up skiing, and the local people took care of me,” Barrows said. “As the town expands, the kids that want to ski, we want to make sure nobody’s ever denied the possibility of having a skiing career without the money, so we make sure there is a means for that.”
When skiing was really exploding in the 1970s, Barrows said a new golf course was opening, and he helped create a golf tournament that would benefit young skiers in town. Now called Moose’s Loose Golf Tournament, the proceeds go to support young skiers at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club who would otherwise not be able to afford to participate.
Barrows said it is important to try to support young athletes throughout the county as well, because the community is bigger than Steamboat, and young skiers are located throughout the county. Over the past 40 years, the tournament has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for young athletes.
Another significant piece of philanthropy for Barrows is called Mickey’s Fund, which is named after his late son. When Mickey was being treated at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, he was worried that Santa wouldn’t find friends he had made in the hospital.
After Mickey died, Barrows created an endowment fund, which was used to buy toys for children spending the holidays at the hospital. By 1987, Barrows and other Steamboat residents were collecting toys and driving them to Denver each year.
That tradition continues today with the program now part of the Children’s Hospital Foundation serving more than 1,000 children each year. Still, Barrows questions if this is part of some legacy he is leaving behind.
Barrows said he was sort of shocked when the Yampa Valley Community Foundation chose to honor him with the Legacy of Philanthropy Award because he just feels he is doing what the community taught him to do.
“That’s the way Steamboat is. I don’t see anything special for me,” Barrows said. “Steamboat has always acted that same way, and you could probably give that same honor to a whole bunch of other people here in town.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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