Westside CARES gives helping hand to schools
Community aid through churches

       Most Westside kids going back to school this month look well-outfitted and healthy, wearing sturdy backpacks filled with basic school supplies.
       In many cases, this readiness did not occur without some help. About a month before school, Westside CARES conducted a health fair and backpack giveaway for about 200 needy schoolchildren at its offices in the basement of Bethany Baptist Church, 1930 W. Colorado Ave. In addition to the packs, services included 35 physicals, 20 hearing screenings (courtesy of the Sertoma Club) and 15 immunizations.
       The attendees were from 600 families who have received help from the non-profit, church-supported agency and were invited to the fair because they have school-age children.
       But back-to-school preparedness is just a small part of what Westside CARES does. In all, about 2,400 families get some type of help annually. The chief emphasis falls on emergency needs such as rent, utilities and food. Health assistance, referrals, clothes vouchers and other resources are also provided.
       Most of this happens without much fanfare, with those in need unobtrusively acces-sing Westside CARES through a door leading to the basement stairs from the parking lot behind the church. “We're well-known in the community of the needy, but not as well-known in the community at large,” commented Steve Brown, executive director of the agency.
       Westside CARES (standing for community action, resources and emergency services) has been serving the Westside's poor for 22 years. Although Brown said the “great majority” of those served live in the Old Colorado City area, the agency's geographic area is much broader: west of I-25 and Highway 115, south of the Air Force Academy, east of Teller County and south to the westward extension of Academy Boulevard.
       A total of 21 churches in the service area combine to own the effort, with additional help from various grants, plus Colorado Springs Utilities COPE funds (for Utilities bills) and Goodwill (vouchers for clothes). Other churches are welcome to join the group - Green Mountain Falls' Church in the Wildwood became the 21st just last week.
       Westside CARES relies strongly on individual volunteers - about 80 percent of whom come from the member churches, Brown estimated. The 2004 financial report lists more than 12,000 hours in volunteer services.
       In his annual report for 2004, Westside CARES Chairman of the Board Dennis Shaw wrote, “Westside CARES could not exist if it were not for the volunteers who do the screening, keep the records, distribute the food and the myriad of other tasks that make the organization go.”
       All the same, Brown noted that between 2001 and 2003, while the number of Westsiders seeking help doubled, the increase in the number of volunteers occurred at a slower pace. As a result, more volunteers would be most welcome at this time, Brown said.
       In its early days, Westside CARES was all volunteer. “It's a sweet story,” he said.
       The basement offices include an intake area, offices and a food pantry. The paid staff consists of Brown, who works a 30-hour week; a pastoral nurse from Penrose-St. Francis Hospital, 12 hours; and two other staffers, working 20 and 15 hours, respectively.
       The office is open 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday evenings.
       Eligibility is a consideration for most assistance requests, particularly to get help with rent or Utilities bills, but no questions are asked when it comes to food. Anybody can get a voucher up to three times a years for a basket containing three days worth of edibles, Brown said. The food pantry opens from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays.
       Westside CARES' plans for the future are constrained by limited space, resources and funds, but Brown said he hopes to write a grant sometime for a formal survey that would help determine the “most pressing needs” in the service area. Such information would help reveal whether “what we're giving is the right thing or the best thing,” he said.
       Another goal is to establish closer collaboration with the Westside schools. A lot of that is happening now. A recent example was when Westside CARES was able to distribute several backpacks at Washington School last week. And Holmes social worker Julie Lindeman said she routinely refers needy families to the agency for rent, food or school supplies.
       A broader wish of Brown's is to promote more “neighborliness” between church-going people and those who receive the church-sponsored services. If any place can make that happen, it's the Westside, he believes. “There seems to be more populism on this side of town,” Brown said. “There's more potential for better neighborliness here than in, say, Briargate.”
       For more information, call 389-0759.

Westside Pioneer article