Our Executive Director, Lance Cheslock, was interviewed by Dan Parks of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Below is his explanation of the hardships and triumphs La Puente has experienced during the COVID-19 crisis.

A Rural Leader Responds to the Crisis in an Area That Has Long Struggled With Poverty

Lance Cheslock’s hair is on fire. His organization, La Puente, serves a huge swath of Colorado far from the skyline of Denver or any ritzy ski resorts. The region was dealing with crisis levels of hunger and homelessness even before the coronavirus.

“We serve the San Luis Valley, a six-county area larger than the state of Massachusetts, with 46,000 people. That’s less than seven people per square mile. We’re more frontier than rural.

For example, we have no public transportation at all throughout our region. That’s a limitation we were already dealing with.

Colorado is thought of as a mountainous resort state. That’s not us. Of the six counties that we serve, four of them rank as having the highest poverty levels in Colorado. Poverty and isolation from traditional philanthropic resources, from traditional government resources — that’s the starting point before we talk about the onset of the virus.

Our economy relies on agriculture. We have a lot of migrant farm workers. We often have double the national unemployment rate during normal times.

‘Bleeding Part of the Organization’

Our total annual budget is about $3 million. We get only about 10 percent of our financing from government.

We have social enterprises — three thrift stores spread around the valley, and we run a coffee shop. Right now, all the thrift stores are closed — it’s a Covid risk. Income from those social enterprises usually support around 15 percent of our budget. Now that money isn’t coming in, but we still have debts to pay on those businesses. So that’s a bleeding part of the organization.

We have a lot of volunteerism. We also have AmeriCorps support, 23 full-time equivalent positions, young people who do frontline service for us. We have a total of about 80 employees, including AmeriCorps.

There are so many challenges we face. People are trying to educate their children. The poor families, the vulnerable families, they don’t have access to technology. Not all of them have a computer. The poorer families also aren’t well equipped to do tutoring and coaching; that’s just not who they are.

Many local nonprofits have shuttered their doors. Some of them have retooled themselves to do different work, which is really exciting. For example, a local Boys & Girls Club is providing daycare for the children of critical workers.

Our homeless shelter had to stop admitting new residents — and there’s no testing for the residents, just for medical staff.

On average, we have 40 to 60 new intakes per month. They’re now sleeping in their cars or couch surfing somewhere. Or they’re going down to the encampments by the river. We have seen homeless numbers surge at the encampments.

A Semitrailer of Food

Despite the lack of resources, our community is working well together. Schools and a church are helping to distribute meals. The church is also letting the homeless use its showers. It’s just this tapestry of people who are doing the new things that are required to deal with this crisis.

We operated 15 food pantries; 13 are still operating. As the world learned what was happening with the crisis, store shelves were emptied. The poor and the elderly, who lacked transportation or the resources to stock up, were left behind.

The big rush depleted our reserves of food. Then, when we went to Walmart and other big grocery chains, the amount that we could buy was limited because of rationing. We could buy a pickup truck load of food, but that’s only going to last us one day.

So we started making phone calls. The only option we found was a company in California that said they would deliver a load of food if we could buy a semi full for $29,500. We jumped at it on faith, hoping we could raise the money.

Before the paint could dry...

We raised enough money to buy a semi and so much more!

In fact, our community responded so quickly to our plea that the paint on our “semi-meter” didn’t even get to dry before we had already surpassed our initial goal.

We did a GoFundMe “Buy a Semi” fundraising campaign and put up signs locally. One person bought a full-page ad in the Valley Courier newspaper. Individuals and businesses jumped on board quickly. Within days, we reached our goal with money left over that we can use to buy more food. We were absolutely shocked by the speed of the response.

Now we’re working on deployment. How do we do no-contact deliveries in some of these remote areas?

‘Everybody Knows Everybody’

When you have a small, poor community, there’s no such thing as service duplication. Everybody knows everybody. You network at the store or at church. All of those existing collaborations provide a sharing of resources. Local organizations share masks if someone has extra. We got this huge order of diapers, more than we could use. The preschools said, “We could use those.” So we sent them over. There’s all this informal sharing of resources that doesn’t produce photo ops in the paper. It is just so natural, and it’s happening here, right now. We’re pretty hard-wired for working together.

In emergency circumstances, emergency needs get attention and get funded. Emergency funding is in good shape. What can get lost is longer-term developmental needs, those programs that strengthen families.

Longer term, I worry we may have to shrink back to being more of an emergency-services organization all the time. The writing is on the wall that the resources may not be there to do that fundamental strengthening that is so important in the continuum of human services — those programs that take people out of poverty and stabilize them. Making the village stronger. Those are going to be at risk.

One example is a home-visiting program that helps people with parenting skills and other skills to help get them back into the work force and not fall back into the trap door of emergency services. That particular program is furloughed right now. It’s the way the world works; funding gets dumped into the crisis.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is a magazine that covers the nonprofit world of philanthropy. Based in Washington, DC, it is aimed at charity leaders, foundation executives, fund raisers, and other people involved in philanthropy.