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Kink in the hose 

Susan Post, who with her two teenage daughters lost everything in the Waldo Canyon Fire, says she's received about $150 worth of the donations that flooded in afterward.

She was given several King Soopers gift cards by the Salvation Army, three vouchers for Discover Goodwill, and groceries from Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado.

Meantime, bills continue coming in. And as a single mom working part-time, it's hard to keep pace.

She now pays rent plus some of her mortgage, since only a portion of the latter is covered by insurance. Her carrier has refused to reimburse for phone calls made from her hotel room immediately after the fire, when her cell phone's battery died, and only part of her restaurant meals. So far, she's had to pull $13,000 out of her own pocket, she says. And that doesn't include rebuilding costs and fees for her Parkside homeowners association in Mountain Shadows, where the fire claimed almost half of the 345 houses that burned June 26.

She'd like to tap into more donation money, but until Oct. 19, when Colorado Springs Together e-mailed a list to victims, she didn't know which agencies to apply to. She's still trying to figure out if any of them provide cash, which is what she says she really needs.

"Those of us that have received help are extremely grateful," she says. "But it has not been easy to track it down, and I just don't know what all the money's been spent on."

'Logistics 101'

When we raised those questions with Pikes Peak United Way, the overseer of the fire relief fund, CEO JD Dallager asked for a meeting, and four people from the agency sat down to talk.

Dallager says that of the $933,617 raised for victims so far, $624,941 has already been given to 14 nonprofits, ranging from AspenPointe, which provides mental health services, to Westside Cares, which gives rental assistance and income support. Some of those recipients are actually being paid back for services provided months ago, such as the Norris-Penrose Event Center, which housed large animals during the evacuation period. Few are giving cash to victims.

United Way doesn't give cash to individuals, because it doesn't have the apparatus in place to vet requests. Instead, as Dallager explains, United Way is good at vetting organizations, which, in turn, are good at vetting individual needs. "It's Logistics 101," he says. "It's Effective Use of Resources 101."

Board member Vic Andrews adds, "We were chosen to [oversee the fund] because we already have the model."

And United Way's model is one that generally operates on the belief that partner agencies can turn a dollar into something of greater value. If with a little extra money and existing infrastructure, an agency can offer free day care or food, for instance, that should save victims a lot of money each month, which they can then apply to other bills.

Of course, since victims have individual needs, some might find holes in their patchwork quilt of assistance. It's an issue that's arisen in the aftermath of other disasters, including 9/11.

But Dallager notes that United Way's 211 phone line, a clearinghouse for community services, received 10,000 calls in the first two to three weeks after the fire hit, and only six calls related to the fire between Oct. 1 and 26. That, he says, suggests the organizations are getting the job done.

"We're not defining needs," he says. "We're trying to respond to needs."

And United Way, Dallager mentions, will be able to review detailed reports on partner organizations' spending within six months and again after one year.

In addition to United Way, people gave to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which managed a firefighters fund, and the Red Cross, which provided shelter and resources immediately following the blaze. Colorado Springs Together, a nonprofit formed at Mayor Steve Bach's behest to assist Mountain Shadows residents, has raised $120,000, with chief donors including the El Pomar Foundation, Ent Federal Credit Union, Comcast, Bal Seal Engineering and CenturyLink.

None of that CST money goes directly to victims, but rather funds the center itself. CST sends out informational e-mail blasts and hosts meetings and a website and, at times, parties.

Mourning for toys

On Oct. 21, Angela Gonzalez attended the CST-sponsored "Just 4 U Kids Carnival." As her kids, Benny, 4, and Victoria, 2, played in bouncy houses and watched face-painting, Gonzalez recalled seeing the fire creep over the hillside near her Linger Way home. She, her kids and her husband, who had lost his job the week before, fled, leaving everything behind. Their home was destroyed.

Friends, family and community were quick to give them a little money and some clothing.

"My pantry is stocked because of Care and Share," she says, referring to the food bank, which took in nearly 1.3 million pounds of food for victims from June 23 through Sept. 30. (Care and Share says it also received $745,365 in cash donations on behalf of the fire victims and emergency workers, which is being used to fund agency operations and food purchases for fire victims.) And she speaks highly of Colorado Springs Together's efforts, like the kids' day.

"He still mourns the loss of his toys," she says of Benny. "Being with kids in the same situation, to see how they're responding to things, it's nice to have this sort of outlet."

Still, Gonzalez says the family could use cash to pay their mortgage and meet other expenses. And she can't forget a negative experience she had with Discover Goodwill.

When Gonzalez took her voucher for clothes and household goods to a Goodwill retail store, she says, she was accused of trying to "steal" more than she was entitled to. "They made me feel like a criminal," she says. And while people gave her clothing in June, her kids now need winter coats, boots and sweaters.

No problem, says Goodwill's Brad Hafer.

"We're one of the few players who are still in this process," Hafer says, adding victims can obtain vouchers at 1460 Garden of the Gods Road or by calling 243-0511. "We have not shut down. We're committed to the end."

While not knowing enough details to address Gonzalez's experience, he says, "It's something we're very concerned about. That's not the way we do business."

Long-term recovery

Post has a couple suggestions for the nonprofits who got the donation money. Perhaps they could streamline the application process by creating a single application; right now, you need to go, in person, to apply at each organization. Or maybe a case worker could be assigned to each family to find the best way to cope with their needs.

Dallager says United Way will consider both ideas.

Meantime, Post says most of the help she's gotten came from outside the donations loop, such as from her church, Woodmen Valley Chapel, and a group of church women who organized free garage sales for victims.

"In the realm of life's difficulties, this is not emotionally in a league with a seriously sick child or losing a parent," she says. "Nevertheless, I've had several people say, 'You get a new house out of it.' But they don't realize I lost my grandmother's prayer book who came from Czechoslovakia, and Christmas ornaments my daughters made that I can never get back."

zubeck@csindy.com


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