Food bank forced to buy food, Action Center sees demand soar, donations decline

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By AJ Vicens

Kenny Kozlowski, 37, was getting by like any average working person. He was employed by a plumbing company, earning between $500 and $600 per week, and making ends meet.

Kozlowski did construction-related work for more than 20 years but was severely injured in a motocross accident two years ago, forcing him to take a break from heavy construction. And then, when the plumbing company laid him off, he was out of luck.

“One day you’re staring at your last paycheck, thinking, ‘Oh great, what am I going to do?’ ” Kozlowski said. He said he and his girlfriend “lost everything,” and they turned to the Jeffco Action Center for help.

Kozlowski and his girlfriend were among the 176 families per day on average that sought help from the Jeffco Action Center in December, placing increased demands on the center’s food bank and other services when donations were down about 50 percent, said Mag Strittmatter, the center’s executive director.

The combination of increased demands and decreased donations led to empty shelves at the food bank and forced the center to buy food in the month of December for the first time, straining a modest budget.

The Jeffco Action Center aims to help those in need become self-sufficient. Clients meet with counselors every time they come in, and their information is entered in a database to track progress. The center’s help isn’t unlimited, and clients have to meet certain benchmarks and criteria to stay in the programs.

But nobody is turned away if they need help. And that’s why the lack of food at the food bank led the center to turn to the community for help in restocking the shelves.

“Monday was a really nice day, with folks responding to the call,” Strittmatter said, referring to Dec. 31. “This isn’t something that we do lightly. It got to the point where we began to see our resources, our stores, our reserves really become depleted.”

The community turned out and filled the shelves and a storage room in the building off West 14th Avenue, but the center still needs to carry the donation trend through January and February, months the director says are typically slow donation times. November and December are typically strong donation months and allow the center to put food in storage, but this year that wasn’t the case.

Strittmatter said the center is seeing a new type of clients, with people losing their homes to foreclosure and increased utility costs — among myriad other reasons — leading to 12 percent more families needing help than during this time last year.

The center gets about 32 percent of its funding from individual donations, and the second largest block is from grants from various foundations and governments. Churches and individual businesses such as grocery stores pitch in as well. The center’s budget is about $5 million per year, but roughly 80 percent of that total is in the form of in-kind donations like food and clothing that are distributed to families.

When donations decline, Strittmatter said, the center — like other human services nonprofits — faces a difficult choice.

“You either make the choice to turn away people, or you try to do everything that you can to replace those lost gifts,” she said. “Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of it in our community, which is terrific, or we have to face the reality of using some of our discretionary cash. ee

“Over 39 years our hope is that we’ve earned the trust of our community,” Strittmatter added. “So that when we do step up and say, ‘This is happening,’ that our word is honored and respected. We ee we look at what we do as a partnership with the community.”

At least two women came into the shelter last week saying the center’s policy of holding people accountable in making progress toward self-sufficiency made them want to donate.

“When I came down last year and saw the people who were receiving the help, I thought, ‘What better cause could there be?’ ” said one woman who asked that her name not be printed. Strittmatter said the woman made a “significant” financial contribution to the center. The woman had seen media reports of the empty food shelves.

Another woman who also wished to remain anonymous said she and her husband usually donate to charities and other nonprofits around the country, but wanted to help closer to home this time.

“We usually give to national companies,” the woman said. “We thought, ‘Why not give to someone in our own backyard that needs the help?’ ”

The first woman said the philosophy and methodology of the center are why she donates.

“The philosophy (of self-sufficiency) is excellent,” she said. “What greater goal can there be?”

To people like Kenny Kozlowski, those donations and the work of the center are invaluable and helped him get through another week. He said that after he and his girlfriend came into the center and talked with a counselor, they were placed in the shelter and found jobs.

“It just snowballed after that,” Kozlowski said. The two of them now work jobs and have an apartment in Golden, but still need help. The day he was interviewed for this story, he received his first five-day supply of food from the center, which he described as “incredible.”

“They gave us a chance,” Kozlowski said. “They gave it to us, and we took it and ran with it, like a football. If you have the will and drive to not be homeless, or need the help for any type of reason, this place has just been absolutely incredible.”

Contact AJ Vicens at: aj@evergreenco.com.

If you would like to donate to the Jeffco Action Center, visit www.jeffcoac.org to learn the best ways to get that done. Donations can be made in a variety of ways:

• Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the Jeffco Action Center, 8755 W. 14th Ave., Lakewood, CO 80215.

• Sign up for the Pathway Partners Program to make regular donations by direct withdrawal from a checking or savings account by the center’s bank. You can sign up on the website or call Joe Haines, director of development, at 303-237-7704, ext. 204, with any questions.

• Donate online through LMC Community Foundation’s Giving First website, accessible through the center’s Web page in the “donate” section.

• Food, clothing and household goods are accepted on Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the dock on the east side of the center. The dock has extended drop-off hours on Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Check the website for tips on making those donations easier to sort and distribute, and a list of what not to donate. Lists of clothing, food and other needs are downloadable from the website.

*The print version mistakenly said that the Jeffco Action Center purchased food for the first time in its history. The center purchased food for the first time in December in its history.