Community profile: Anna Cole and her team help steer Roaring Fork school families through pandemic
Anna Cole and her husband, Grand River Hospital physician Dr. Dustin Cole, were pretty confident her education career and his medical career wouldn’t cross paths.
Until last March when the pandemic came along.
“Now, we’re both on a standing meeting every Thursday with Garfield County providers and the schools,” Anna Cole mused. “He’s at the hospital, and I’m at home, and the kids are getting ready for school, and they make funny faces when they see dad on the screen … it’s kind of hilarious at times.”
Anna had just stepped into the interim role as executive director of the Roaring Fork Family Services and Resource Center, a nonprofit arm of Roaring Fork School District, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I remember an anxious Friday afternoon before everything shut down, trying to transition Sarah to her new job and me taking over for her,” Cole said, referring to former Family Services director Sarah Fedishen, who now directs the Ninth Judicial District’s Bridges Program.
Nothing could have prepared Cole for what was about to unfold, she said in looking back on that frenzied moment in the early stages of a global pandemic.
But she and her team of Family Services program directors, coordinators and school-based family liaisons were up to the challenge.
Now in its 25th year serving the school district, the core work of the program is to connect families of school-aged children and preschoolers with various services in the community and to help them navigate the school system.
That mission didn’t change when schools and businesses shut down in the effort to prevent disease spread, but the need was magnified and it became more of an emergency response.
Suddenly, help was needed across the board. What had been the routine referral for dental services and maybe $100 in financial support for that was now a request for $1,000 in rental assistance and an internet connection so the kids could attend online school, Cole said.
“The humbling thing about the start of the pandemic is that we had families who started working with us who would never, ever in their lives have thought of asking for help,” she said.
Cole would be formally hired as the new executive director for Family Services by summer of 2020, but she had been with the department in various capacities for two years doing special projects and grant-writing.
“I feel like I did nothing but show up at the right time,” she said of inheriting the leadership role for what became a critical support service in the pandemic response locally.
“I’m just lucky to have an amazing team and amazing community partners to work with, and if I don’t have a piece of information I don’t have to go far to find someone who does,” Cole said.
Among them is Betty Lucas, one of the Family Resource Centers’ 15 family liaisons based at individual schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
Coincidentally, after joining the organization in 2013 as a resource coordinator, the Glenwood Springs native would eventually land at Sopris Elementary School where she had gone to school herself as a child.
“When I first started here, some of my art was still up on the walls,” Lucas said. The row of school-year pictures in the hallway includes her as a student on the front end, and as a staff member in recent years, along with her own son as a student.
“Being able to make an impact in the community where I grew up has been really, really powerful for me,” she said.
As a family liaison, she gets to know the students and their parents and siblings on a more intimate level. The needs are great, and have been even more pronounced during the past year, she said.
As the daughter of Mexican immigrants herself, Lucas said she also relates to the many struggles of immigrant families who often are new to the Roaring Fork Valley and don’t know where to go for support.
“It has been a privilege to be in the valley for so long and watch it evolve over time,” she said.
Typically, Family Services works to ensure families are provided with assistance that can help them in the long run. With the influx of government relief funds related to the pandemic, the focus shifted to providing short-term help, Lucas noted.
“That meant we had to put our heads together to make sure we were working together in a way that we were using ethical practices,” she said.
Many immigrant families were not eligible for government assistance programs, due to immigration status, but through a coalition of community nonprofit partnerships some of those relief funds were made available.
“It was really great to see that kind of a community coming-together, and to be able to provide wrap-around services to take care of each other,” Lucas said. “That was a monumental resource for these families, and we got to know a lot of families who we didn’t have contact with before the pandemic.”
Lucas was gracious for that same support after she graduated from Glenwood Springs High School and went on to earn her associates degree in elementary education from Colorado Mountain College, and eventually a bachelor’s in health and human services.
She credited Cole and Fedishen, and former Family Resources Center director Jenny Lindsay for focusing her own career toward work that she now loves.
“They were that foundation for me to push through and keep going,” Lucas said.
Making the pivot
Cole worked as a high school science teacher in northern New Mexico before she and her husband relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley six years ago.
She taught at CMC for a bit and worked with various nonprofits on strategic planning and coaching before joining the Roaring Fork Schools Family Services team.
She emphasizes the “team” aspect of the organization, which Cole said became even more important with the pivot from its traditional function to pandemic response.
Along with Development Director Natasha Conklin, Program Coordinator Kelly Medina, School-Community Organizer Brianda Cervantes and the school-based liaisons, the organization made a quick shift to connect families in need to everything from financial assistance and internet connectivity to mental health, childcare and employment support.
The school district also began offering meal deliveries for students during and even still after the school closures, which Family Services has been heavily involved with.
“We were already well-positioned with our families to know who was most vulnerable, especially when things got bad,” Cole said.
She and Conklin worked to connect with all of the local governments and organizations such as the Aspen Community Foundation to tap into available relief funds.
“We operate as a nonprofit in the school district, so we don’t get direct money from the school district,” Cole explained. “So, any money we were getting was from grants or donations, or through contracts with local governments.”
Family Services now operates with about 20 staff members total, some of whom are part-time and have other duties with the school district directly.
Two new grant-funded, short-term positions include a family liaison to work exclusively with the 300 or 400 district students who opted to do strictly online classes this school year, and field-based liaison to handle the home meal deliveries and use those visits to check in with families.
Family Services is also contracted with Garfield County Human Services through the Colorado Community Response Program to do family development work in situations where child protection services has had to intervene. Lucas is also now supervisor of that program.
“That’s a really good safety net,” Lucas said. “It’s tough work, for sure, but the reward is the appreciation we hear from families that they are being supported.”
With every student cohort quarantine that happens, the family liaisons are also helping with the family contacts to make sure people have the support they need during the quarantine period.
Lucas added that the return to in-person classes in the fall was a welcome return to some of the personal student contacts that she had missed when classes were only happening online.
Lucas also points to one silver lining out of the pandemic being a closer connection to families and students in general.
“In a way, it was an easy transition for us, because it gave us an opportunity to be able to meet the parents where they’re at, and that’s over the phone or virtually,” she said. “It ended up opening the door to that accessibility piece for even more families.”
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Prospective candidates are being sought for two open Carbondale/Basalt-area Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education seats that will be up for election Nov. 2 for four-year terms.