LIFT-UP fills niche in community

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Sometimes, the road to financial hardship begins with one missed bill.

Every day, LIFT-UP of Routt County works with people on the fringe of snowballing debt and difficulties: a family that can't find enough to pay the February heating bill; a single, working mom who has to stay home for a week to care for her sick child; the uninsured person who unexpectedly gets sick or hurt.

Providing a month's worth of food, money for an electricity bill, a visit to the dentist or a one-time rent payment can be enough to get those people through a tough time, LIFT-UP executive director David Freseman said.

LIFT-UP of Routt County was formed in 1996 to assist people who are poor, unemployed or facing an emergency need. Since then, the program has grown vastly, responding to various needs in the community.

With that growth, the program has touched more lives, including that of Lala Blasingame.

"I don't know where we would be without these guys," Blasingame said. "Well, I do know: We'd be out on the streets, basically."

A growing organization

LIFT-UP handled several hundred client visits a year when it began, Freseman said.

Now, it serves as many as 4,000 a year.

The organization's program and operating budget has doubled in the past nine years, and multiple programs have been added to respond to various needs.

In 2004, almost $140,000 was provided through assistance for emergencies, food and clothing.

With the increase in clients, budget and services, the organization has outgrown its space. LIFT-UP programs are spread among three rented locations that are not permanent.

Now, LIFT-UP is asking the community to support a one-time effort to fund a permanent building, "so we can continue to serve the community for years to come," Freseman said.

The central location will provide much-needed space, save funds now spent on rent and make LIFT-UP's programs less confusing to clients and donors.

The new building will be 8,100 square feet and could cost $900,000 to $1.1 million. LIFT-UP hopes to raise $500,000 in local donations. The new building is planned for a 1-acre lot on Curve Court that LIFT-UP recently purchased using a $285,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Department of Local Affairs.

If all goes according to schedule, the building could be finished by the end of this year. The organization's satellite offices in Hayden and Oak Creek will remain open.

Before LIFT-UP, a lot of the needs it addresses simply were not met, Freseman said.

In Routt County, those needs are very real, said Erika Righter, LIFT-UP Food Bank and case manager.

A number of people have seasonal work and job attachment, which means they can't seek other work or receive unemployment while they're not working that job, Righter said. Others are underemployed, meaning they work enough to make it tough to have a second job but don't make enough money to make ends meet.

Many people who come to LIFT-UP wait until the last moment -- they don't want to ask for help and don't want other people in the community to know they need help, she said.

And most say they plan to pay LIFT-UP back.

Righter said people often tell her, "'I want to be in the position that I can repay this.'"

The people

Blasingame, 52, knows what it's like to worry about paying bills and being able to buy food. In March, she found out she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, caused by smoking.

She worked for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., but she had to quit because of the disorder. She couldn't afford health insurance, so her health bills piled up.

She spent two weeks in the hospital, and her 19-year-old daughter, who still plans to go to college, started to look for a job.

"We fell behind in a lot of the bills because there was no income," Blasingame said. "(I was) a single mom living check to check. And that's where LIFT-UP came in."

Blasingame had used LIFT-UP before in the off season and knew that Freseman and others at LIFT-UP would not judge her for needing help but simply see what they could do.

"I hate asking, but I know I can always depend on LIFT-UP," she said.

Lynda Cozzens, 46, also discovered the important role LIFT-UP plays in the community when her daughter needed an emergency operation to remove her appendix. Cozzens suddenly found herself with hefty hospital bills.

LIFT-UP provided some financial help with the bills and worked with the hospital to get the bill reduced, Cozzens said. Although she still is in debt, the help kept her from sinking into debt more quickly.

Cozzens, who has worked a variety of jobs, is studying to be a nurse. She wants to get a good job and climb out of debt.

She said she has too many assets, including a piece of land she farms in Moffat County, to qualify for public assistance. When she found out LIFT-UP could help, she was relieved.

"It was definitely a big load lifted off," Cozzens said.

Righter said that some people come into LIFT-UP asking for help through tears, saying they'd never have thought they would be in the position they are.

"I tell them that's just a fact of life," Righter said. "It doesn't matter who you are. ... There will always come a point in your life when you need help."

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