As spring brings a promise of new life, abundance and sunshine, we want to reveal VEC’s emergence with an expanded team, new funding and revamped programming!
In March we had a visit by Governor Polis on March 16 and the following week, by Congressman Jason Crow & Attorney General Phil Weiser.
Governor Polis and his team visited with Village Exchange Center staff and clients and reminded us that we are stronger together. More than two-hundred clients, neighbors, and supporters joined the conversation and activities which took place concurrently with the Village Pantry’s food distribution day. As clients picked up their weekly food provisions and registered for vaccine clinics and stipends, Governor Polis spoke about the critical support VEC has provided the Aurora community under the most challenging times. He commended the team for their culturally competent and welcoming approach to newly arrived families who are grappling with adjusting to a new country and culture and navigating all the newness during a global pandemic. Everything that VEC does, from the culturally responsive pantry to their programs for young people, their stellar Natural Helpers program, the Village Farm at Stanley, vaccine clinics, and funds for displaced workers, has been done with the strength-based approach and humanity that we all deserve, especially in difficult times. “We have partnered with Village Exchange Center for more than two years, and in that time, we have supported thousands of families who are ready to integrate into our communities and add their contributions.”
On March 22 Congressman Jason Crow participated in a forum addressing Early Childhood Education, alongside other notable panelists Karen McNeil-Miller, CEO of Colorado Health Foundation, Heidi Heissenbuttel, CEO of Sewall Child Development Center and Christine Benero, CEO of Mile High United Way and Mike Ferrufino, CEO of the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This event opened with a screening of the award-winning documentary film “My Father’s House” and included a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities of ECE for our refugee and immigrant populations. Congressman Crow announced the approval of the Federal funding of $1.7MM for VEC’s capital improvements. Click here to watch the endorsements by this panel of developing an Early Childhood Education center at VEC.
That same evening, Attorney General Phil Weiser was the featured guest at our monthly Natural Helpers civic engagement meeting. The Attorney General shared his personal journey as a child of a refugee, the focus of his work in elected office, how to get involved in local and state politics and why it matters.
VEC is EXPANDING OUR programs and has brought in a rockstar team to help us implement! Norberto “Beto” Mojardin, is helping us transform our building and reopen for community events as Associate Director of the Community Center. His efforts are made possible with help from Cesar Delgado and a crew of fabulous volunteers. Director of Programs and Operations Francisca “Frankie” Angulo-Olaiz who comes to us from Mile High United Way, Kevin Vargas is our new Senior Manager of Youth & Economic Empowerment. Jonathan Garcia has taken the lead as Manager of the Village Pantry and Facilities. Teresa Torres as Senior Manager of Health Equity and Food Security, overseeing the Village Farm, Village Pantry, and helping us launch a new Cultural Navigators program. The Village Farm is welcoming new leadership from Senior Manager Mikhaela Mullins, and we’re grateful that outgoing Farm Manager Sam DeBoskey will be staying on as a consultant. Our team is now supported by some key leadership including Denise Maes, our Deputy Executive Director and our Associate Director of Finance and Human Resources, Chad Wolz. Vestine Niyonkuru is Assisting Village Pantry operations and coordinating our hundreds of volunteers. After setting an intentional goal to recruit staff who reflect the community we serve, we’re proud to say that 70% of the team identify as BIPOC and over half are either first or second-generation immigrants.
As VEC has evolved we have expanded our board to more closely reflect the diversity of our work. Take a look at our new board members and the varied backgrounds and experience that they are bringing to VEC and our community members!
After word got out that cash assistance was available to families struggling from pandemic-related income losses, VEC had 3,500 community members turn out, to be screened by VEC Natural Helpers, seeking economic assistance through the Left Behind Workers Fund. In only eight weeks, VEC’s team of screeners processed 1,400 eligible applicants and distributed approximately $2 million in assistance. Unfortunately there are still over 2,500 waitlisted applicants until additional funding is received for the program.
Now VEC is poised to have even further economic and health impact on the community, providing economic, and cultural support with pandemic recovery. Two grants from Arapahoe County and one from the State of Colorado will be deployed to combat vaccine hesitancy, support low-wage income earners, and expand navigation services to new immigrants. Arapahoe County has awarded $1,250,000 in funds to Village Exchange Center through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). This one-time allocation will enable Arapahoe County to assist in these efforts in multiple areas across our communities. Arapahoe County has awarded one million dollars to provide incentives to low-income individuals, helping to address vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations who are reluctant to get vaccinated. Many low-income individuals are concerned about the potential loss of income from missing work to get the shot, or fears of post-vaccine related side-effects that could also result in lost pay. Village Exchange Center partners with the State of Colorado, Colorado Access and 9Health to provide services and has demonstrated success in similar programs in Adams County.
Another $250,000 was awarded for the Low Wage Worker Fund, which provides financial assistance to low-wage workers who test positive for Covid-19. Since many of them do not have employer paid sick leave, this supplemental assistance makes it possible for them to stay home and quarantine, offsetting the financial hardship from lost wages. If ordered to quarantine, these workers face loss of income for 1-2 weeks which would result in significant financial hardship for the household including food insecurity, loss of utilities, and could even lead to homelessness.
Additionally, the State of Colorado has awarded $442,000 to fund VEC’s new Cultural Navigators Program. Working in tandem with public health teams to improve health outcomes for marginalized communities, VEC’s team of cultural navigators are reducing health disparities by communicating public health messages using culturally appropriate approaches, and working with public health officials to develop strategies to take cultural nuances into account when conducting case interviews and delivering public health messages. VEC is currently hiring ten new team members for this program.
Our vision for 2022 is that our space will once again glow with the colors and sounds of musicians, dancers, and voices uplifted in song. As the pandemic recedes, VEC is reopening as a full-service Community Center with youth programming, community events, and cultural celebration. After major renovations to our space, VEC is now offering a state-of-the-art performance and event center available for use by the community. Recent events hosted at VEC include a Youth Theater Production by Neighborhood Music, a Multi-Faith Leadership Forum, and the Consulate of El Salvador hosting an International Women’s Day Celebration. Upcoming events include Día del Niño on Saturday, April 30th and a May 24th film screening of “I Am Denver” celebrating the more than 150-year history of the Mexicano, Chicano, Latino peoples in Denver. It has never been more important to the health and wellbeing of our community members to have a space for social connectedness and cultural celebration.