High school students fly fishing at a lake with a scenic, mountainous backdrop.

Feature: 2019 Culture of Health Prize Community

Lake County created a support system to ensure that every community member has food and housing during the pandemic.

A Q&A with Katie Baldassar, executive director of Lake County Build a Generation in Lake County, Colorado

In the era of COVID-19, increased communication and cooperation have been especially important for local leaders to ensure well-being in their communities.

That was true in Lake County, Colorado, where change did not come without its challenges.

We talked with Katie Baldassar, executive director of Lake County Build a Generation.

Lake County has been creating a support system for every community member by making sure everyone has food and housing. In early March and April, one of the projects we developed was called the “Unmet Needs Committee.” Community members who don’t qualify for government assistance are funneled to an agency and assigned a case worker who reviews their need and brings it to a review committee. If a person is approved, then one of the agencies from that committee pays their housing and utility bills. We’re on track to pay about a half a million dollars in housing and utility bills by the end of 2020, which is a lot for a community of less than 10,000 people.

More recently, the committee has been working to get some training on how to better negotiate with landlords with the Colorado Eviction Project, a group of lawyers who donate their time to help communities across Colorado manage this landscape. We’re trying to see if we can pay two or three months’ rent in advance—at a reduced rate—to the landlords of the communities we help, providing stability for everyone and saving us money.

Everyone should be able to participate, read and speak in the language of their heart, whether dealing with nonprofit services, emergency services, health care, or government agencies. COVID-19 has been this amazing time where people recognize that for all of us to be safe, we all have to have the same information, so we were able to bring in the community language cooperative to do language justice training in our community. It’s been an exciting time in our community to bring forth this idea of all information and all opportunities going out in Spanish and English.

One thing that we’ve done well is focusing on what I call “bridging instead of breaking.” We’ve had to work across lots of different systems, ideologies and mental models. Nonprofits had to work with the government, social service agencies had to work with businesses, people of different political views had to work together. Over and over we realized we had really different ideas about how to solve problems in our community and really different mental models about how the world works. We had to learn how to talk across those differences in a way that would deepen those relationships rather than breaking them down. Being able to do that has brought us so much closer as a community, and I’m hoping that’s something we take out of this pandemic.

Partway through the rent support project, one of our manufactured housing communities where we spent a third of our money sent out a letter to its residents saying they were raising rent. We went to our local elected officials and said, “Would you push back on this? Would you write a letter and say ‘We think this isn’t the time to raise rent’?” One of our elected officials said, “I don’t know, I just don’t think the government should tell businesses what to do.” My colleague said, “I hear you, and I also know that you voted to give money to this project. That’s taxpayer money, and I know that you value being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. We really value that too, and I think this isn’t about the government telling businesses what to do, this is about being good stewards of public money.” The elected official said, “I can hear that, and I think you’re right.” The meeting moved forward, the commissioners voted to approve the letter, and the rent was not raised. It was a great moment where we were all able to agree on something and do good work, even across strong ideological divides.

Lake County, Colorado

The residents of Lake County, Colorado, are using data and teamwork to
improve health, education and economic standards in the community’s
post-mining era.

The Culture of Health Prize

The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.