Transforming Community, One Neighbor at a Time

When you think of mental health care and suicide prevention, what comes to mind? Therapists? Medication? Crisis hotlines? Most likely, connection wasn’t on the list.

Studies show that strong, meaningful connections are powerful protective factors in preventing suicide and bolstering mental health. This holds true everywhere, but it’s especially important in smaller, rural areas like Teller County, Colorado, where people are often physically isolated.

Ashlee Shields (she/her) is Community Health Partnership’s (CHP’s) Suicide Prevention Program Manager for Teller County. In her work with the Teller County Mental Health Alliance (TCMHA), she sees a paradox that makes connecting people to resources and to each other challenging.

“The community is strong in supporting each other. Yet, there’s also a strong need for independence and being left alone,” she says. “At TCMHA, we find ourselves navigating between these dynamics depending on the populations we’re working with.”

So, faced with these challenges, how does one build the strong connections essential for community health and well-being? “It’s about listening to the community, learning from their experiences, and then responding. It’s about getting creative and going beyond one project or program to create systems level change,” she notes.

Cultivating Connection at the Farmer’s Market

The idea that connection is a powerful agent for change took root soon after Ashlee started her position. It germinated in the most unlikely of places – the local farmer’s market. Thanks to a grant from the Colorado Springs Health Foundation, TCMHA set up a booth for the first time in the summer of 2021. In the wake of COVID-19, this was an opportunity to let the community know about TCMHA and connect with people in a unique and safe way.

“We were just asking people ‘how are you doing?’ And we found that people just wanted to talk,” Ashlee remembers. These conversations weren’t always easy. Volunteers from TCMHA and other organizations listened to stories of struggles, uncovered the gaps in care and support, and occasionally, reacted in real time to someone in crisis.

Now in its second year, TCMHA’s booth at the farmer’s market has become a hub where people can talk, find information, get a much-needed hug, or ask how they can become involved. “Every week we get people who want to be a part of this but didn’t know they could. It’s empowerment for them to be a part of this work because this is where their heart is,” Ashlee says.

Just as important is creating space for different agencies to volunteer at the booth and build relationships with each other. “That camaraderie and learning what each other does is connection, too,” Ashlee says. “It really impacts the work because, for example, we can’t collaborate on a grant if we’re not connected as agencies or people. It’s the foundation of everything.”

Bridging the Gap

When TCMHA conducted a systems mapping project earlier this year, they learned something unexpected. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Teller County has a wide variety of resources. The issue is that community members are largely unaware of them. And even if they are aware, they’re more likely to seek help from a neighbor or loved one.

This sparked an idea: equipping neighbors with training and tools might bridge the gap. To test this theory, TCMHA created the Neighborhood Outreach Task Force, which piloted the Neighborhood Connector Program.

Step one involved partnering with the Sheriff’s office, which has a strong social media presence, to gauge interest. The response far exceeded expectations. Over 100 people were eager to be connectors!

In the few short months since the pilot was launched, the Task Force has crafted a volunteer job description and handbook and chosen its first connectors. To ensure effective support and insights, the pilot group was limited to three participants who attend monthly task force meetings, help guide program development, and receive training and resources free of charge. Soon, they will be engaging with their neighbors to connect them with local resources, whether they need help shoveling snow or are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Beyond its obvious benefits, the program serves another, equally important role in changing the existing systems of care. “Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on agencies to do everything. This program empowers the community to take care of each other,” Ashlee says. It also helps shift deeply embedded ideas of what a “leader” is and who has the power to change what’s not working. By committing to the collective wellbeing of their neighbors, the community connectors embody the type of leadership necessary for transformative change.

Breaking Bread. Building Community.

It seems that humans have always found connection and companionship around the dinner table. For a group of parents in Woodland Park, the simple act of sharing a meal also offers safety and support for themselves and their kids.

When TCMHA created the LGBTQ+ Ally Task Force, the goal was to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth in Woodland Park to meet, connect, and learn. Despite hosting regular meetings, however, young people weren’t showing up. There were many possible reasons but nothing definitive. So, the task force shifted its focus to LGBTQ+ affirming parents.

While living in a small community can be difficult for LGBTQ+ youth, their parents face challenges as well. They have few local supports and resources to help guide them on how to be an affirming parent. They also may find that, in an effort to protect their child from judgment, they become distanced from their friends and other parents.

“The goal of the group is to provide meaningful connection in a safe space with no judgments,” says Ashlee. Led by a subject matter expert, the group gives parents the chance to connect, share their experiences, and get answers to questions they don’t feel safe asking elsewhere. They also repeat affirmations that are supportive not only of their journey but of their child’s journey.

And they do it all over a plate of lasagna.

While lasagna wasn’t part of the plan, it has been integral to providing a nourishing environment, in every sense of the word. It began when a group member named Janet brought a homemade lasagna to a meeting. During Covid, Janet had joined a nationwide group called Lasagna Love, which provided lasagnas for people who needed connection and/or food. This gesture created such warmth and comfort that it continues each month, with one member volunteering to bring the lasagna while others supply side dishes.

It’s so simple, Ashlee says, “but it’s part of our culture that we’ve lost. Just the art of coming together and sharing a meal builds relationships, creates community, and makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

A New Way of Working

When she started her job less than two years ago, Ashlee could never have imagined how much this thread of connection would weave through everything she does today. It’s a testament to what can be accomplished when organizations and individuals take time to meet people where they are, both literally and figuratively.

Ashlee credits both CHP and the grant from CSHF for giving her the time, space, and support to do this work effectively. “I’m so glad that the farmer’s market was part of the grant and that CSHF was willing to fund it. Otherwise, I don’t think we could have done it,” she says. She sees vast opportunities for other funders to support new ways of working that challenge how grants and grant deliverables are traditionally structured.

CHP’s framework for how it does its work – listening, learning, convening, and engaging – empowers her to learn, adapt, and be innovative in her approach. That, in turn, allows her to empower others. “People come to me with ideas they think are super wild and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it! That could totally work.’ And they’re not used to hearing that,” she says. “But if they want to try something they think could work, I can give them the space to do that.”