The ‘Kind Neighbor Project’ aims to strengthen community with weekly dinners for seasonal workers
There’s a new community dinner on Thursdays at the Snowmass Chapel for “lifties” and others who spend the winter working on the mountains or in town.
Organizers are calling the free weekly event “The Kind Neighbor Project” and the idea is to build community, especially with young seasonal workers who might not feel a sense of belonging in the valley yet.
At one of the recent dinners, longtime resident Deborah Madsen and her team of volunteers were busy making sure all the food was ready before people arrived.
“So here we have homemade mac and cheese. Big Hoss Grill, they donated two huge things of smoked brisket and then they donated some buns,” she said. “And so a lot of it's potluck from our community. Mary, behind us, she made the salad. And this is Taster, he owns Taster’s restaurant.”
When Madsen started the community dinners after the chapel offered up their space earlier this winter, about 25 people showed up. By last month, that number had grown to about 150.
“It was just so huge and so overwhelming that I pretty much was like begging people for help,” she said.
Madsen has lived in Snowmass Village for over four decades; her husband Bill is the mayor.
In recent years, she’s grown concerned about young people having run-ins with the police, experiencing drug overdoses and death by suicide, and she wanted to find a way to help.
“You know, like we all have raised our kids in this valley, and all of our kids struggle. And so we want all the kids, whether they work for the ski company or they work anywhere, to be able to come and have a hot meal,” she said. “We want them to come and meet other people.”
Madsen encourages local chefs and volunteers who contribute to the potluck to stay and get to know the people who show up for dinner.
“I want to give them a sense of community,” she said. “So if they are having trouble with anything, that there's a support system here, that we really care about them and their contribution to our community. Whether it's, you know, being a lift operator or working at the grocery store or working in the restaurants.”
Once most of the tables were full, Madsen gave a blessing and told people they were welcome to use the game room after dinner.
She also shared information about the new food pantry at Snowmass Village’s town hall and encouraged people to call her and the other volunteers anytime.
“If anyone needs anything at all, whether it's clothing, whether it's bedding, whether it's a ride, whether you want any kind of support at all, just know that we are here for you,” Madsen said. “We have huge mental health resources as well.”
Amelia LaCour was sitting with her friends and coworkers at one of the long communal tables.
She’s originally from Louisiana, and this is her second season working as a lift operator at Snowmass.
“We were just on the mountain one day and someone told us to go to the church,” she said. “They told us they had free food and we're really broke. We don't have money, so we pulled up and they were really open and welcoming, so then we just kept coming.”
LaCour and her roommate often stay late to play the piano and help clean up.
“We have a lot of fun with it. We end up helping them clean the dishes afterwards,” she said. “They've given us Kleenex at the end of the night, you know, that we can take home, and toilet paper. It's been amazing.”
From LaCour’s perspective, the community dinner is also a refreshing change of pace from the party culture in town.
“I mean, well, we're in a ski town. Everybody's drinking, everybody's, you know, doing things,” she said. “But I mean, it's kind of nice to come to a place where you're not expected to drink or you're not expected to turn up. You just get to be with people and eat food.”
There’s no alcohol at the dinner, just iced tea and lemonade, and LaCour appreciates that decision.
“You know, for all of us, like we're all in our twenties and drinking is a big challenge. Because it's like, you know, going to work and kind of getting your life in order, like, ‘Oh, you know, what's the next step?,’” LaCour said.
At another long table nearby, Antonio Cortes and his friend Eduardo Fonseca were just sitting down to eat.
Cortes works at the Sundeck restaurant on Aspen Mountain, and he recently found out about the free Thursday dinners through his employer.
“It's like, ‘Okay, let's do that. Let's try it,’” Cortes said. “The food is really good. It's really, really good.”
Cortes and Fonseca are both from Mexico and got special visas to come work in Aspen for the winter and learn how to ski.
Fonseca has enjoyed working at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen and spending time on the slopes, but there’s also some culture shock.
“First, the language, different food, different ways to work,” Fonseca said. “Sometimes when you come, you start alone. So it's very challenging in different ways.”
Fonseca and Cortes are sitting at a communal table with another group of young people they haven’t met before who work in guest services at the base of the Snowmass Ski Area.
For Fonseca, the community atmosphere at the dinners makes him feel welcome in Aspen and the valley.
“Everybody is busy working, and this kind of dinner — or, how can I say, sharing moments — it's important to meet other people and build a community,” Fonseca said.
Back in the kitchen, Deborah Madsen was taking stock of the evening so far.
“So we had about three different waves of kids come and it's still only 6 o'clock, so we have another hour and we probably have had 100 to 110 people and at least 20 volunteers. So we're doing it,” she said.
Madsen hopes to continue the free weekly dinners through at least the winter and spring, and possibly the summer too, but she doesn’t have any funding and relies entirely on volunteers and food donations.
“I would love to see different restaurants, different caterers, different, you know, places that have extra food in their freezers or whatever. Just to say, you know, 'How can I help?,'” she said. “I'd love for more people to help.”
As the dinner neared its end, Amelia LaCour popped her head in the kitchen and asked if there was a guitar she could play.
The chapel’s music director brought out two guitars and several other instruments and LaCour and her friends sat around in a circle.
By the second song, more people had joined in, and pretty soon a room full of people — some who knew each other and some who just met — were singing along and swaying to the music.
The “Kind Neighbor” dinners at the Snowmass Chapel take place on Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m.