In 2012, Susan Mountain-Morgan decided she would do something to make herself happy – and she did.
She didn’t head to the salon for a manicure or treat herself to a nice dinner. Instead, she gave to others – locks of her hair for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and blood to save the lives of the injured and infirm. To those basics, Mountain-Morgan added food.
That same year, Mountain-Morgan, a business support specialist with the CU School of Medicine Department of Pathology’s Colorado Genetics Laboratory, launched a drive to collect non-perishable food items and other everyday necessities like toiletries and diapers for donation to food banks around the Denver metro area. It began as a friendly competition between the lab and the Girl Scouts. The lab came out ahead, but the real winners were those in need: The two organizations collected some 600 items and donated them to Sanctuary Christian Fellowship and Anchor of Hope Church.
The drive had staying power. Mountain-Morgan has renewed it each year, bringing in new participants, each of whom chose recipients to receive and distribute the donated items. In 2016, the collection count rose to 1,549, with a half dozen organizations benefiting.
The “Food Fight,” as Mountain-Morgan likes to call it, is on again for 2017, with collections taking place all of January. As of Jan. 19, participants had already collected nearly 2,000 items.
Several UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital clinics have joined the fray. For example, A.F. Williams Family Medicine Clinic, Internal Medicine Lowry and Internal Medicine Anschutz will donate items to the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in downtown Aurora. The center is home to the DAWN Clinic, which is staffed by students from the University of Colorado Health Sciences schools, and provides free health care to the indigent.
Autumn Kuehl, LCSW, social worker at A.F. Williams and Internal Medicine Lowry, said the university’s presence at the Opportunity Center and the DAWN Clinic – UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital also contributes discounted and donated lab and imaging services – made it a natural selection as a drive recipient. The center has a food bank that relies entirely on donations, Kuehl said.
“They were ecstatic to get the help,” Kuehl said. She noted that the number of children living in poverty in Arapahoe County rose precipitously in the first decade of the 2000s, and the Opportunity Center serves one of its poorest pockets.
“The Opportunity Center and the DAWN Clinic serve a population that is vulnerable and lacks resources,” Kuehl said. “A partnership with them made sense.” As of Jan. 19, A.F. Williams and Lowry had combined to collect 850 donated items.
It also made sense to Kuehl to spur broader interest in the Food Fight among her colleagues. She said she first learned of it from Cindy Connor, a patient access representative with A.F. Williams. Kuehl reached out to Mountain-Morgan to suggest including the Lowry clinic in the drive, then used her monthly social work meeting to inform all the UCH clinics of the drive and explain how they could participate in 2017.
Hunger is more than an abstraction for Kuehl and other clinic providers. “Food insecurity is very prevalent with our patients at A.F. Williams,” she said. “It’s important for multiple clinics to take part in the drive and help to make a bigger impact.”
Mountain-Morgan handles boxing and delivery of all the donated items. That’s on top of her full-time job, but she sees the work as a blessing, not a burden.
“I’m not rich, but this is a way for me to give back and turn around and pay it forward,” Mountain-Morgan said.
Memories of a couple of years of hard times in the mid-80s after what she admits was an ill-advised move from Colorado to Tennessee help spur her to action. “I’ve eaten in soup kitchens and had pieces of dry, hard bread and mystery meat,” she said.
After more than 20 years with the Genetics Lab, Mountain-Morgan lives a stable life, but she hasn’t forgotten that experience. “Right outside my door there are many people who have it worse than me,” she said. “It’s good to remember that.”