In 2008, Meighen Lovelace left her bartending job to raise her newborn, while her husband juggled three or more jobs. When she eventually turned to the Salvation Army’s food pantry for assistance, she received enough to feed her family, but she noticed the shortage of fresh produce. She remained grateful for the food; after all, she knew about making sacrifices: She relied on public transportation to avoid driving costs, used cloth diapers to save money, canceled cable television and received donations from the Salvation Army and the restaurant at which her husband worked.
But through it all, she held a strong conviction that everyone — rich, poor or middle class — deserves fresh, nutritional food. She just wasn’t sure what to do about it — until she participated in Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI).
The 20-week, 120-plus-hour curriculum teaches people from all walks of life the skills to positively impact communities. The statewide organization works with local communities to strengthen civic engagement and provide resources to support parents, teachers and adults from all walks of life interested in advocating for health, safety and education.
During the program — offered free to accepted applicants who commit to the three-hour, weekly sessions and a community-based project — participants identify deficits within Eagle County, and implement solutions.
In 2003, Lovelace created the Avon Community Garden, in conjunction with the Salvation Army, to provide fresh, organic produce to the food bank. She launched Produce for Pantries, which serves more than 500 families a month through donations and harvests from the community garden.
“When you open your refrigerator and it has fresh produce, there’s such a sense of gratitude that you’re going to give your body what it needs,” Lovelace says. Recently, she wrote grants to build a greenhouse for year-round yields and partnered with Colorado State University Master Gardener program, SOS Outreach and others to teach kids about growing organic food. She worked as FLTI’s site coordinator until Julia Kozusko took over in 2015.
“FLTI is a really powerful program for everyone in the county,” Lovelace says. “Nobody leaves the program without changing. It’s very impactful, not just for the participant, but for the community.”
FLTI blends participants of various ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, an attorney, who was new to the valley, applied to learn about the community and how she could contribute. She worked alongside recent immigrants and longtime residents.
“We meet you where you’re at with your leadership skills. If you’re in a higher socioeconomic level, we identify ‘Here’s where I want to go,’” Lovelace says, adding that FLTI also teaches basic skills whenever necessary. “The tagline is, ‘There’s a leader in everyone,’ and FLTI brings out that leader.”
Jennifer Pronga became one of those leaders in 2014 when she began teaching people how to plan nutritious, non-GMO meals on a budget. Her program has cut many family of four’s monthly grocery bill from an average of $1,100 to an average of $700, while incorporating more organic produce into their diets.
Pronga and Lovelace’s projects exemplify just two examples of the dynamic changes headed by FLTI graduates. Participants’ projects range from raising awareness of safe driving habits or helping residents become more fluent in English to developing modified high school diplomas for students with learning disabilities, or offering Zumba classes for mothers suffering from post-partum depression.
“My biggest take away from FLTI,” Pronga says, “is that one person can make a difference. You really do have a voice.”